15 February 2016

So You Want to be a Teacher (what are ya, nuts or something'?) an Old Veteran Offers Advice

Thinking about entering the teaching profession?  May I take a minute to advise you before you take the plunge? I stumbled blindly into this profession some 30 years ago and being a reflective person, believe I have some insights you may benefit from. Most of the past three decades I was a middle school history teacher in a city school with a  diverse student population. But for the past five I have been an ESL instructor for adults from various parts of the globe. In many respects teaching is teaching. Sure every class and every subject and every age group is different, but the basic principle remains the same -- instruct and inspire.

Now then I'm assuming you're serious about teaching. Or perhaps you've already begun and are in the "what the hell I am doing this for I must be crazy" phase. I feel that. First of all going into teaching is like wanting to get married, if there’s any doubt, don’t do it. You’ve got to be 100% sure. After you’ve taught for a few years, or a year or a month or a day, doubts may creep in. Assuming of course you’re a normal human being. For many, many, many people those first doubts lead to quickly abandoning the teaching biz. Many take the plunge, few stay in the roiling waters.

You’re still sure this is the path you want to take? Ask yourself this: do I think I can teach absolutely everyone? Do I think I can save the lost? Do I think I can succeed where others have failed? If the answer to all three of these questions is a resounding yes, then you may precede. Mind you, later on you’ll discover that you cannot in fact teach absolutely everyone or save everyone or succeed everywhere that others have failed, but that’s for another time. You have to enter the process convinced of your own infallibility else the first time you encounter a difficult student you’ll accept defeat and become cynical, jaded and bad teacher. I started teaching certain that there was no cretin so insane nor any deviant so pathologically defiant that I couldn't turn the little bastard into a Nobel Prize winner. I learned (boy did I). But entering with that fire in my belly was the proper way to start. Once I came across the first immovable object I took the lad to be an outlier and carried on undaunted. Eventually I encountered others but was so inspired by my modest successes that I did not let a little reality keep me from my mission.

Next. Have you a personality? Because it really, really helps. Students, regardless of what age or what subject matter or what goals, hate having a self aware doorknob droning on. You do not have to be the life of the party type but you should exhibit some signs of life. An occasional smile, a personal anecdote, a ready quip. In fact, every — and I do literally mean every — good teacher I’ve ever had possessed and demonstrated a good sense of humor. Likewise has every good teacher I’ve worked with. There may be an exception or two out there but I for one do not want to meet such a person. Demonstrate some warmth. It does not mean being best buddies with students, it just means not appearing robotic. Students are far more interested in listening to someone with a personality than  listening to Siri.

Move. Don't sit behind a damn desk, you're not an accountant. Circulate, make eye contact, show them your ambulatory. Vary your voice. Put some life into it. Dramatic pauses, accents, stage whispers maybe even a bellow. But seriously, get from behind that desk. Give yourself a workout.

On a related topic, you are not a performer. Dazzling wit and charm and even flamboyance are a veritable requirement but don’t fall in love with your act. Students (whether they show it or not and whether they know it or not) want to be — first and foremost — taught. Many teachers fall in love with the sound of their own voice. It’s easy to do a standup routine or spin long yarns but remember you are there for them, they aren’t there for you. The impulse can be to entertain, resist it. Teach.

This brings up another point, you’re being paid to teach them, they are not there at your service. They never owe you anything save respect (which, by the by, you must insist on). Students do not “owe” you work, they owe it to themselves. You collect the work, record that it was done and grade it and they you return it to them. It is theirs and the class is theirs. You are the facilitator, not the lord and master. Yes, you keep order and discipline but for their sake, not your own. If you are “punishing” an errant student say by having them serve a 20 minute detention, they do not “owe” you 20 minutes, they owe it to themselves to be there as part of the learning process. You are there to ensure the 20 minutes is served.

Discipline is vital. Have rules and stick to them and administer fairly and consistently. Find the balance between being a martinet and a pushover. Students will appreciate it. Also, look at discipline as a necessary evil. If you find yourself boasting about how tough you are, it's likely your compensating for some other issues. Either see a shrink or go into another line of work but don't take enormous pride in being a drill sergeant. Avoid singling out students and embarrassing them. If you have had to call out a student in front of others, look for the next possible opportunity to praise the student publicly.

