Twenty-five Tips for Today’s Teachers.
A day spent with a great teacher is worth a thousand days of diligent study. (Japanese proverb)
1) Teach as you can and not as you cannot. From the outset try to develop a distinct style and voice. It won’t happen overnight, but a unique teaching persona usually emerges. The best way to catch fish, pitch a baseball, or to fry eggs is the way that works best for you – ditto for teaching. There is no one way to teach. Within certain parameters we all have to discover our own way. Think of teaching styles as dinner suits: tailor-made will always look and be more comfortable and stylish than something off the peg.
Try not to fret over perceived deficiencies – they are often hidden strengths. Henry is a native Spanish speaker who worries that his English sometimes isn’t good enough. His students, however, admire his humility as he so often asks them, “Did I say that correctly?” Henry’s “weakness” reveals his respect for language and his humility. Kathy is a tender romantic ideally suited to teaching poetry and occasionally some of her students take advantage of her kindly nature, but nobody should try to fashion an iron fist from Kathy’s soft hands – it simply wouldn’t work. Kathy would have found something loveable in Atilla the Hun, so seeing the good in her most challenging students is her natural disposition – every school should treasure such teachers. Henry and Kathy are fine teachers much loved by many of their students and you will be, too, if you genuinely care for children and remain true to yourself.
I love these lyrics from Billy Joel as they say so much about all relationships:
I don’t want clever conversation
I never want to work that hard
I just want someone that I can talk to
I want you just the way you are.
I need to know that you will always be
The same old someone that I knew
What will it take till you believe in me
The way that I believe in you?
In all that you do your love must shine through, so if you simply cannot teach without a whip in one hand and a chair in the other you might want to consider lion taming.
I’ve met many great teachers and they come in all ages, shapes, and sizes. What is safe to say about them all is that their success and sanity lies in discerning and accepting their strengths and weaknesses. The key to satisfaction and happiness in life itself is to assert with justifiable pride I am who I am, the key to your wellbeing as a teacher is the same. It’s far too exhausting wearing an ill-fitting mask every day or pretending to be someone that you are not, so ponder the wise words of Oscar Wilde, be yourself, everyone is taken. What children usually value in their teachers’ is sincerity and individuality. If you aren’t comfortable with you, your students aren’t likely to relax in your company. Focus on what you do best. If you consistently deliver the goods when it matters you will make far more friends and admirers than enemies.
You may not be old enough to remember the Band Aid Concert of 1984 or its later American equivalent for which the song We are the World was written; no matter, check out the videos of these songs on YouTube. As good as the songs are, look beyond them and focus instead on the gathering of some of the world’s greatest rock and pop stars working together, burying their differences and their egos, and giving of their best in an attempt to rid the world of poverty – at least for a while. These concerts became life defining moments for so many musicians, especially Sir Bob Geldof the brains and inspiration behind Band Aid. Geldof realized as he watched poor children dying from hunger in Africa on the TV news that there is nothing more precious on God’s earth than a human being. He learned an age old lesson: it is in giving that we truly receive. Teachers can learn so much from these concerts. We, too, are uniquely talented individuals with an important mission in life who can, when we work together, make a difference in the lives of our students. There is room in teaching for you and so many other uniquely different individuals. We just have to see where we fit into the larger picture. Are you a Tony Bennett, a Barbara Streisand, a Black-eyed Pea, or a Michael Jackson? Will you write the songs, bang a drum, or blow your own trumpet? If you choose the trumpet then let someone else blow it for you, it will sound twice as sweet. If you want to make a difference, strive to find your own distinct “noises” and learn how to harmonize them with the distinctive voices of your colleagues, safe in the knowledge that the quality of your baritone contribution to the ensemble piece that is teaching, isn’t in any way diminished by the ethereal beauty of an Enya or the rasping power of a Tina Turner.
- Loco parentis. Treat your students as if they were your own children. I don’t mean you should occasionally wrestle them to the ground, nibble their ears, and tickle their bellies – you won’t enjoy prison food! When it comes to grading assignments, correcting behavior, and generally interacting with students grant them the same dignity and respect you would accord your own child. Parents are generally supportive of your right to discipline their children if you do so with their best interests at heart. Before you give biting feedback on someone’s work, ask yourself if you would write similar comments to your child or to a favorite student. Would your child receive a detention for being five seconds tardy or for chewing gum? If you saw your child heading down the ‘wrong path’ or needing words of encouragement you would surely do everything in your power to help them. Do the same for your students. And if you really can’t help a child, at least try not to hurt them. Some children are more easily “bruised” than they ever let on.
