04 October 2016

I Offer Still More Advice to Teachers Here in Part 3

This is the third part of  my "advice for teachers" series. I hadn't planned a second let alone a third so who knows, there may yet be a fourth. Here is a link to part one. And here is a link to part two. I hope they help.

Keep them in the room. Some teachers I’ve worked with will not let tardy students or ones who’ve not done their homework enter the classroom until they have written sentences or completed the assignment. This is antithetical to what classroom teaching is all about. Classroom time is precious. If a student has missed ten minutes of instruction, the last thing you want to do is make them miss more. If a student has failed to do an out of class assignment they can make it up outside of class and if they don’t their punishment is twofold: one, they get a lower grade; two, they forfeited a learning opportunity. But in keeping students out of your classroom you are diminishing the importance of your lesson. What you are offering in the classroom is irreplaceable. A student should only be removed from their room if they are disruptive to the learning environment or physically ill (especially if they’re contagious).

Tell them why. Teachers often fashion innovative lessons that challenge and inform students. These lessons employ various modalities reaching a variety of learners. They’re great lessons. But. Often students don’t understand the point of the lesson. They will wonder at the purpose of a particular lesson but are reticent to ask. Go ahead and tell them. In fact, sell them on the idea. If you can’t explain the value of an assignment it’s likely because it has none. But if it is “good for them” tell students how. They will more eagerly plunge into it. Also, students who are mystified as to the importance of a lesson are more likely to complain directly to your supervisor. Justify the assignment to yourself, then to them. Nothing should be done just because it’s fun.

Easy on the handouts. Don’t drown students in paper. For one thing its bad for the environment and for another it can be a lazy way to teach. It’s easy to pile on the worksheets and the reading to give yourself a break. It shouldn’t be a break, or at least not too much of one. Circulate while they’re working to see how students are doing and make yourself available for questions. My teaching philosophy is — whenever possible — offer a variety of teaching methods within one class. I like to — again, when possible — give students a mix of interactive, writing, listening, reading etc. Students don’t mind an occasional handout, many even like them, but most students get bored with a torrent of them. Also it helps to explain the benefits of a particular handout.

Video is okay — in moderation. I have heard too many aging educators (usually ones who are no longer teaching) complain about the use of videos. Several say that “students can watch TV at home.” Yes, well for that matter they can read and write at home too. However if you are showing them part of a movie or TV show or any other type of video presumably it is something that they would not choose to watch at home and even if they did they would be doing so without the benefit of your introducing the relevance of it and clarifying and explaining and giving assignments around it. But by not using video at all you are eliminating an important instructional tool. Of course many teachers have overused video. It’s like some parents do with their children, they plunk them down in front of the boob tube so that they don’t have to deal with them for awhile. Don’t do this as a teacher. There’s has got to be a demonstrable value to whatever you are showing. Use video as needed and be sure that they understand the educational purpose of it (also you can have assignments attached to the showing thus making it self evident).

Rewards & Punishment should be used sparingly if at all. What rewards should students get? Isn’t learning something reward enough? If not isn’t a good grade a nice reward? If they need any thing beyond that I have to assume you’re teaching 2-8 year olds. No one any older should require a reward to do something that benefits them. That being said, rewards are proven to be better in motivating students than punishments, at least among those under 18. Punishments are a necessary evil among the younger set. You have to maintain class discipline and rules need to be followed strictly. Punishments should be sparing and, as has also been established, not draconian. As with the criminal justice system (admittedly a flawed model) first time offenders should be treated lightly and repeat offenders should suffer the full extent of the law, so to speak. Also in most cases punishment can be accompanied by something even more important, counseling. Explain why their being late is bad and explore how they can avoid future instances of tardiness. Explain why their talking out of turn is disruptive and explore ways to avoid it. Be strict but show a human side. And for crying out loud don’t get impressed with how “tough” you are. If you want to feel good about yourself, let that self satisfaction derive from your ability to instruct and inspire, not because of you lay down the law.

Check for understanding. Students don’t always tell you when they don’t understand it, especially if they think “everyone else” does. It may only be two or three students who are confused but that’s two or three too many. Circulate, ask questions, check in and do so especially with students who have had trouble in the past. It’s not enough to just ask for questions, you’ve got to be proactive in making sure students are “getting it.”

Better to over explain than under explain. The biggest problems I’ve had with lessons has resulted from a failure to adequately explain them. Students are confused and often so confused that they don’t even know what questions to ask. To avoid this, make sure that your assignment can be fairly easily explained. If not, it may be too complex. Then prepare your explanation. You know what you want them to do but don’t assume they’ll understand. In many cases you can provide both verbal and written instructions and the latter can be projected via an overhead to save paper.  I’ve had students complain that they already get it and I needn’t go on. That’s a good sign. Way better to give too much than to little.

Show your school some respect. But feel free to complain about higher ups. Don’t undermine your school by bitching to students about it, especially not about staff or other teachers. Students want to feel good about their school and they won’t if you kvetch about it. On the other hand if you want to vent about higher ups, those faceless, nameless people, governments, corporations, bureaucrats who never set foot on campus but are forever making ridiculous decisions to the detriment of the school, have at it. Don’t make it a regular thing because that would get tedious. You’re not directly referencing the school or its employees and instead are directing your ire towards people or institutions that are off site. That’s cool. Students can get an “we’re all in this together" feeling if you assail injustices.

Test results sometimes reflect you. If I give a test and a few students fail while most do well, I have to assume those few students did not study or did not understand. I’ll work with them. But if a lot of students have trouble with a test, it’s on me. Clearly I either made it too difficult or did not prepare them well enough. I’ve heard teachers rail about how dim their students are. That kind of attitude will get you nowhere as a teacher and is a disservice to students. Also if there’s a particular part of the test that a lot of students struggled with be sure to review that and keep it in mind the next time you give that test.

Routine is good but so is the new and unexpected. Students are comforted by having certain routines in class. You start every class with a a particularly warm up or activity, you always do something at the end of class or every Wednesday you do this or every Friday you do that. I have a number of routines that I practice in every single class and students come to expect and enjoy them. It feels good, it feels stable. But you’ve also got to occasionally do something radically different. Students get bored with the same old thing every class ,so shake it up. Within all that routine having a surprise is welcomed. Balance in everything is key.

Don’t just dismiss class. Wish them a great rest of the day or a fun weekend or a nice night. Make it sound sincere because it should be sincere. Start and end classes with positive energy. You want students to feel good when they enter class and when they leave it. In between is nice too.

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