What Makes a Great Teacher?

We sought out some of UM’s best and brightest to shed light on the topic


Travis DeCuire, a former star for the Montana Grizzlies, is in his third year coaching at his alma mater.
UM Regents Professor of Marketing Jakki Mohr sits in her office on the third floor of the Gallagher Business Building. Mohr has taught at UM since 1997.
UM history Professor Harry Fritz has taught at UM for 50 years.


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UM Regents Professor of Marketing Jakki Mohr sits in her office on the third floor of the Gallagher Business Building. Mohr has taught at UM since 1997.
UM Regents Professor of Marketing Jakki Mohr sits in her office on the third floor of the Gallagher Business Building. Mohr has taught at UM since 1997.

Chris Wright knows firsthand that Jakki Mohr is an incredible teacher.

Mohr, a Regents Professor of Marketing in UM’s School of Business Administration, is world-renowned for her “deep specialization in a very narrow field,” as she puts it, regarding technology in marketing. In her 33 years as an educator, she’s impacted thousands of students who’ve taken her classes at UM and across the globe – from Missoula to Finland to Uruguay.

Wright, however, isn’t one of those thousands. The funny thing is, he didn’t even take a class from her.

“Nope,” Mohr says. “I never had him in class.”

But that doesn’t keep Wright from heaping praise on Mohr.

“She is one of the most passionate people I know,” says Wright, a 2002 University of Montana marketing graduate. “She is a genuinely curious person – always searching for new information – and when faced with a challenge, she attacks it head on.”

If one of the hallmarks of teaching is having a significant influence on people, relationships like this are proof that Mohr scores off the charts.

“This whole idea of creating a meaningful connection, it’s what we all want in life,” Mohr says. “I think students are hungry for that. They want somebody who knows them. Who sees them. That’s what I try to do.”

Cultivating Relationships

Wright, a product marketing manager at Google, where he’s worked for 13 years, was introduced to Mohr through a friend a couple of years after he graduated. Mohr loves to have younger alumni in the field speak in her classes, and Wright definitely fit the bill.

“I seek out speakers who are intellectually curious, who share that same desire as me to look at things from different angles or play devil’s advocate,” Mohr says from the beautiful disaster that is her office on the third floor of the Gallagher Business Building. “Chris has that style. He’s very irreverent and humorous. I mean, he’s from Butte.”

Wright speaks in Mohr’s class about once a year. He’s also presented to her classes in Uruguay, too, where she is on the faculty at ORT University in Montevideo. In fact, a few years ago, Mohr and Wright coordinated a tour of the Google campus in Silicon Valley for about 30 Uruguayan students and faculty members.

In working for Google, Wright provides a timely, pertinent perspective on issues Mohr feels her students should be exposed to.

“That speaks to my teaching philosophy,” Mohr says. “Relevance and critical thinking are the underpinning.”

Mohr teaches in what she calls a “flipped” classroom, where the students are in charge of creating the environment. At the beginning of her course, she’ll give the students, for example, a list of 15 topics to possibly cover: artificial intelligence, drones, virtual reality, etc. Then she puts the challenge on the students to analyze data and come up with a list of the five most important topics, and why.

“And then I go with that,” Mohr says. “It’s all based on how they analyze the data. Marketing increasingly is based on how we get data to determine strategy, so I try to weave that into all my classes.”

Wright says that Mohr subscribes to the notion that each class is unique and may require a different approach.

“That is pretty awesome coming from someone who has been an educator for such a long period of time,” he says. “Jakki is continually reinventing herself and her classes, and she always works on ways to impact students’ lives.”

“I’ve found that if you treat them like adults, they act like adults,” Mohr says. “They rise to the occasion. I think they’re not expected enough to manage their own experience, and in my classes, it’s their job. It prepares them for the real world.”

If there’s a lasting lesson outside the curriculum Mohr wants her students to learn, it’s this: Be responsible.

“If you say you are going to do something, do what you say you’re going to do,” she says. “And don’t do it half-assed. That’s so important to me. Own what you’re doing.”

Leading by Example

Some of the best teachers out there don’t need a classroom. For Griz men’s basketball head coach Travis DeCuire, his laboratory is Dahlberg Arena.

