09 March 2016

Seriously, You Want to be a Teacher, A Veteran Offers Advice Part 2

Regular readers of this blog (both of us) will remember a post from last month in which I dispensed free advice (well worth the asking price) for those either contemplating a career in teaching or having just started one. It was called: So You Want to be a Teacher (what are ya, nuts or something'?) an Old Veteran Offers Advice. Not long after posting it I started to think of more sage advice which I am here offering in part two. I hope it helps.

Establish relationships. In many teaching settings you’re going to want to get to know your charges. If you have students for an entire school year this will not be problem. You’re going to get to know some of them all too well. There is very likely to be a handful who consume an inordinate amount of time at the exclusion of others. You’re going to be familiar with the troublemakers and F students as you struggle to help them do the “complete 180” that is the goal you'll have for so many students. You will also get to know the apple polishing A students who hang around to ask questions or chat. These are generally wonderful young people who are — if nothing else — destined for long term academic success. But that leaves the great masses in the middle. Those students whose names you forget two weeks after the school year end. Assuming you have a student for more than a couple of weeks it is good to get to know a little about her or him. Teaching is about establishing relationships, knowing what a person's strengths and weaknesses are and if they have specific needs. You also need to know whether a given student responds better to a kick in the pants or a pat on the back (these are euphemisms, please be careful about physical contact with students). Also students appreciate it if you can connect with them in ways unrelated to the classroom dynamic as in, "that was a great game last night, wasn't it?" or "how are you doing with the violin?" You needn't, and indeed shouldn't, become pals with your students, but the more familiar you are with them the better you'll be able to help them.

Guess what, you get to grade papers and exams. Deal with it. Some teachers loathe grading with a passion. Some love it. Most of us are in between. It's definitely much harder to love when you've got a stack of 100 essays in front of you. Here are some tips: remember when you assign papers that you'll have to grade them so timing is critical. Don't have papers due two days before you have to turn in semester grades. Also be careful about when you promise to return papers. Tests I would get back the next day, but term papers I'd give myself a week. Don't read every word. The longer you teach, the faster you'll become at grading. Its okay to find shortcuts provided they don't cheat the student out of some valuable feedback. A lot of grading is skimming. It helps to have a rubric (it also helps the student know what is expected). Try not to procrastinate when it comes to grading. You don't need the image of that stack of papers hovering over you, it can create stress. Just get it out of the way.

I've known teachers who had squeaky voices or were physically unimposing or were painfully shy but were effective teachers because they spoke with authority. You need to sound like you know what you're talking about, mean what you say and require respect. It helps to have the right voice for it but its not an absolute. What you say and how you say it is more important than your timbre. For some people it's natural. If it isn't for you, you'll have to work on it. Loud is good but not essential. If you are confident you'll sound fine.

I had the unpleasant experience of working for some real loony tune bosses. One of the principals I served under was a congenital liar and a total nincompoop. I also worked for several other administrators who would have been better suited to cleaning out septic tanks than working in schools. But that was no excuse for my veritable pathological disgust with all administrators. I suffered a form of oppositional defiance more typically seen in my students. The truth is that in retrospect some of my bosses weren’t all bad. Indeed my current bosses are peaches and unfailingly good at their jobs. Anyhoo, don’t be the kind of dick I was. You're likely to work for a few buffoons, don’t let it get to you. Try to establish a good relationship with your supervisor no matter what. For one thing it can be the key to earning tenure. For another these are the people who write letters of recommendations. Or don’t. But also it’s the right thing to do. For your students. Getting you panties in a bunch because of your relationship with higher ups can (though it should’t) effect your teaching. Always always always try to make nice with everyone at the school including the top brass. This does not preclude you from disagreeing with them or advocating for yourself. But for crying out loud pick your battles. Also you’re more likely to win a point if you're already in solid with them.

Different strokes for different classes. Just because you’ve got two or more classes of the exact same subject does not mean that you should present the same lesson the same way to all or both. Ideally you can, but as should be obvious, we don’t live in a perfect world. Classes take on different personalities and have different needs. Some are stronger academically, some are more sociable, some are quiet, some are full of the dull and lifeless and some are full of whirling dervishes. Some understand one concept but not the other. Pay attention to the different needs of each class. You may need to slow down or speed up for a class. It can be a pain in the ass when two or more classes aren’t on the same page but that’s the way it goes, my friend. You’ll have to keep a few notes so that you don’t repeat something with a class or skip something with another. If they're kids they hate it when you screw up like that.