However, never excuse or mask unacceptable behavior. Be wary of that fine line between affirmation and false reporting. If a student’s behavior in class includes offensive language, verbal or physical attacks on other students, and an aggressive refusal to work it is disingenuous to describe this behavior as “improving.” When you encounter behavior that is downright unacceptable, say so! Otherwise you risk being unfair to everyone, most especially to those whose wellbeing and learning is frequently disrupted by unruly peers who refuse to cooperate with reasonable disciplinary guidelines. I am all for accentuating the positive, but not with outright lies. If John or Mary are having a hard time at home it doesn’t grant them a right to destroy the learning of others.
3.Work ethic. There are few success stories in any profession without the work ethic chapter. I’ve lost countless hours of sleep and leisure time in search of engaging lesson plans and teaching strategies, and without that part of my story I would never have enjoyed so much of my career. If you skip the hard work (the agony) you will rarely enjoy the immense rewards and satisfactions that often arise out of the toil (the ecstasy). If we worked twenty hours a day in search of perfection we still wouldn’t find it, but it’s amazing how often those who strive for perfection rise to the top and are consistently successful. What hard work doesn’t accomplish laziness certainly won’t. Be sure to pay this message forward to your students by making them earn their grades.
Students are particularly appreciative of teachers who go the extra mile and take the time to support their extra-curricular activities. If you show up on the touchline to cheer your students on at a weekend soccer game it tells them that you are interested in their lives – since you can’t claim overtime money you must be there because you care. Many parents will also appreciate your efforts and they will in turn support your classroom endeavors.
- Teach for mastery not mystery. When delivering lessons make sure that your goals are clearly explained, stimulating, realistic, and achievable. Engaging lessons should raise more smiles and hands than frowns. There are complex matters every teacher must impart, but effective teachers usually find ways of making them palatable and comprehensible. Mastering any subject is a challenging endeavor, as a teacher you are called upon to support your students’ efforts as they try to tame their demons rather than sitting comfortably at your desk. When students are struggling in class, whether it’s fair or not, you are the prime suspect. How strong is your defence?
The most effective lessons have clear and manageable aims and objectives delivered by engaging and skilled teachers. The aim of the lesson is the overall message e.g. to teach students the damaging effects of prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, labeling, and reductionism in society. If the aim of the lesson answers the ‘what’ question, then the objectives address the ‘how do I teach this’ question. So, for our lessons on prejudice we should define key terms, distinguish between positive and negative discrimination, and give examples of stereotyping, labeling, and reductionism. Clarity gets more difficult to achieve when lessons are overloaded. It takes time and experience to get the balance right, but teachers should be able to teach at least five new points per lesson. Think of objectives as tennis balls. Holding five balls in two hands isn’t that tricky; when you ask students to hold on to twelve, most will drop the lot, get frustrated and quit. If Lesson Two with the group is meant to build on Lesson One you have a major problem. Even if they didn’t get much from the prior lesson, students rarely tolerate a repeat performance. The best you can do in this circumstance is a quick review of the previous lesson.
- Be a team player. A couple of useful adages for you to ponder – ‘Play as a team and achieve the dream’ and T.E.A.M. ‘Together Everyone Achieves More.’ Schools cannot create pedagogical unity out of subject diversity without a supportive framework. We must accept that all subjects and teachers are of equal worth.
I once had a colleague who told a student to skip my class so that he could complete a make-up test for her. The teacher concerned wrongly presumed that her subject (math) was far more important than mine (theology). It is both arrogant and discourteous to demean our colleagues’ subjects in this way. When I e-mailed my colleague for an explanation, what I got in reply was a dismissive retort which amounted to, ‘What’s the big deal, it’s just one class?’ When I politely suggested that her student could have missed ‘just one math test’ or made up the test in her time she burst into tears and reported me to HR for harassment. That is not my idea of team play. If you keep a child out of another teacher’s class you will need an excellent reason for doing so. Since many peoples’ lives are negatively impacted through ignorance about health and nutrition matters, domestic science (aka cookery) – so often cast as a Cinderella subject – may be a far more important discipline to most students than trigonometry or quantum physics.
We have all seen sports teams achieve far more than the “experts” believed possible, and we’ve also seen teams glittering with individual talents that rarely pick up the silverware. Likewise, successful schools are built around talented individuals who respect each other and work as members of a team.