“For me, with basketball or with any sport or any coach, you are teaching all the time,” says DeCuire, who’s in his third year coaching the Griz. “On the court you’re teaching concepts, how to work with others. Then off the court, you teach time management and social consciousness.”

Travis DeCuire, a former star for the Montana Grizzlies, is in his third year coaching at his alma mater.DeCuire, who graduated from UM in 1994, was a stellar point guard for the Griz. He set the school record for assists with 435. After graduating, he worked as a youth counselor in the Seattle area, then took a job as an assistant hoops coach at Mercer Island High School – his alma mater – for his old coach, the legendary Ed Pepple.

DeCuire moved up the ranks, learning from some of the best coaches in the nation. He worked for Blaine Taylor – his coach at UM – at Old Dominion, and another former Griz coach, Mike Montgomery, at Cal.

His coaching style is a blend of the three, but at the core of it all is teaching.

“What separates coaches like them is they are willing to teach,” DeCuire says. “A lot of coaches win a lot of games because they have the best talent. My influences are great coaches because they’ve had success at places that traditionally don’t have the best players. Blaine has the highest winning percentage at (UM and ODU) because of his ability to teach – to take an average basketball player and turn him into an overachiever. He could take an average talent-wise team and win a championship. Mike has done the same thing, and Ed did that for a long time.”

DeCuire knows that things in the classroom and on the court aren’t the same as they were 25 years ago. There has been an evolution, and if it’s embraced, success  is imminent.

“It used to be where if you had 15 guys on a team or 30 students in a classroom, they had to adjust to that teacher’s approach,” DeCuire says. “In the classroom, I think it’s still that way sometimes, but the way we’ve evolved as a society now, you have to adjust to the personality, the characteristics and the socioeconomic background of the student or player. If you’re willing to do that, if you’re willing to get to know your students, you can get more out of them.

“Then they become faucets more than drains.”

DeCuire’s philosophy has had immediate success at UM, as he recently became the second-fastest coach to reach 50 wins. The fastest? DeCuire’s mentor, Blaine Taylor.

“I try to teach my players to compete between these lines, but we demand they compete just as hard for the best grades possible. I honestly feel if they learn to compete in the classroom and they learn to compete on the floor, then they’ll be able to compete in every aspect of their lives. If you do that, you’ll be the best father you can be, the best brother, the best husband, or whatever roles you take on in life, you are going to try your hardest to be the best you can be because that’s what you’ve been forced to do here.

“There’s just so many things we communicate about in competition that carry over to later portions of your life. To me, this is as important as anything you’re going to learn from a book.”

The Art of Humor

The last time I sat face-to-face with Professor Harry Fritz was 20 years ago.

An awkward freshman sitting in Fritz’s tiny office in the Liberal Arts Building, I nervously watched him take a second look at the blue book exam I recently bombed. It was the first midterm in Montana History – admittedly, an aggressive class choice for a newbie – and the first test I had taken in college.

The big, red F I earned had me second-guessing my abilities as a student. Would I be better off in the military? I mean, I went to most classes, thought I took decent notes and skimmed the readings. What else could I have possibly done?

Fritz looked at a couple of pages and graciously bumped my grade to a D-minus.

He told me not to contact a recruiter just yet. He said he grades on improvement, and there were two more exams. But he also told me this isn’t high school. Come to ALL classes. Take GREAT notes. Complete ALL the readings.

So I did. And lo and behold, I got an A on the next midterm, an A on the final and an A in the class.

Fast-forward two decades, again face-to-face with Professor Fritz, and I relate this anecdote. I can hear him chuckle while I talk. Foolishly thinking he’d respond with great awe or praise or offer some other feel-good words, I ask him his thoughts on my story.

“I’m wondering what the hell was the problem with the first exam?” he asks in his booming voice.

Fritz, a UM alum himself, is teaching that same course this spring. It’s his 50th year teaching on campus, and as he says, “undoubtedly my last.”

The first class he taught was American History. It was 1967. Since then, he’s taught a remarkable number of students. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a UM student who didn’t take a class from him.

