31 January 2019

I'm a Teacher (For Four More Weeks) and I Take Pride in My Work, Just Don't Call Me "Great" Plus Some Advice

Disclaimer: the above teacher is not yours truly

My psychiatrist and I got into a long discussion yesterday that went nowhere. Or everywhere. I couldn’t tell which. It stemmed from the fact that I’m retiring in four weeks and I told him that I dread goodbye ceremonies in which my employers and co-workers heap with me praise for being such “a great teacher.” I’m not comfortable with it. I like being thanked for my services or have a student point out something in particular they liked about my class, but having an adjective thrown at me — no matter how laudatory, is useless. What does it mean if you are a “great” teacher? Okay it can mean you’ve got satisfied students, but not only does it not specify anything but it can make you complacent. I need to go out there and teach again tomorrow and I need to prepare and execute the best possible lesson plan that I can, thinking I’m “great” doesn’t help. Realizing I’m capable does. I've had a lot of students say things like "you were a great teacher." But I much prefer praise that begins: "I really liked the way that you...." Or, "I appreciate that you always..."

I have always taken great pride in my efforts as a teacher. I have also derived great satisfaction from the knowledge that I’ve impacted a lot of lives in positive ways through my teaching. This type of understanding can allow one to die a happy person. But as long as I’m still teaching I don’t need or want my ego fed.

Teaching is a humbling experience. You’ve got to perform to the best of your ability day after day. It’s a grind. I’ve loved doing it and found it wonderfully fulfilling. But I don’t need to hear the cheers as I’m doing it.

My philosophy as a teacher is to show up and do my best every damn time. Of course to do one’s best requires not merely effort, but imagination, innovation, professional growth, attention to detail and humor.

Actually maybe on the day I retire people can tell me how “great” I was and I won’t blanch, but I still think I’ll feel a little weird about it. It’s like in AA when you announce it’s your sobriety birthday and people applaud. I hate that. I don’t want applause for staying sober one day at a time. I didn’t do anything but follow the principles of the program.

I’ve gone through the whole “being great” thing. I used to think I was a great soccer player, a great journalist, a great writer. It didn’t help me a wit to think that way, it made me lazy, taking bows rather than trying to achieve actual greatness.

Yesterday when our “time was up” as psychiatrists like to say, I noted that our animated conversation had distracted me from my depression. The doctor wondered aloud if my attitude toward praise was a cause of my depression. This was a clear sign that I’d failed to explain myself. You’d think a teacher would have no problem explaining something. Maybe I’m not so great after all.

I close this with some advice I’m passing on to my current colleagues before I “hang ‘em up” on March 1.

Unsolicited advice from a veteran teacher.

Don’t talk too much. It’s far more important for students to talk, in fact it’s essential that they do. Most lessons lend themselves to student interaction through pair or group work. Young people in particular 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 lessons.

Students want a teacher not a robot. 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 or a ready quip are advised. Don't sit behind a desk, you're not an accountant. Circulate, make eye contact, vary your voice. Don’t drone on in a robotic voice, try dramatic pauses, accents, stage whispers maybe even a bellow.

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. You have to sense that some lessons need to be modified. Know 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. 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 and don’t be afraid to modify on the run.

A little TLC goes a long way. Give students encouragement and praise whenever possible, even if it's not totally sincere. You should be something of a pom pom girl, rooting them on. Assuming you have a student for more than a couple of weeks, it’s 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. When writing summary comments on a student paper or giving them oral feedback I always employ PCP. Praise, criticism praise. Always leave them feeling good about themselves.

Learning is its own reward. What rewards should students get? Isn’t learning reward enough? If not isn’t a good grade or advancement to the next level a nice reward? That being said, rewards are proven to be far better in motivating students than punishments. Punishments should be swift, fair and used minimally and should never be in the form of “making them write.” Writing should be viewed as a rewarding experience, not as a punishment.

Tell them why. Teachers often fashion innovative lessons that challenge and inform students. But often students don’t understand the point of a lesson. 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. Justify the assignment to yourself, then to them. Nothing should be done just because it’s fun.

Would you like it? Create lessons and a classroom environment that you'd enjoy if you were taking the class. In fact, if you’re enjoying teaching a lesson its likely they’re enjoying learning it. Students feed off your enthusiasm and energy. Also they'll like you. Being liked by students is a big plus. 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. 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.

Don’t drown students in paper. For one thing it’s bad for the environment and for another it can be a lazy way to teach. It’s easy to pile on the worksheets and readings to give yourself a break. 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. Remember two things: 1) Variety is the spice of teaching and 2) Moderation in all things teaching.

Video, like all things, 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. By not using video at all you are eliminating an important instructional tool. Of course many teachers overuse video. There’s got to be a demonstrable value to whatever you are showing.

Students are comforted by routines but shake it up. You start every class with a particular 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. Consistency and stability and a certain predictably is comforting. But you’ve also got to shake things up from time to time. Within the boundaries of the everyday activities mix in something different. The totally unexpected can be a refreshing break and in fact can invigorate your classroom. Make yourself and thus students step out of the comfort zone.

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. Whenever “everyone” is struggling its up to you to fix it not bitch about it.

Don’t not look back. A good teacher is reflective. If a lesson goes poorly do not blame the students, look in the mirror. You can’t fix how they react to a lesson but you can fix the lesson itself. Always ask yourself what you could have done differently, challenge yourself to improve. At the same time when a lesson goes well, give yourself a hearty pat on the back and learn from that too.

Have fun Teaching is challenging, at times difficult and occasionally enervating, but it’s also jolly good fun. If you’re not enjoying teaching find a profession that you will like. Look at the bright side, it’ll probably pay more.

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