You should support the school’s ethos. It’s not usually necessary to be a devout Christian to work in a Christian school, but your lifestyle cannot be at total variance with the moral values Christian schools espouse. If you grow cannabis rather than tomatoes at your allotment or you work as a part-time “hostess” or bouncer in a local night club, then I hope you can appreciate why a faith school might not be the best fit for you.
- Be friendly teacher, but not a friend. Once you cross this boundary line, almost everything else you do will be terminally undermined. Be as friendly and approachable as possible, but never allow your relationship with students to trespass into the forbidden territory of friendship. Most children have enough friends in school so you aren’t needed for that role. Stick to being a friendly, dependable, and supportive teacher. The friendship hurdle is unforgiving and it continually claims far too many promising teachers – don’t be its next hapless victim.
- Anger management. There is nothing that will more quickly alienate you from your students, colleagues, and administrators alike than a hair-trigger temper. Anger projects hatred and who wants to be taught by a hateful person? A hot-tempered teacher will frighten many students and when children are afraid they aren’t likely to ask questions or to seek help from someone who lacks self-control. Anger is the bodyguard of three demons – fear, insecurity, and self-righteousness – and those demons are unwonted and too easily provoked.
America is the most litigious society in the world and so the loose cannon on the faculty generates sleepless nights for administrators. Thirty years ago, some principals might have tolerated occasional outbursts from a competent teacher; nowadays, the combustible teacher is regarded as a legal liability. Most principals the world over would rather hire a dull and competent teacher over a genius with a questionable temperament.
- Good teachers are good learners. Never assume that you are the finished article. Euripides once said that we cannot set foot in the same river twice, so it is with classrooms. Children constantly change their ways of thinking and learning and so we should be adaptable. Young teachers are often more ready and able than us older hands to embrace newer technologies and ideas that will speak to future generations. Even though I have ample material to get me through my timetable I never stop reading the latest books in my subject area. I have twelve superb movies that I could show in my class – I can only show four. Nonetheless, I am still looking for a movie that might be even better than my ‘Top Four’. Students are often far quicker than their teachers to know when lesson plans need refreshing. Think of your subject matter as a plant that needs constant attention.
Students are often impressed by teachers who demonstrate a sound knowledge of other academic disciplines. I often had students stay after class to enquire about a book, a poem, or painting that I had mentioned in class. A student I taught fifteen years ago recently contacted me through Linkedin to tell me that she still has the class project she made for me on her desk at an international bank in New York – she is now a senior executive. She made a piggy bank with one of my quotes on it, “If you want to better understand the world ask yourself a simple question – who is making money out of this?” She insists that it is still the wisest one-liner she ever heard and it helped her to understand so many work situations. She also puts her loose change in that piggy bank, as we did in class, and at Christmas she cashes in the proceeds to donate about $150 a year to a worthy charity. Those coins are the ‘mustard seeds’ that Jesus spoke of in His Kingdom parables.
- Teachers are the messengers not the message. Your primary role in the lives of your students is that of a subject teacher. That may seem a rather obvious statement to make, but I’ve seen so many teachers lose sight of this that I feel drawn to re-emphasize here. Lesson time is teaching time and as much of that lesson as possible should be spent on the subject matter rather than on you. Some students might think you are “really cool” when you regale them with your witty yarns of derring-do or you allow them to have an easy class, but their parents will not. Parents prefer their children to be proficient in world history rather than your history. There is nothing wrong with taking five or ten-minutes out occasionally to circulate around the classroom and sharing a little down time while students are working, but make sure that the lion’s share of class time is spent on the aims and objectives of the lesson.
I’m sure we aren’t far from the day when all lessons will be filmed and I have spent my entire career preparing for this change. Whenever I decided to share a story with students about my own life I imagined this being replayed in the principal’s office. Was there a valid point to my sharing or was I being self-indulgent? We must also sidestep party politics, especially at election times. If you aren’t a huge fan of a particular politician, celebrity, or athlete tread carefully when you express such sentiments in the classroom. I once completely alienated myself from a Britney Spears devotee who never forgave me for saying that Britney wasn’t the smartest lady to speak to about abortion. The previous night I had been annoyed that half of a radio broadcast about challenging the 1973 Roe v Wade verdict was taken up with an interview with Britney Spears, while not a word was heard from the many articulate pro-life advocates I know who are longing for airtime. Looking back, I should have made my pro-life pitch without disparaging Britney’s viewpoint.
10) Discipline, Punishment, and Correction. Cesare Beccaria once remarked that ‘the fault no child ever loses is the one he was most punished for.’ Fredrich Nietzsche meanwhile distrusted ‘all men in whom the impulse to punish is strong.’ These observations may not be universal truisms, but there is a lot of truth in them. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet reached a stage of human development that enables us to dispense with punishment altogether.