“Well, I had roughly 800 students per year for 50 years,” he says with a smile.

Ultimately, Fritz says the job of a historian is to discover and disseminate knowledge.

“I discover knowledge by reading books,” he says, “and I disseminate it by teaching as many students as I can.”

Fritz also says part of his job is to spark an interest in history within his students. He lit a fire under Keith Edgerton.

Edgerton, who affectionately calls Fritz “Big H,” is the chair of the history department at Montana State University-Billings. While many students only know Fritz from his lecture courses, Edgerton got to know him on a different level in smaller class settings and as his master’s adviser.

“Big H has that manner about him where, when he walks into a room, he’s the center of attention,” says Edgerton, who earned his B.A. in ’83 and his M.A. in ’85, both from UM. “He commands your attention. He has all of this knowledge and is very well-read. He’s passionate about what he teaches.”

Fritz greatly influenced Edgerton’s style of teaching, especially when it comes to spicing up a lecture with dashes of humor.

“He taught me that humor is an essential ingredient in human interaction,” Edgerton says. “When you’re in a class like American History, it can be dry. But if you weave in something funny, that’s the way to do it. It’s not one big joke, mind you. You’re serious, but teaching can work well when lightheartedness is interjected.”

He says Fritz is famous for this, and some of the jokes can be rather crude. This art is not lost while Fritz chats with me.

“So in the 50 years you’ve been on campus,” I ask, “what’s the biggest change you see in students?”

“People don’t read books anymore, don’t read magazines, don’t read newspapers,” Fritz says. “I mean the biggest difference between then and now is this (he mimics looking at a smartphone).

“The smartphone,” he booms, “has become the leading hand-held operating device in the world, recently replacing the penis.”  

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We asked faculty members for their input on what it takes to be great in the classroom.

Sara Rinfret, Assistant Professor of Political Science

In your opinion, what are the two most important characteristics a great teacher/educator possesses? Why?

  1. To be a good listener and meet students where they are (e.g. use of technology in the classroom, different style of teaching). I recently conducted a study on how class format (online, hybrid, in-person) impacts how a student (gender, etc) might affect their participation. This clearly demonstrated the importance as an educator that I push myself to meet students where they are so they have the tools necessary to excel upon graduation.
  2. To stay up to date in my field so I can demonstrate the connections between theory and practice so students can understand what they are doing in the classroom has real-world implications upon graduation.

In your opinion, what are the two most important characteristics a great student/learner possesses? Why?

  1. A willingness to listen to others – this is so important in the fields of public administration and political science. We are often taught that politics creates an “us-versus-them” mentality, but if students are willing to listen to all sides, then solutions can be formulated to tackle contemporary problems today and tomorrow.
  2. An excitement for learning and the desire to push themselves. College can be difficult for students because they are working 40 hours a week and reading vast amounts of materials for all of their courses. But, reading and engaging in materials can be exciting if they push themselves to think about the real world implications.

Who is your favorite teacher? Why?

Dr. Debbie Halbert – my undergraduate advisor who pushed me to pursue a MPA and then eventually a Ph.D. I was a very quiet student from rural Ohio and she constantly encouraged me to push myself. I wouldn’t be where I am today without her and believe in paying it forward so students can benefit from experiences like I have.

What inspires you to teach?
My students and the fields of public administration/environmental policy. Daily, I am able to connect how theory informs practice or vice versa in the classroom, through research, or on campus. I love my job, the students I get to work with, and the UM/Missoula communities.

Tobin Miller Shearer, Associate Professor of History, African-American Studies Director

In your opinion, what are the two most important characteristics a great teacher/educator possesses? Why?

  1. The ability to inspire curiosity and a love of learning; and
  2. A passion for and deep knowledge of the topic under instruction. Why? In the classes I teach, I have the opportunity to pass on knowledge about history, religion and race, but – even more importantly – I have the opportunity to model what I call the “seeker stance” – an orientation to learning that searches for more than is offered, looks behind the surface and asks the difficult questions.

In your opinion, what are the two most important characteristics a great student/learner possesses? Why?