Here’s an important tip for teachers and really anyone else who is addressing a group of people: know your audience. Are you giving your students what they want and what they need? If not you're wasting everyone’s time. But another question of paramount importance is this: are your boring them to death? On countless occasions I’ve seen a person prattle on totally oblivious to the fact that virtually no one, or in some cases literally no one, was listening. Students will hang in there with you as long as human endurance allows if your lesson is relevant to their needs or interests. Indeed students are rooting for you, they want you to be really good. Students don’t want you to fail, they don’t want you to bore them or stumble or stray too far off topic for too long. Mind you, if you let them down, if you show weakness, they will pounce. Don’t give them that opening. You do not have to do the old soft shoe but virtually any topic or skill at any age or level can be imparted with verve. All you need is enthusiasm. If you are at all passionate about what you are teaching, that passion will come through. Be interesting and make your topic interesting. It’s your job. You have a dull topic? Liven it up. I taught middle school history for 20 years and believe me that’s a tough sell. But I found ways to present yawn-defying lessons. I don’t claim that I was always successful but I always tried and I was mindful of the attention spans of young teens and their level of interest in the Louisiana Purchase.

In keeping with the above another tip is: don’t talk too much. Teachers talk too much for a variety of reasons, these include: 1) they don’t know what else to do, lacking any alternative ideas they just prattle on; 2) they have fallen in love with the sound of their own voices, this is in all likelihood a case of being oblivious to an audience; 3) they’re afraid to let go, many teachers are afraid of what will happen if they stop talking. It’s okay for students to talk, in fact it can be a really good idea. Let them share ideas, opinions and information. Most lessons lend themselves to student interaction and many types of courses and age groups are similarly well suited for pair or group work. Young people in particular can only and should only be exposed to a limited amount of lecture or teacher centered instruction. Guided student interaction should not be just a break from the norm but an integral part of the lesson.

And in keeping with this, remember that in a lot of classes you are as much a facilitator as anything else. The master of ceremonies, the coordinator, the ringmaster, the guide. You do not always have to be cramming information into peoples’ heads. You can be helping students help themselves and you can be teaching them how to learn from themselves. This is a large part of what I do as a teacher of ESL to adults. I provide lessons designed to help them improve their English on their own. I show them how to use films, TV shows, music, You Tube, articles, and walks around the city to bolster their language skills. You know, give a person a fish and she eats that day, teach her how to fish and she eats for a lifetime.

Once you start teaching, stay humble. Initially this is easy as you stumble and tumble out of the gates, but once you get the hang of it you might start thinking you're pretty good. Don't. I've never met a good teacher who was arrogant. Being a teacher is a constant process of not only helping others learn, but learning about your craft. You're never going to get it right but if you're good you'll keep trying. You'll have some things that you do on a regular basis for your entire career. But if there's a lot of routine to your teaching you're a routine teacher and that's not good. Bad teachers fall in love with some successful lessons and techniques to the exclusion of trying anything new. You've got to innovate. You've got to learn from colleagues. You've got to go to professional developments. You've got to pay attention to those damn annoying latest educational trends because every so often there'll be a good one or one you can adapt or employ. Getting one simple idea out of a 90 minute professional development that will inform you as a teacher is golden. Take pride in your work but that ego needs to be shut off. Learn from your mistakes. Resist the temptation to brood over misfires and instead learn from them. Also, you're just a teacher, you're nothing special in this world, you're no better than a janitor and no worse than a doctor. Cut the crap about touching the future and making a difference. Sure there's truth to it and yes it is a noble profession but don't let it go to your head. Get over yourself.

Be a good colleague. Share and listen. If you're a veteran you owe it to the new kids on the block to share your -- as they say in 12 step programs -- experience, strength and hope. And if you're a veteran you need to see what the kids are up to. You're an old dog that has to be able to learn new tricks. Beg, borrow and steal from one another. Also share your failures. Getting things off your chest is good for you, plus you can often figure out what went wrong by sharing. Teachers are isolated, alone with their students in a room for long stretches of time. But teaching is also a collaborative process. You've got a bunch of other people in the same building having similar experiences often with the same exact people or at least with the same demographic. Support each other. Teachers are not rivals, they are part of a brotherhood/sisterhood. Lean on one another.