When students are deliberately abusive towards other students and show little remorse for doing so, then we are duty-bound to protect the innocent and challenge the guilty. I prefer to think in terms of correcting behavior rather than simple punishment because punishment too often is plain and simple, thus ineffective. The effectiveness of punishment needs to be carefully measured and monitored.
If students are habitually late to school and we routinely issue detentions then chances are that the tardiness will simply continue. I once had a student who stoically served fifty detentions before anyone realized that he had to drop-off his younger sister at school five miles away. His sister was being bullied at school and therefore she dragged her feet every morning so that she didn’t have to hang around the playground surrounded by the bullies. How did I find this out? I asked. Like most other aspects of teaching it’s not rocket-science, we must aim for whatever is best for everyone. When love and concern for your students becomes the staff and rod upon which you depend, it’s amazing how quickly the monochrome cast that inhabits your classroom acquire interesting colors and definition.
‘Discipline hurts most those it touches the least.’’ (Me)
When we habitually harangue our students, we reduce our chances of educating them. When we lose our temper, we always lose far more than our tempers. Students have rights and one of those rights is not to live in fear and trembling of teachers. If we want children to learn, then our first step must be to make them feel as welcome and valued as possible in our classrooms. If we aren’t working towards that end then we should discipline ourselves. I went to a grammar school in the 60’s where corporal punishment was liberally dispensed by many teachers throughout the day, and I instinctively understood that when an adult beats child it is the surest sign that the adult is beaten. Punishment must never be separated from our overall teaching aims and if all we’ve taught a punished student is that we have power over them then we haven’t taught anything worthwhile. We may even unwittingly teach students that might is right; and that, my friend, can never be right!
To me the worst thing seems to be for a school principally to work with methods of fear, force and artificial authority. Such treatment destroys the sound sentiments, the sincerity, and the self-confidence of the pupil. It produces the submissive subject. (Albert Einstein)
11) Praise on the other hand can be a powerful way of affirming all that is good in your students. My pastor, Fr. Foudy, is the past master of praising all that he surveys. Every week as he begins Mass, he tells the congregation how proud he is to be their pastor. He thanks lectors for reading so eloquently, Eucharistic ministers for their dignified manner in distributing communion, servers are thanked and complimented by name, and our musicians receive praise for their ‘beautiful singing and playing.’ As we leave the church he never tires of telling us how good each of us are. Praise – even when it occasionally seems effusive – never gets old when it’s sincerely offered. I chaperone many school trips and I tell my passengers that thanks to my close friendship with the principal I’m lucky enough to be assigned to the best group of students. And 90% of the time it turns out to be true. It is so often the case that we encounter the behavior that we expect and plan for. I accept that you can’t praise every wayward child into sainthood; I also believe, however, that praise and encouragement are usually more productive than punishments and threats.
I am a firm advocate of a zero-tolerance/no excuses stance on school discipline. However, these approaches are less effective when there is a poor balance between the carrots and sticks. The vast majority of students in most schools are reasonably well-behaved and willing to learn, and these children should be nurtured, praised, encouraged, and should be frequently lauded and rewarded. In that way the majority will never take seriously the gripes of the malcontents who forever bemoan their inability to get away with destructive behaviour. Anarchy and rebellion occur when the majority sense the negative weight of authority too often outweighing the positives.
Try to depersonalize some of your commands so that they are heard as reasonable requests rather than oppressive and demeaning orders. Which of the following sounds better to you?
- Would one of you cretins close that damn door! Or
- Could one of you close the door please? Thank you.
- Who wrote that stupid comment on the board?
- Can somebody clean the board please?
Don’t overuse the iron first when velvet gloves might be more effective.
12) Short and long-term planning. We should obviously plan for the week ahead and for the short and longer term future. Our weekly lesson plans should take account of all that will follow until the course is completed at the end of the semester/year. The longer you spend teaching a course, the greater chance you have of creating a harmony out of the various parts that make up the whole.
When I first starting teaching church history I didn’t realize that I couldn’t possibly cover the church’s entire history in five months. Therefore, we ended the course rather unsatisfactorily at the Reformation; it was like finishing Macbeth at the murder of Duncan or completing only two-thirds of a jigsaw puzzle. Had I consulted more experienced colleagues teaching the same course, the less interesting parts – over which I had dutifully labored – could have been either condensed or dispensed altogether. Better planning often enables us to cut out the boring bits. For most of the semester my students enjoyed my laidback approach and my lively sense of humor; by the time they had all bombed in the Christmas exams because they knew nothing about the modern church (one-third of the exam), they came to regard me as a joke and a jerk – they had a point! I lacked the foresight to check the exam paper they would have to take. Most students would rather have an easy ‘A’ with a tedious teacher than risk a ‘C’ with someone funner – I know because I have asked them.