  1. A thirst for knowledge itself that extends beyond letter grade achievement; and
  2. A willingness to have one’s worldview challenged.  Why? As much as I find grades a regrettable necessity to keep students motivated and on task, the students who excel in my classes and who go on to the greatest success after graduation are those who develop an intrinsic interest in the subject of study. Likewise, those who are willing to have their world view challenged are most likely to develop the seeker stance I describe above.

Who is your favorite teacher?

My 11 and 12th grade high school physics teacher George Butwin required me to work harder, think deeper and deal with greater complexity and nuance than any other instructor I encountered prior to grad school. Although I don’t teach in the sciences, I aim to exemplify the same standards of excellence in all the humanities courses that I offer at UM as did George Butwin in the science courses he taught at E.L. Meyers High School.

What inspires you to teach?

The students in my classes who stump me with their questions, dazzle me with their insight and amaze me with their research. Every day I get to work with them is a good day.

Robert Stubblefield, Lecturer, Department of English

In your opinion, what are the two most important characteristics a great teacher/educator possesses? Why?
Passion and commitment to the students and subject. I think it’s important to remember that teaching/learning is a dialogue rather than a monologue. Most of what I’ve learned about teaching has come from students and their passion for and interest in the written word and how it relates to and affects their lives.

In your opinion, what are the two most important characteristics a great student/learner possesses? Why?

Obviously motivation is the number one characteristic, and I’d rate flexibility second. One of the most important gifts or characteristics a student can possess is the ability to benefit from myriad teaching styles and approaches. I don’t think I appreciated that early enough in my student experience, but I certainly do in retrospect.

Who is your favorite teacher?

Probably Craig Lesley, my first Creative Writing instructor in college. Craig didn’t offer any illusions that being a writer would be easy, but he provided timely encouragement and reassured me that writing and teaching would be a rewarding path if I pursued it with energy, conviction, and persistence. I hope to offer my students the same. I’ve been fortunate to have a series of wonderful teachers beginning in the first grade.

What inspires you to teach?

I’ve enjoyed teaching from the first day, and I appreciate that it offers new challenges to overcome and new problems to solve every day. It’s impossible to be cynical when you share the classroom with the type of students we meet each semester. It frustrates me when people talk about the “real world” as opposed to academia. What could be more real than sharing a space and a significant portion of your life with group of intelligent, motivated, and passionate readers and writers? That kind of community strikes me as about as real as it gets.

Dennis Swibold, Professor, School of Journalism

In your opinion, what are the two most important characteristics a good teacher/educator possesses? Why?

The best are more than smart. They are enthusiastic, endlessly curious and unafraid to admit what they don’t know. Asking students to join you in learning something is a great way to teach.

In your opinion, what are the two most important characteristics a good student/learner possesses? Why?

The best always want to know what’s around the next corner and how to do things for themselves. Enthusiasm and persistence usually trump sheer brain power. The best students never stop asking why.

Who is your favorite teacher? Why?

I’d have to say my mom, Jean Colton, above all. I grew up in a military family that was constantly moving across the country and the globe. She researched every new assignment with such joy and curiosity that it made every move seem like a grand adventure. Looking back, I know how hard those transitions actually were, but she met the challenges by provoking me and my siblings to learn everything we could – and to share it. That proved to be an excellent method for making a journalist. Since then I have taught alongside some of the best teachers I’ve ever known, people like Robert McGiffert, Carol Van Valkenburg and my colleagues today. They were and are endlessly enthusiastic and curious about learning. It’s infectious. They talk about teaching constantly.

What inspires you to teach?

I love watching the light bulb come on, the glimmer of recognition, when something finally sinks in. Students inspire me to teach, and I’ve learned to never underestimate the effect you may be having on students both in and out of class.

Julie Biando Edwards, Associate Professor, Ethnic Studies Librarian & Diversity Coordinator, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library

The most important characteristic for both students and teachers is curiosity. That desire to know more, to learn more, is the best trait we can take into and out of our classrooms. Curiosity means we keep asking questions, keep revising ideas, and keep reimagining the world around us. It also means that we’re open to learning about our place and ourselves in the context of our disciplines and each other – so what can I learn not only about what I’m studying, but about myself in the process?

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