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Qualities of Top Teachers

Engage and encourage your clients and students. Make them hungry for more!

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Ideally, every exercise professional has had at least one extraordinary teacher. When you think about why that unforgettable teacher made such a lasting impression on you, do you wonder whether you can do the same for your own clients?

How do the characteristics of highly effective teachers apply to the fitness profession? To explore that question, this column will synthesize the research of Ken Bain, PhD, who studied many excellent teachers on several college campuses in America.

Highly effective teaching cannot be distilled into a simple to-do list; it is much more elaborate and multifaceted than that. But it definitely can be learned. To truly attain excellence in teaching, exercise professionals must be self-reflective about the topics below and must be willing to change their thinking.

What Is Excellence in Teaching?

Bain’s book What the Best College Teachers Do (2004) describes “excellence in teaching” as getting students to learn in ways that improve how they think, act and feel. Bain cautions that some teachers can succeed when working one-on-one or in a small group (as in personal training) but can falter with big groups (such as group exercise classes). A teacher may be an excellent fit with highly skilled students but much less effective with beginners. Therefore, while excellence in teaching is a defined construct, it applies differently to different learners, to different fitness levels and to special populations.

Nevertheless, the greatest teachers have some notable things in common:

They Really Know Their Subjects

As Bain (2004) puts it, the best teachers—without exception—know their subjects exceedingly well. They combine this with a well-rounded education. With regard to fitness training, that means they don’t simply know the performance techniques of each exercise. They have a strong grasp of the history, controversies and foundational theories of these exercises. Bain says that excellent teachers use this broad-based knowledge to develop different ways for each student to learn.

They Plan Backwards

Bain (2004) says excellent teachers “engineer an environment” where their students are highly engaged to learn. He suggests that the best teachers plan backwards, starting with clearly identified goals (physical, psychological and behavioral) that they want their students to attain. Then they creatively develop strategies that encourage students to learn these skills, habits and behaviors.

For fitness professionals, one example is to plan ahead for conflicts they may have with their clients’ thinking on health and exercise or weight management. Let’s say you have clients who feel that exercising twice a week is all that is needed to lose weight. You must be prepared to challenge those clients’ knowledge about weight loss while still inspiring them to think differently about it. You might discuss contemporary research on weight loss and encourage your clients to compare their thoughts on the topic with current data. Or, you could share a case study of a person who was very successful in weight loss and then ask your clients to discuss and evaluate the exercise, nutrition and weight management strategies that helped that individual succeed.

Both examples use “engaged thinking” to help clients draw new conclusions on attaining weight loss success. Bain suggests that these strategies enable students to grapple independently with their particular beliefs.

They Expect More From Each Student

First and foremost, excellent teachers focus on the unique abilities and characteristics of individual students. Then, the best teachers set high standards of achievement for each of these students and convey a convincing, honest trust in the student’s ability to achieve these superior goals. The best instructors also instill a meaningful sense of confidence and self-responsibility in their students. In the fitness world, clients may come to a personal trainer for exercise guidance, but their achievements are their own responsibility.

Great personal trainers empower clients to believe they truly are in control of their health and well-being. These trainers have a stirring faith in their clients’ individual abilities, and they help people relax and believe in themselves. Great trainers don’t teach personal training—they teach each client.

They Create a Natural Critical-Learning Environment

Excellent teachers create an environment that allows students to think, probe and ask insightful questions. Excellent personal trainers create environments in which clients are fully assured that they are working toward the best possible “journey of fitness and health.” Great trainers encourage clients to self-evaluate and self-reflect on their training experience, not just listen to the personal trainer.

Say, for instance, you show a client how a squat could be performed incorrectly (perhaps demonstrating the errors the particular client is making on the squat) and then ask the client to describe the errors. Next, you may ask the client how to correct the squat. This type of student-centered learning helps your client realize the importance of exercise technique and learn how to problem-solve and understand correct exercise performance. According to Bain (2004), this process gives students a better appreciation for and understanding of their own learning—as well as a better focus on it. Bain adds that students learn best when trying to solve problems they feel are important or intriguing.

They Use Strategies Similar to Good Commercials

Initially, all excellent teachers must capture students’ attention, much as a television commercial does. However, unlike a commercial trying to sell a product, great trainers seek to hold their clients’ attention for the higher purpose of improving their health and fitness. One of the best ways to do that is to focus on what’s most important to each client. For example, if a client is committed to building firmer muscles, during the training session you could capture the person’s attention with specific content and with dialogue about muscle hypertrophy. If a client is primarily concerned with weight management, you could share and discuss a recent article on successful weight loss.

They Get Their Students to Commit

Once goals are determined, successful teachers honestly discuss what must be done to attain these goals. Next, effective teachers ask students to decide if they truly want to take on the work and the lifestyle obligations required to attain their goals. If the answer is yes, effective teachers ask students to commit to their goals and to the steps needed to attain them. One of the best ways to do that is to write the goals out. When students put their goals on paper, they are in a sense writing a contract with themselves. This process often cements a student’s personal motivation to achieve the goals.

They Are Great Communicators

The best teachers practice and rehearse their teaching to improve how they communicate. Many videotape themselves teaching and use that feedback to critically assess where they can improve. Bain (2004) suggests that great teachers speak with a “warm language.” They don’t dance around the edges of a topic—they speak to the issue directly. He says great communicators intellectually and emotionally stimulate each student to learn. And, he adds, they know how to use their communication skills to simplify and clarify complex skills and complicated data.

They Test Themselves

Bain (2004) says excellent teachers have a system for assessing their teaching efforts. Regardless of the discipline, he says, all excellent teachers evaluate themselves by asking four questions:

1. Is the content I am teaching appropriate for my students and worthy of them?

2. Is each student learning what I am trying to teach?

3. Am I enabling and encouraging the student to learn?

4. Have I done anything to impair my students’ ability to learn?

Bain says that if teachers expect to improve the quality of their teaching, they need to make informed and wise decisions based on their own self-assessments.

Putting It All Together: Great Teaching Is Like a Work of Art

Though effective teaching can be learned, highly effective teachers are like masterful artists. They skillfully and artfully combine definitive knowledge, astounding communication skills, lively discussion and problem-based learning into a successful teaching method. The singular, prevailing goal they all share is to “engineer” the best possible learning environment for each student.

Dedication. This column is dedicated to Gail Sears (1935–2010), one of the greatest fitness professionals and teachers Len Kravitz has had the privilege to know.

Additional Qualities of Highly Effective Teachers


Bain, K. 2004. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Len Kravitz, PhD

Len Kravitz, PhD is a professor and program coordinator of exercise science at the University of New Mexico where he recently received the Presidential Award of Distinction and the Outstanding Teacher of the Year award. In addition to being a 2016 inductee into the National Fitness Hall of Fame, Dr. Kravitz was awarded the Fitness Educator of the Year by the American Council on Exercise. Just recently, ACSM honored him with writing the 'Paper of the Year' for the ACSM Health and Fitness Journal.

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