My shortcomings also created problems for my former students’ next teacher who was hoping that they would at least be familiar with the Renaissance and the First and Second Vatican Councils. These problems could have been avoided. When I began the next semester with new classes it was immediately clear that the word was out on the hallways that I was incompetent – and that came from the nicer students! I was guilty as charged, but as with other aspects of my teaching I worked extraordinarily hard not to repeat major mistakes and eventually I earned the respect of most students. I enjoyed many excellent years of teaching and that didn’t happen by chance – I became a meticulous planner and put in the hours. Do likewise. We all need an occasional slice of luck, but lasting success is rarely accidental.
Failing to plan is planning to fail. (Alan Laken)
13) Professional Development. We should all create a professional development plan. There are too many facets of teaching to master all at once so don’t even try. I view these challenges as bricks in a wall that I take down one at a time. Creating a master plan made it easier for me to master teaching. At the end of every school year I made time to reflect on the past year. I paid attention to areas where I had vastly improved and understood why that had made such a difference. I also addressed my shortcomings. From these reflections I devised a game plan for the next school year. I focused on one specialism per semester.
One major problem that I needed to address was assessment. Over the summer break I read some excellent books on assessment that gave me new ideas that I was excited to try. I had gained the reputation for being a tough cookie who rarely gave A’s. There is nothing wrong with raising the bar, but I eventually realized that I was setting the bar far too high and that caused many students to give up and settle for mid-b’s and C+s. Out of thirty students, only two or three received A’s. Even if my grading was spot-on it still gave me a lot of disgruntled students and parents to contend with every semester. So, I started adding an extra 7% across the board and that would give a dozen students A’s and more C’s turned into B’s etc. Although I initially feared that I was compromising my standards, I couldn’t deny that students were now working harder because they believed higher grades were possible. I’d got the carrot and stick mixture about right. The minor grade inflation was such an incentive that it tackled students’ self-doubt and transformed it into self-belief with some spectacular successes. My months of studying assessment strategies meant the end of my reign as Grinch of the gradebook and everyone was happy about that. Take it as a truism of classroom life, youthful minds need incentives to draw out their full potential. When students maximize their potential, they won’t need inflated grades – you will have empowered them to produce better work and to achieve better grades.
I have spent highly productive years studying classroom management, assessment, technology, child-centered learning, coping with disabilities and other learning difficulties, lesson planning, study and testing techniques, fun activities, the art of debate in the classroom, how students learn, academic coaching, the importance of a variety of teaching styles and learning strategies, how to plan for projects, teachers as team players, approaches to positive discipline, teens and drugs and medications, how to be a better listener, running a homework club, getting organized, building classroom resources, teaching through role-plays and skits, using movies as teaching tools, counseling troubled teens, and cross-curricular initiatives. There are so many useful topics to cover that will keep you learning until the day you retire. In the early years of teaching place classroom management and assessment near the top of your list.
Throughout my career I read at least four books a year on the craft of teaching. I also paid attention to every talk on teaching I ever attended. Although there are some speakers on the circuit who aren’t as charismatic as others, I have learned at least one useful tip from 95% of the talks I have listened to, and that in my estimation makes those hours well spent. We would all be better teachers if we learned to listen more acutely to what our fellow pros are trying to convey. Are you keeping up at the back?
14) The more you tolerate, the more you will have to tolerate. From the moment you enter the classroom your students are testing you out in numerous ways. How savvy or malleable are you? Are you kind and gentle? A bear or a mouse? Are you funny or dull? A laid-back dude or a control freak? The more comfortable you are in your own skin the more relaxed students will feel in your presence. If you are calm, friendly, and fair in your imposition of classroom rules most students will calmly accept them. If you aim for humiliation or issue too many threats then, of course, your students will justifiably feel threatened. When you have established that your rules for lessons are fair and conducive to effective teaching and learning, resolutely defend them. Once you concede ground, pressure to yield further increases and it often doesn’t stop until you throw in the towel or re-establish boundary lines, which is not always possible. Zero-tolerance isn’t always possible to achieve for various reasons, but when you stop aiming for something close to it you’ll create far too many problems for yourself. Again, in pursuit of zero-tolerance/no excuses you don’t have to play the drill sergeant. The most effective way to command respect is to issue polite commands rather than requests. Stand tall and expect compliance. When you see book bags on the desk just say, ‘Bags on the floor, please’ and then walk away. Don’t single out individual students as that easily creates antagonism. As I said earlier, be friendly but commanding. Avoid pleading, hectoring, or bartering – you will look weak. No PE kit when I was a lad meant running around the track in your underwear for half-hour – no exceptions. We only ever forgot our kit once. As degrading as this practice was we never considered that challenging the rule was an option. Students of today haven’t changed that much. If what you ask children to do is reasonable, sensible, and you refuse to compromise most will comply.
