Chapter 4: Once the teaching has begun
Congratulations are in order now that you’ve landed that teaching job. Well done! But now the work actually starts. It really bothers me when people say that teachers are only in it for the long vacation or the money (even though teachers are badly underpaid). Being a teacher is one of the hardest jobs in the world. You need to be a mentor, a councillor, a trusted adult, and also someone who prepares students for life. We prepare them for life academically through our lessons, but we also prepare them for life by teaching them about themselves, including how they succeed.
Create a safe learning environment in which your students can succeed
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Now your job isn’t simply to impart facts to these kids. Your job is to provide an opportunity for your students to succeed both inside and outside the classroom. You must create a safe learning environment from the get-go. Students succeed when they take risks. So reward the courage that it takes to speak in front of peers and punish the disruptive behavior that threatens to undermine learning and risk-taking. Students take risks when their teacher provides them with a safe learning environment free from harassment.
What can you do to accomplish this? Here’s the teacher in me: please write down three things that answer the question, “What can you do to make your classroom a safe place, or sanctuary, for learning?” Don’t just think about your answers, but write them down. Writing things down makes everything more real and helps you clarify your ideas.
The only way I know how to answer the question is to think about my own schooling days. To feel safe, I needed to know that my teacher was never going to pick on me or single me out unfairly. The teacher would ensure I was able to learn by removing disruptive students from my vicinity (either by moving them or correcting their behavior) and by giving off an aura that told me that this was a person I could trust. These trustworthy teachers weren’t my friends; they were professional adults who had my back. What other suggestions did you write down for how to create that sanctuary for learning?
Be confident and competent
If you have ever gone to a workshop in which the speaker was hesitant, forgetful of important points, or apologetic, you know how important it is for a speaker to appear confident and competent, even if nervous. Once an audience senses that a speaker is not really in control and not an authority on the subject, that audience is lost and very hard to get back. So how do you keep your audience with you?
• Know your stuff and have the information you are to present accessible (i.e. from a PowerPoint) to avoid mess-ups.
• Dress professionally. You are their teacher, not their friend; don’t dress like them.
• Be firm and direct from day one and don’t waver. If you say that you are going to do something such as assigning a certain punishment for a particular misdeed, then make sure that you always follow through. Otherwise, you will lose students’ trust and respect.
• Show your personality. I’ve mentioned that you need to be firm, but that doesn’t mean you need to be all 1950’s firm. Don’t do the “No smiling for 3 weeks” thing. Smile, laugh, and enjoy yourself, so long as you keep it professional. Kids respond to real people. Don’t be a robot. One way I portray this human element is as follows: on day one, I show an Introduction PowerPoint which overviews the structure and breakdown of the course. But then I end class with a few slides on myself. I include some bits of information such as where I went to school, my family (pictures mostly), what I like to do, etc. Show that you aren’t a robot and they will treat you like a human being.
Reflect, Reflect, Reflect on the good, the bad and the ugly
We are all lifelong learners and have had at least some success in the world of academics to get this far. Well, now you need to learn about yourself, your content, and your delivery. You need to analyze what you did well which encouraged student success. Why were the kids engaged? Did they like the worksheet? Did they enjoy the activity? Was the PowerPoint clear, concise, and full of great pictures? On top of what you did well, you must look at what didn’t go so well. Trust me there will be a lot of poorly-done lessons, activities, entire days, etc. You need to break the day/period down and think about your students’ engagement—or in this case, lack thereof. Why weren’t they engaged? Were the practice questions mundane, too easy or too difficult? Did your amazingly fantastic activity that you spent all night creating fall flat on its face? If so, why? It probably isn’t a total loss, simply a situation that needs some tweaking. Reflect each and every day. This is probably the greatest suggestion I can give you. You can often learn more from your failures than from your successes.
