How can we possibly compare a small humanities seminar with a large physics lecture, or an architecture studio? The methods seem to be just too different, the way the content must be conveyed seems too dissimilar. For twenty five years, I've watched the Berkeley Academic Senate Committee on Teaching ask these questions as they begin looking at dossiers of those nominated for the Distinguished Teaching Award. And to my mind, there is actually an answer that's not so very deep or complicated.
First, let's bust a myth. Great teachers don't get there by simply being entertainers. They may incidentally be entertaining, but their concern is for the material and the students, not for showmanship (I wish there were a gender neutral word for that)
All great teachers are enthusiasts. They not only love their field, but they want others to experience that joy. As we see in our awards this year, even dirt can be exciting in the right hands.
They have students, not an audience. That is, they make an effort to see that the people in front of them or around the table are thinking, doing, learning. They notice confusion on faces, they solicit questions, they ask questions.
Each class period is an act of creation. Even if the mode is lecture to a large group, something happens that is different, not a static recitation of facts or ideas. A friend recently described a particular class session on campus as being like a symphony, the professor bringing in themes, reiterating, connecting, and then bringing all to a finale.
Class for these teachers is only part of teaching. I've never heard of a Distinguished Teacher who was hard to get a hold of during office hours, or who didn't go out of the way for students, more office hours, review sessions, advice and mentoring. As students say time and again, these people don't just teach an area, they affect lives.
To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in "As Good as It Gets," they make you want to be a better teacher.