15) Organization. If you blithely dismiss a lack of organizational skills as a charming quirk, it’s time to wise up. Too many teachers fall short of their potential because they stubbornly refuse to transform organizational deficiencies into proficiencies. Managing time and tasks effectively isn’t a tack-on bonus that will earn you extra brownie points along the way, if you remain disorganized you will never be a stellar teacher. Far too often you’ll be mistaken for a circus clown rather than the ringmaster.
Establish routines and delegate as many routine tasks as possible. Most beginning teachers are caught unawares by the sheer volume of paperwork that must be dealt with. Teachers are legally obliged to take attendance in every lesson but that doesn’t mean that students can’t help you with it, especially with new classes.
Find a secure place for confidential reports or student work. (Confidential reports should be locked away. If those reports get into the wrong hands you will have a sizable problem to contend with. John doesn’t want the whole school to know about his personal problems. When a student’s work goes missing you not only waste valuable time searching for it, you also have no proof of the grade awarded and that might lead to creating another test paper for just one student. Good luck if a student refuses to do an assignment again because you have mislaid the original.
When anything takes you far longer than it should have done, make changes. I went through a stage of losing my lesson plans on my desk and so now they go in the middle drawer of my desk. There’s nothing wrong with starting out being disorganized, but if remain that way you’ll constantly waste valuable teaching time. I spend at least two or three days per semester working solely on organizing an ever growing collection of handouts, forms, reports, essays, and fliers etc., that land on my desk in search of a proper home. Even so, I still spend too much time looking for a mislaid grade book, important letters or documents etc. It took me far too long before I realized that I needed a special tray for anything that I needed throughout the day.
16) Never set busy work. If you want to quickly lose the respect of your charges then set them tasks that won’t be assessed or have no obvious value. Students are adept at picking out nugatory tasks. If there are no points awarded for a task, your students will naturally think of them as pointless exercises. Always be the prime mover in the classroom, if you aren’t excited to read the “riveting” information on pages 39-46 then why should your students be stirred? If you can’t sell a task or an activity to your students they obviously won’t buy it. Teenagers don’t just listen to your words they read your facial expressions and your body language as well. I’ve seen every documentary and movie I show in class at least twenty times, but I know that if I don’t watch it with them in class they’ll even regard 5-star movies as 2-star busy work that Sir shows when he’s tired of teaching.
17) Teach by example. St Francis of Assisi’s most famous line advises, “Preach the Gospel always and if necessary use words.” This a medieval version of walk your talk and lead from the front. It came to mind again recently when I passed the gym during lesson time and saw five boys using their cellphones rather than playing ball with their peers. When I walked into the gym the boys immediately stashed the phones away wherever they could. “Where’s your teacher?” I asked “Dunno, Sir” they shrugged. Once I’d got them back to playing ball, I headed to the far door and as I walked out I found the sub teacher sat on a chair enjoying the sunshine and updating his Facebook page. If we don’t invest in our lessons then all the seats in our classrooms will be cheap ones. We have no right to ask students to do what we wouldn’t do ourselves.
18) Variety is the spice of Classroom life. In 1983 an American professor, Howard Gardner, published Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner highlights eight specific abilities or types of intelligence that you might discern in your students: spatial, linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Gardner’s critics challenge a lack of empirical evidence for his theory. However, his basic insight that ‘we all vary in the ways we best learn’ is surely worth considering.
Whether we can describe artistic or musical ability as “intelligence” is a semantic issue that ought not deflect us from a reality that some students express themselves better through an art form rather than in a purely academic manner. Was Pablo Picasso a genius? Most subjects allow for artistic expression and teachers should look for ways of incorporating such talents into their courses. Then the students who write the best essays or answer the most multiple-choice questions correctly might not be top of the class for a change. The powerful I am a Man placards from the civil rights era spoke far more eloquently in four short words than many long forgotten speeches on racism and segregation. Edvard Munch’s painting the Scream is still widely used by satirists to express the horror of so many modern ills. A picture is often worth far more than a thousand words.
