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One day, while waiting for the lunch bell to dismiss them, a few students gathered around my desk to converse with each other; they had just finished taking their notes. Their conversation turned toward their experiences with different teachers. As they were airing grievances or defending their favorite teachers (I was merely a bystander at this point), an idea struck – why not ask them what qualities they think defines the ideal teacher? I figured something useful could come out of this conversation. I also disclaimed to them that what they said could very well end up in an educational article. And here it is.
Most of what the students said are common sense. However, I still think it bears repeating it; after all, we all know too well that the same advice given from a different person can net a different outcome. Before you read, please keep in mind that I have yet to master all these traits myself; this advice is as much for me as it is for you, dear readers. What follows are the traits for what makes the ideal high school teacher as told by teenagers.
- Know how to teach.
We refer to this as pedagogy in college. There are a myriad of teaching strategies out there, so it’s up to you to figure out what will work best for your particular class. Just know that there is no one-size-fits-all method. In a perfect world, all teachers would be assigned students who learned best from their particular teaching style. In reality, many teachers have little say over whom they are assigned. Therefore, you have to know what works best for your particular students. And you might find yourself having to adapt new strategies with new students over the years.
- Know your subject area.
With today’s licensing demands, there should be no question that you are strong in your subject area. But there might be subtopics you are weak in. Know what these are before you have to teach them. Speaking from experience, it can be embarrassing when you come to the sudden realization that you didn’t understand the lesson as well as you thought you did before teaching it. (Guilty.) If that happens, at least admit that you need to look up more information. Turn it into a teachable moment and show students where to look to find the particular information you need. And the next time you have to teach this lesson, you will be ready.
- Control your anger.
Students know how to push our buttons, and let’s be honest, some of them can act like real jerks. However, you have to do your best to remain professional at all times. That is not to say that you must suppress your anger; instead, you must master it. If you ever feel like you are at the brink of saying something regrettable or that your blood pressure is rising uncontrollably, you should step out of the room for a breather. One might argue that “I can’t possibly leave the kids unsupervised, or I’ll get into serious trouble!!!” To that I say, which is worse? Leaving the kids for a moment to gather your senses, or staying with them and saying or doing something not only offensive but illegal? Additionally, you are modeling to your students how to handle their anger appropriately by giving yourself a timeout. Don’t feel ashamed to explain to your students why you did what you just did.
At some point, hopefully, you are able to toughen your skin and realize that your students’ behaviors are not personal. Sure, it can be downright disrespectful, but their actions say more about them than they do you. It is your job to set the boundaries and enforce them. But be realistic – do not expect your students to act like robots and quietly do as they are told all day, every day. Expect resistance. It does not matter how great a teacher you are, you will be tested at some point. When it does, calmly deal with the student without engaging in an angry tirade. That kind of reaction will gain you more respect than giving into your anger ever will. Later, you might even get to the heart of your problematic student’s issue. Most of the time, there is something else going on with the student that you could not see.
- Stop talking through assignments.
Whenever you give an independent assignment, give the directions clearly and quickly. Then step back and stop talking. Only interrupt when necessary, such as when you have to warn about time remaining or you find a typo that could lead to a misunderstanding. Individual students who have questions will seek you out. Or you can monitor them as you walk by. In the meantime, let the ones who understand the assignment from the get-go work on it in peace.
- Give feedback.
While some students only want to see their grade and leave it at that, some actually crave your feedback. They want to know what they did well and what they can do better. Even if your feedback is in the form of symbols, it is still useful. And if you worry about wasting time giving feedback to students who won’t bother with it, you can hold them accountable. Make them re-do an assignment based on your feedback! (Just make sure that they turn in the original assignment so you can compare the two.)
- Stop showing favoritism.
There is no question that some students are more likeable than others. Perhaps it’s because they’re nice or that they do all their work without complaint, or maybe it’s because that student reminds you of yourself or of a dear friend. It’s human nature to prefer certain people to others. However, it’s your job to make sure you don’t let your favoritism lead to bad teaching practices. Sure, you might totally get why Student X is talking out of turn because hey, you were like that once, too… but if you have not tolerated that behavior from other students, then you cannot tolerate it from Student X.
And for crying out loud, remember that these students are not your bffs. Know how to draw the line between friendly behavior and actually being a friend. And, even if you have to fake it, be pleasant to all your students, especially the ones you dislike. Or, if you prefer, be grumpy – just be grumpy to everyone.
- Stick to your guns.
Be consistent with discipline. If you say it’s a rule, then enforce it. Again I speak from experience here when I tell you that the problem with many of our classroom rules is like the problem with some of our laws – we do not respect them because no one is enforcing them properly. Simply explaining the rules and post them, as well as our list of consequences, is never enough to prevent all misbehaviors. As I stated earlier, it does not matter how great a teacher you are, someone is going to test you. And if you don’t handle it the way you said you would, you will find more students following suit. It’s easier to stick to your guns, too, if you choose rules you are willing to enforce along with consequences that you are willing to enact. (For me, I am most concerned with misbehaviors that interfere with learning.)
Also, be consistent with other things you say. If you give a deadline, stick to it. Do not let students’ complaints that their schedules are just too busy to complete your work deter you, so long as you gave them what you thought was a reasonable amount of time to complete the work. It is better for students to learn now that life sometimes gets hectic and as such, time management skills and knowing how to prioritize are necessary survival tools that they must acquire.
Although this section is about sticking to your guns, keep in mind that I am not discouraging you from being flexible whenever you see a need. For instance, you might find that you do need to change a deadline because you were unable to teach an important lesson in time. Students will then respect you for being steadfast and reasonable at the same time.
- Open yourself to critique.
Invite it, even. Ask students to give you feedback about what they liked and disliked in your classroom. You can ask for feedback about a specific lesson, your overall classroom experience, or both. Give students the option to remain anonymous, though, so that they feel safe when giving their feedback. (Also, don’t feel guilty if you get a silly response and decide to throw it out, either.) Who else can better teach you how to teach them?