Speaking of mistakes, you’ll make some right in front of the class. You have two choices depending on the nature of the mistake. You can gloss it over or you can make a full confession. If you do the latter don’t go into a prolonged apology and for god’s sakes don’t make excuses. No one cares that your daughter’s piano recital ran long and the cat threw up on your briefcase and you sprained an ankle playing canasta. Try this one, “oops, sorry, this is the wrong paper. Here’s the write one.” Then move on. If you have a typo on a test or misspell a word on the board you can always play it off as intentional. “I was hoping someone would catch that. Now what’s the correct way to spell dog? Good, Aaron, thanks. Just testing you.” Sometimes you just want to avoid looking like an idiot (which has been a lifetime pursuit of mine). You will also be asked questions that you don’t know the answer to. If the question is obviously obscure enough, you can confess to not knowing and either tell students you’ll find out for them or ask them to find out for extra credit. But if it’s something that should be in your wheelhouse you’ll risk looking less than competent with a “dunno.” In this case you want to praise the question and say that as part of their homework they should look that up and you’ll discuss it tomorrow.

If you’re teaching people under the age of 18 you may well have to serve a variety of roles in your position as a classroom teacher. These could include but are not limited to counselor, cop, judge and social worker. Get used to it. You'll have varying degrees of success at each. Some of us are better at meting out discipline and others of us are more comfortable lending an ear to a troubled youngster. Most of this you learn on the fly, there's a lot of trial and error in teaching. There's a lot of trial and error in teaching. There's a lot of trial and error in teaching. Yes, I meant to write it three times because it's so damn true. But returning to my main point you will wear many hats and that they don't all fit is of no consequence. You've got to slap wrists, lend ears, make wise judgements and offer succor and counsel. Comes with the territory.

When writing summary comments on a student paper or giving them oral feedback I always employed PCP. Praise, criticism praise. Okay not always, sometimes I’d get a paper that was brilliant and all I could do was offer hosannahs for it. Other times I’d get something that was plagiarized and it was all I could do not to call the FBI. But typically it's wise to start off with something positive so the student will be better able to take your negative feedback which should be cushioned in the middle and followed by more kind words. Closing with something positive leaves them more likely to feel good about themselves. You want that. Your goal is never to eviscerate a student’s ego. You want them to learn from your comments while neither resenting you nor wanting to perform hari kari.

Know your topic and methodology. You need to know both your subject matter and teaching methodology. It's silly to argue which is more important though it depends on what and where you're teaching. A second grade teacher needs to know methodology a lot more than they need to be an authority on biology or history and for a university professor it's quite the opposite. There's no sense in trying to teach something you know little or nothing about. I've seen plenty of people try it and the results are never good. A US History teacher who doesn't have a rough timeline of the country's history in his or her head and doesn't know Manifest Destiny from the Gilded Age is at a huge disadvantage. Oh you can fake it for awhile, schools and school districts will hand you all manner of curriculum to use including a text books, CD-Roms and worksheets galore but they should all supplement what you already know about your subject. On the other hand you can be the world's leading authority on English literature but that won't count for anything in a high school English class if you don't know how to teach 16 year olds. This is why a good credential program is crucial and why it is even more crucial that you attend workshops, seminars, professional developments and department meetings. You need not only to have learned the basics but you need to be abreast of the latest basics. Teaching is not just imparting knowledge, but doing it in a way that will reach your audience and inspire them to think and to learn more.

Do your paperwork. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s. There can be one helluva lot of bullsh*t forms to fill out and bureaucratic nonsense to do as a teacher but it comes with the territory so make it a priority to get it done. When you leave that form laying on your desk for two weeks you’re likely putting someone else out. Often its a secretary and no one in their right mind should ever do anything to tick off a secretary. Better to spit in the bosses’ face than to piss off a secretary. That paperwork is not going away and its usually simple stuff and sometimes its even important so get used to doing it yesterday.

Don’t be an ass in meetings and don’t duck them. I went through a phase in which I thought I was above going to meetings. When I did go I often acted superior to the process and just made wisecracks. It was arrogant and unattractive and unproductive and alienating. As a teacher you’re part of a team. You spend enough damned time alone with students. Its important to share space with your colleagues. It’s also important that you are part of the process and stay informed about what’s going on. You need those people you work with and they need you. Show up and pay attention and contribute in meaningful ways. It won’t kill you and people will respect and appreciate you. Also when you are a team player people appreciate your witticisms a lot more.

Tell the truth. I don't mean avoid lying (which should be self evident). I mean don't bullsh*t students, don't manipulate facts for an agenda and don't avoid unpleasant truths. As a middle school history teacher I was aware that some of my colleagues used history to propagandize students. You shouldn't have to sell students on the fact that slavery was bad. If you do you're not telling it very well. You're also not there to promote cultures, religions, viewpoints or political agendas. You may introduce all manner of topics but let students decide for themselves. Teach them how to think not what to think. Also don't be afraid of facts, don't sugarcoat, don't deflect. Students respect honesty and forthrightness. Be begrudging in giving your own opinion to people under 18, you're too likely to influence students. Remember the class is about them, not you.

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