One of my students recently did an extra-credit assignment for me in which he made an amazing animated screensaver for his computer out of the 84 new words he had learned from my course. He spent hours on that assignment and he was proud of his accomplishment so I was happy to give him an A+. There are times when simply engaging students and getting them to strive for perfection is enough in itself. In an English class, I would rather a student write a profile on his favourite football player than a dreary essay on Wordsworth’s poetry that bored him rigid.
Einstein’s once observed that, “if you judged a fish by its ability to climb trees, you’d think of fish as stupid creatures.” If most of our lessons follow the same pattern and rely almost exclusively of one particular skill then those of our students who are uncomfortable with this mode of learning will always feel inadequate. We must vary our lessons because it makes sound pedagogical sense to do so, and also because teens enjoy as many unexpected twists and turns to classes as we can devise. Learning can’t just be fun – but it must be fun and varied to keep energetic teenagers energized. Teach students to expect the unexpected. We must also show our students that we value their unique gifts. Education cannot be predicated on intellectual intelligence alone.
19) Teach like a rock star and make your lessons rock around the clock and then your students won’t be watching the clock. Everything that happens in the classroom begins and ends with you the conductor. How “sexy” can you make your subject? If you accept George Bernard Shaw’s sneering sentiment – ‘Those who can do, those who can’t teach’ – then your chances of being happy or successful as a teacher are zero. See through this pompous nonsense. Adopt instead the Taylor Mali mantra and realize that what you do in classrooms every day changes precious lives for the better – effective teachers make an enormous difference. If we don’t believe in ourselves and what we do, then we can’t expect others to do so. We all should be fired up about sharing our passion for our subject. A rock star believes that every song is a belter that will spark up the audience, if we put enough energy and creativity into our work we should have some terrific lesson plans in the store cupboard that we enjoy teaching. When we look forward to teaching our lessons, students will enjoy learning from them. Rock stars are jealous gods, they command our undivided attention – do likewise.
Tell me and I will forget, show me and I will remember, involve me and I will understand. (Confucious)
20) Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. The oldest and most reliable teaching adage I know comes in three parts: 1) Tell them what you are going to teach them; 2) teach them; 3) tell them what you’ve just taught them. While it’s important not to be carelessly repetitive, it’s vital that when you have a rare gem to share then reinforce it often. One of my favourite lines from Mother Teresa states, “We can do not great things; only small things with great love.” By the time I have quoted it three times I expect the students to be able to finish the quote for me. It’s amazing how much students love to finish off a line for you – it engages them and makes them feel clever. The students who can mimic me well invariably use my line, “Jesus Christ is the greatest man who ever walked the face of the earth.”
I am deeply indebted to Fr. John ‘Jacko’ Hughes s.j. who taught me Latin and ancient history many years ago. Barely a day would pass without Jacko reminding us not to overdo our studies. “Little and often, gentlemen. little and often wins the day.” Such advice is music to most students’ ears and I was no different. To this day I still share this tip with my students and use it myself. Many parts of this book have been written in a spare 20 minutes here and there. To save myself from endlessly repeating a vital piece of information I often write it up on the board and keep it there until I have another gem to replace it. We can also make handouts of twenty or so quotes or truisms about our subject that every student should know.
21). First impressions count. Make sure that your first class is first-class – you will use it often. Your first lesson needn’t be curriculum specific; it should be about your subject and – to an extent – about you and what you love about your subject. When you do this, you have an opening lesson that can be adapted to suit all year groups.
You should spend as much time as it takes to get this first lesson as perfect as it can be – I’m talking master-class level here. If the impact you have in this first class is truly dazzling then you will be able to bask in its brilliance for the first few weeks of the school year. For the last fifteen years, my first lesson convinced my students that I was the funniest, kindest, and smartest teacher on the planet. By the time I had given that opening talk twenty times, my timing was immaculate and I had some excellent witticisms scattered throughout the presentation to keep their attention. The payoff for you is that you and your students can enjoy the first day and they will take away an impression of you as a confident, entertaining, and passionate teacher with something worth teaching. Students want to know why studying your discipline is important and relevant. It isn’t always obvious to a teenager that studying quadratic equations, the periodic table, or the Battle of Hastings is worthy of the required labor. It’s all very well saying that ‘those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat its failures,’ but you should find memorable examples that will drive the point home and make is stick.