Give them a reason to learn
Let’s go back to that perennially-asked question that we considered back in chapter 1: “When are we ever going to use this?” “Who cares,” as one student put it during my optics lesson. “When will I ever need to calculate the index of refraction?” “Why do we need to learn these things in class?” “When will we ever use it?” My answer: you may not want to become a scientist or mathematician, but we all need to be aware of and appreciate the world around us in order to make sound life choices. One of the most valuable survival skills students can acquire is the ability to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions, based on the evidence in front of them and on their prior knowledge. No one I feel, should be ignorant of the outside world because such people have no choice but to rely completely on others to tell then what to think and when to react. Sometimes, without a strong conviction reached through your own evidence collection and synthesis of information, you will be less likely to choose the most beneficial path. Some everyday examples of issues where students need to be able to evaluate evidence and reach their own conclusions include everything from wildlife preservation and climate change to the importance of not smoking, and the pros and cons of vaccines.
To dramatize the problem of misinformation, I whipped up the following slide in about five minutes and included it, without introduction or prior discussion, in a slide presentation I gave to my students a few years back. Have a look and think about your reaction. It shows how easily one can be taken in by what looks like solid evidence from someone who seems to be an authority. I should also say that this exercise wasn’t meant to make anyone feel foolish; it was meant to be an eye-opener. Just because someone tells you something doesn’t exempt you from thinking about it yourself and asking for credible evidence. Since I was their teacher and teachers are knowledgeable, my students accepted my claim without hesitation and immediately began asking for more information. I remember specifically this girl Aleta was just sitting there with her mouth open.
Another example of the importance of being able to think for oneself is the controversy sparked by Andrew Wakefield’s now notorious paper, originally published in 1998 in the prestigious scientific journal The Lancet and subsequently retracted in February 2010. This article, which claimed a link between autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella, launched a worldwide backlash against childhood vaccinations. Although no follow-up studies have ever shown an association between vaccinations and autism and the Wakefield paper itself was discredited, many parents who heard about it second or third-hand have decided not to vaccinate their children against these serious childhood diseases that used to kill. This brings us back to our original point: you need to provide your students a reason for learning. Ignorance is not bliss. Whether you are teaching science, math, literature, history, or anything else, your students need a general understanding of the world around them and the skills to think independently, seek out evidence, discuss, and come to conclusions that they can defend.
Give your students a break
You are the expert, but this stuff is new to them and there is tons of information to process. Give them time to process what they have heard. If you move on too quickly, they will be overwhelmed. How do you find the right pace? Well, I like to stop every 30 minutes or so and just let them step aside from the world. I allow my students this time to use the bathroom, check their phones, move around, etc. This pause has an added benefit of giving students the chance to take care of these needs during a non-teaching moment. Think about when you want to scratch an itch but someone is trying to tell you something. Even with the best intentions, it can be almost impossible to concentrate fully on what they are saying because that itch is always there, building and building. Students have this itch to check their phones or get out of their seats and move around. Allow them time to scratch that texting or Facebook itch during their downtime so that they will be better able to focus on you when you resume teaching.
Other useful tidbits
• Have fun! You have the best job in the world, so relax and enjoy it.
• Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to your colleagues and ask for advice.
• Sleep, eat well, and spend time with friends and family. It is easy to become overwhelmed and consumed by schoolwork. Find the right balance: allocate time for the things that matter.
• Know your students. Teach the way they need to learn. For instance, don’t lecture to a group of students who have learning difficulties. Instead of being seated in a traditional classroom setting, they need to be up and about all the time.
• Act and dress professionally. As a teacher, you should be dressing as if you were meeting your future in-laws for the first time. If your wardrobe doesn’t pass the in-law test, ask a friend to help you get some new clothes.
• If possible, it’s always beneficial to have something running in the background like a semester-long culminating task, whether in groups or individually. If there is extra time at the end of the day/lesson, no need to panic. Students will all have something constructive to do: they can work on their project. An added benefit is that strong students who finish the regular lesson quickly still have something constructive to do without leaving their peers behind.