If you want to be a good teacher its really important that you find ways to effectively relieve the stress. Exercise, meditation, yoga, playing an instrument, gardening, social activities, whatever works for you to take your mind off your cares. It's way too easy to bring work home with you. I don't just mean papers to grade, I mean issues and incidents to ruminate over. Your brain can wrestle over what happened today and what to do tomorrow for hours on end. You need to shut that crap off for awhile. You'll better serve Timmy and Tammy if you don't think about them all the damn time. Obsessing over failed lessons and errant students and trials to come are the death knells for good teachers. Give your brain a rest.

When I was teaching middle school I used to say (and others knew what I meant and felt the same way): "I like all my students, even the ones I don't like." No matter where or what you teach you're going to come across some people you just don't like. Period. But when those people are in your classroom you owe them your best. You have to treat them just like you do the teacher's pets (and you'll have some of them). My classes became, in my mind, like a family and in family you get along with everyone. So what if Cousin Jimmy is jerk, he's family. So it is with students. One of the most satisfying experiences in teaching is liking a student who you'd taken an instant dislike to (not that it always happens). Yes, there will be exceptions. I've had a few students who were sociopaths and I could have no more have liked them than I could a rattlesnake but they total less than one percent of all the students I've ever had. The vast majority of your students will be sweethearts. If you find yourself disliking or hating a lot of your students, its time to leave the profession.

Remember to have fun. Teaching should be enjoyable for you and your students. If you're bored or disinterested in a lesson, imagine how your students feel. Create lessons and a classroom environment that you'd enjoy if you were taking the class. When students are really getting into a lesson they're learning. Also they'll like you. Being liked by students is a big plus. No, it's not a personality contest, but if students like you they're going to be more open to what you have to say and more willing to do what you ask. You want to work with students. Yours should never be an adversarial relationship.  It's a cooperative endeavor. Both you and the student are in positions that demand respect. Also remember you're dealing with two different dynamics: you and individuals and you and the class as a whole. The more students who you have on your side, the more likely you've got the whole group. That's key because groups are infinitely harder to manage than individuals.

Think on your feet. Call audibles. If students are getting bored you may need to switch activities sooner than you planned. Alternatively if students are enjoying something you may want to extend what you're doing. Also you'll have to sense that some lessons need to be modified. You'll have to develop an instinct as to whether to deviate from your lesson plan.  It gets back to my earlier point about knowing your audience. Read their faces, look for yawns, look for eyes wandering, note if you're getting a lot or no questions, note if students are puzzled or engaged. Body language will tell you exactly how they feel. Of course if they're expressing puzzlement don't just move on and don't just repeat. You have to find another way to explain or illuminate.

Be a cheerleader. You're on tour students' side, aren't you? You want them to succeed, right? Give them encouragement and praise whenever possible, even if it's not totally sincere. Praise individuals and the class as a whole. Buck up their confidence. In some instances instead of a pat on the back you'll need to give a kick in the arse but your overall strategy, or for that matter your mien, should be that of a pom pom girl, albeit one of towering intellect. When students are struggling a pep talk can be as important as more instruction. Be an ally.

Breath mints. Pop one just before class. No one likes a teacher or a dentist with bad breath. If you had tuna fish for lunch, take two.

Don't be a flake. Show up everyday and show up on time and show up prepared. Of course if you're being ravaged by an intestinal virus stay home. And if things get rough you may need to take the occasional mental health day. But make that very rare. It's your damn job so show up and do it. Good teachers are not slackers. They don't bitch and moan and make excuses, least of all to students. You got a sniffle? So what, come to work. You got a hangover? What the hell were you doing drinking heavily on a school night? Show up. Had a big fight with your mate? Shake it off and come to work. And don't bellyache about your personal life to students, they don't want to know. And for god's sakes don't tell them about your diarrhea, just apologize for having been out. The only personal complaint I've shared with students was a sore throat that limited my speaking and they could have figured that out themselves. Students expect you to be there and lose respect for teachers who saunter in late or are out a lot or leave papers at home. Do your damn job.

A final word on teaching. It's rewarding. You'll feel good about your work. You'll recognize when students have learned. Sometimes they'll even tell you. A lot of them will thank you, in some cases many years after the fact. It can take time to be appreciated but you will be. The appreciation, the human bonds, the classes in which everyone is engaged and everyone is getting it and you're getting through, those students who you turn around, that all makes up for the, let us say, mediocre pay. I'm tempted to close by writing: good luck, but luck has nothing to do with it. Disabuse yourself of that notion. It's never luck, it's you.

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