22) Never take any issue more seriously than the administration. If the administration don’t seem unduly bothered by the enforcement of a particular rule then you shouldn’t be too vexed over it either. If a minor infraction doesn’t trouble your bosses then they are hardly likely to give you much backing should you decide to rigorously enforce the rule. Likewise, if there is an issue that is guaranteed to stress out the principal then be sure to deal with that. If the principal categorically states that all children must wear their uniform correctly then be diligent in addressing uniform infractions.
23) Accurately identifying problems. You can’t own and resolve problems until they are accurately identified. You have a problem class, but what exactly is the problem? In what ways is the class disruptive? Where is the battery and engine room of this menace that is taxing your energies. If disruption always occurs when you are trying to teach the whole class then maybe you are talking for too long, can everybody in class hear you, are you difficult to comprehend, could you perhaps involve the students more when you are “lecturing?” Sometimes you just have to cut the ‘chalk ‘n’ talk’ part of your lesson because, for whatever reason, it is not working out with a particular class. Every class is unique and they have their own way of learning. I have been surprised at times when I have analyzed a problem and realized that it is just one or two students who are causing a lot of trouble. When I was training to be a teacher in London, my supervisor had to keep reminding me to use a simplified vocabulary that teens could understand.
24) There are two things most students won’t forgive you for. First, for not knowing everything one can reasonably expect you to know about your subject. Secondly, for acting like a know-it-all or as a superior being. You may be a smart person, but that doesn’t make you a better person than anybody else. The more you know about your subject the more you will inspire confidence in your authority. It’s fine to say, ‘I’m not sure I know the best answer to that question, but I’ll find out.’ When you do that you are acknowledging that students have revealed questions worth answering. If you simply get defensive how should I know or indifferent who cares, it’s tantamount to giving students permission not to care. If you don’t care to know about the Battle of Hastings or the Reformation then why should a student care about such matters?
25) Assessment matters. Just as you give your students deadlines to hand in their work, so do students set deadlines for you to hand their work back. Try to be as reasonable and consistent as possible. If you set quizzes that are easily graded return them as soon as possible, so when you need more time to assess essays or projects students are more likely to be forgiving. If you can, give students a rough idea when they are likely to get their work back. I set myself a target of grading fifty papers a week or ten a day. If other matters prevented me from keeping my targets, I would usually sacrifice some time over the weekend to get me back on track. If you do this, your students shouldn’t have to wait more than two weeks to get an essay or project back.
You should also have a grading scheme and a criterion. For written work these are my guiding lights: content, understanding, knowledge, and evaluation. My grading scheme is created from my lesson notes. I print off my typed lesson notes and I make written comments on them so that I know exactly how the points were covered. If there was a fire-drill during one class I can make note of that and remember that I might have had to rush through my analysis of X, Y, or Z with Period 1. All of this matters a great deal when I am trying to grade fairly and accurately.
You may be a stellar teacher, but if your students mostly get B’s and C’s you may not even be regarded as the best teacher in your own classroom. If grades are consistently low every year you have to be constantly trying to accurately establish where the problem lies. It may well be that the course you teach is notoriously difficult, though you shouldn’t too easily assume this to be the case. I was never brilliant at mathematics, but I never struggled with ‘tricky trig’ and I think that was because my math teacher never let on that there was anything particularly difficult about it.
Try to be sensitive, constructive, and positive when commenting on students’ work. Never make hurtful criticisms and don’t grade to degrade. I had zero respect for my university board when I missed out on a first-class classification for my Degree by 1%. I had completed twelve three-hour exams in six weeks and half of those were in sick bay as I suffered food poisoning for two weeks. They didn’t agree that this might have affected by performance by 1%. Hmmmmmm. My two word reply to the board was never sent because some might have thought I was being slightly rude. 😊
Bonus Quotes on teaching.
My dear children…Bear in mind that the wonderful things that you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, and add to it, and one day faithfully hand it on to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common. If you always keep that in mind you will find meaning in life and work and acquire the right attitude towards other nations and ages. (Albert Einstein talking to a group of school children. 1934)
Tell me and I will forget, show me and I will remember, involve me and I will understand. (Confucious)
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers; children poisoned by educated physicians; infants killed by trained nurses; women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education. My request to you is this: help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are only important if they serve to make our children more human.
‘The only place where success comes before work is in a dictionary.’ (Vidal Sassoon 1928 -)
A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs. It’s jolted by every pebble on the road. (Henry Ward Beecher)
‘Shout at me and I will hear you: speak to me and I will listen.’ (Anon)
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction! (Abraham Lincoln quoting from the story of King Solomon).