30 July 2015

Bad Teacher/Good Teacher: A Few Thoughts and Ideas and Observations on the Noblest of Professions

"There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can't move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies." - Robert Frost

I teach at an English language school in San Francisco that attracts students from all over the world who enroll for anywhere from a few weeks to a year. Students usually range in age from 17-30, although we get a lot who are older. A few of my colleagues do this: when a student is late to class she or he has to stay outside and write a prescribed number of sentences before returning to class.


So a student has missed what should be considered valuable class time and as a consequence they have to miss more class time. Makes sense. Also writing is being used as a punishment because, after all, writing is a horrible experience that we all want to avoid. (In public schools where I labored for a couple of decades, using writing as punishment went out with 23 skidoo.) Also students, who are paying a helluva lot of money (although in many cases parents, a school or a job are footing the bill) are being "punished."

Some teachers are insecure and feel better about themselves by administering "punishments" and acting as if students are there to please them as opposed to the radical notion of the teacher being there in service of students. These teachers will even say: you owe me such and such number of sentences. They owe you? Who the hell are you to be owed by them? Teachers are the ones who owe. They owe students a quality education.

(I've touched on these types of issues before -- including recently.)

Many teachers -- and I mean in all types of school all over the world -- love the power or at least the control.  Some teachers too are ego driven. It's all about them. Classes are all about what they do, what they like, what they think. Classes should be about the students and giving them what they want or need. A good teacher is a ring master, juggler, conductor, traffic cop, facilitator. You're there to guide student learning, not ram lessons down their throats. Teachers are there to provide a safe, comfortable, happy place to learn, imparting your expertise when needed but making sure that you aren't the constant center of attention. A good teacher inspires students to do their own learning.

I've learned a lot about teaching by witnessing bad teaching practices just as I learned a lot about coaching from watching bad coaches and even picked up parenting no-nos by watching bad parents. At this point in my life I could write a book about teaching. Fortunately the idea bores me silly so I'll be spared rejection slips for that particular project. One thing I would include in this hypothetical book, is a chapter on giving students a sense of ownership in their classes in particular and their education in general. Its amazing how many teachers build a wall between them and their students. From behind that wall they "provide instructions." They may as well be an instruction manual. But good teaching requires a personal touch. Interacting, engaging and questioning students and asking students to engage and interact and question. Students should be the centerpiece of any lesson. Students should participate on as many levels as possible. In my classes that means they discuss readings, their writing, grammar points and listening activities with one another. I just set the damn thing up.

As an aside: I had some excellent teachers and professors. From middle school through high school through undergraduate degree through graduate degree through credential and certificate programs, every really good teacher I've had has possessed and utilized an excellent sense of humor. I've also observed this characteristic in the best teachers I've worked with. I humbly submit that I am known to be quite a wit too. What's the correlation between humor and teaching? I believe that for the most part it reflects that the teacher is personable, makes the class fun and that there incidentally exists a strong relationship between intelligence and humor.

Making the class "fun" can and is often overdone but the fact is that most students of any age in any setting put a higher premium on learning than having a few yuks. But of course students would rather be enjoying the process and I firmly believe that students learn better when they are, at the very least, enjoying the lesson. The number one enemy of any teacher is boredom and of course a fun lesson combats tedium nicely. One rule I go by is that if I'm bored than so are students and if I'm enjoying class they are too. What is absolutely essential is "reading the room." You've got to be able to tell when students need more of something or need you to move on. Pick up the signs and adjust accordingly. A good teacher -- this does depend on the type of class and school -- is willing and able to improvise and change directions during the course of a class. Staying lock step with a lesson that's not working or moving on before students are ready are all too common mistakes that teachers make.

A final word on teaching (for today, anyway, I may get back on this high horse another time) is that the best teachers are innovators who are forever perfecting their craft. Teachers need to be exposed to new ideas and they have to revise, reform and revolutionize their teaching methods and curriculum. Stick with the tried and true for too long and it you'll become stale and uninteresting to yourself and students. Wow yourself. And for the love of god, don't make students write sentences as punishment, that's just asinine. 

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