University of New Hampshire

School of Law

New Book by UNH Law Professor Spotlights ‘The Best Law Teachers’

Prof. Sophie Sparrow Is Nationally Renowned Expert on Law Teaching

University of New Hampshire School of Law Professor Sophie Sparrow has co-authored a new book, “What the Best Law Teachers Do,” by Harvard University Press.

The book, which Professor Sparrow co-wrote with Professor Gerry Hess of Gonzaga University School of Law and Michael Hunter Schwartz, dean and professor of law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s William H. Bowen School of Law, “describes how 26 amazingly dedicated and dazzlingly effective law teachers do their work,” according to Schwartz.

Sparrow is a national expert on law teaching. She has co-authored five books on teaching and learning and has given more than 75 workshops and presentations for professors, judges, and lawyers around the country. She is the consultant for the national Institute on Law Teaching and Learning. In 2004, she won the inaugural Award for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching Professionalism from the American Bar Association and Conference of Chief Justices. In the spring of 2012, she was a Fulbright Scholar at the National Law University in Jodhpur, India. The same year, she was one of two UNH Law professors included in the National Jurist’s list of the 25 most influential people in legal education.

So many law schools are searching, with some desperation, for the magic bullet that will transform their students’ educational experiences. The 26 teachers in this book transform their students lives every day. This book offers a prescription the rest of us can use to transform our own teaching and, hopefully, our own students’ lives.

Michael Hunter Schwartz

“Studying outstanding law teachers with Michael Schwartz and Sophie Sparrow was an absolute treat,” Hess said. “The brilliance, dedication, and humility of these exceptional teachers and their students is a reminder of how good legal education can be.”

For the book, Sparrow, Hess, and Schwartz solicited nominations from law schools around the country. The teachers who were recommended – by colleagues, students, and former students – were asked to submit materials, including student evaluations and syllabi. The authors combed through the material and selected 26 teachers to study, then spent many hours visiting them at their schools, sitting in on classes, talking to current and former students, and ultimately amassing thousands of pages of qualitative research.

Ultimately, Sparrow said, she and her co-authors were surprised at how different from each other these popular teachers were. But, she added, “that difference is also something they had in common. All of them were really authentic: They had different approaches, but all were true to themselves, and that came through.”

Some teachers were soft-spoken, she said, some were fast-paced, some used Socratic questioning – but all excelled at the techniques they used.

“Another surprise was that almost all of the teachers we profiled were incredibly humble,” Sparrow said. “They cared deeply about their students, and they managed to convey that. Students kept talking about how much these teachers cared about them. A lot of books on teaching talk about technique. You can study technique, but how do you teach people to show that they care?”

Sparrow, Hess, and Schwartz also found that the “best” teachers were also quite demanding, setting high expectations for students but also conveying that they believed in them and would coach them to get there.

“There’s a common perception that the teachers students love are the really easy ones, the entertaining crowd-pleasers,” Sparrow said. “This wasn’t the case.”

One lesson: “These teachers teach incredibly well, but they also publish and do other things,” she said. “Sometimes people think you can either be a good teacher or be a good scholar, but you can’t be both. No: This is all doable. We should have high standards for our students, but we should also have high standards for ourselves.”

Schwartz, who along with Hess co-directs the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning, says the book comes at the right time.

“So many law schools are searching, with some desperation, for the magic bullet that will transform their students’ educational experiences,” Schwartz said. “The 26 teachers in this book transform their students lives every day. This book offers a prescription the rest of us can use to transform our own teaching and, hopefully, our own students’ lives.”

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