My friend Bobby will start his first teaching job in about a month. On numerous occasions this summer, we’ve chatted about what I considered my “best practices” for a teacher and I have, below, tried to assemble a bag of tricks for a first-year teacher. These are my observations only – some things may work for some, others probably were successful only because of my particular educational context and my personality. All the same, I offer them as an aide to anyone who is interested.
Let me add a bit of a Jesuit caveat, the tantum quantum: to the extent that this is helpful, make use of it. To the extent that it is not, ignore it. I’m not a guru, just a guy who had to learn!
Category #1: the Pay Attention to Them Division. This list includes all stuff that occurred to me as I sat around after class thinking and praying about whatever wild success or combustible failure had just occurred. A lot of them have to do with how I came to understand the students for whom I worked.
- Contrary to popular stereotypes, teenagers are not shallow. They just don’t know they are deep yet. It’s your responsibility to uncover latent gifts and hidden depths. They’re there.
- Don’t be afraid to ask depth questions. Develop strategies to talk about sensitive issues, but be willing to engage in them. Beyond content, you’re teaching a style of thinking and a way of processing evidence, a way of being human.
- Take the time to read, and comment, on any written work. I think it stinks when a kid writes an essay and gets a check-mark on it. Take a few seconds and write a comment, or ask a question. It’s how you will learn a great deal about them and give an opening for further conversations.
- Remember that the smallest unit in the classroom is not the student. It is the sub-group of students. Watch how they arrange themselves into various cliques. A lot of acting-out behavior isn’t directed toward you, or even reflective of the student, so much as it is an attempt for the student to secure a place in the sub-group. If you find a kid who seems to be taking a particular stand against you, remember that it’s not like it’s “You versus Jaws.” You’re facing the sub-group and, in the limited honor-shame society of high school, much is at stake. Tread carefully.
- As you look upon your classroom and how the students subgroup, keep an eye on the margins and frontiers. It’s easy to want to be the popular teacher and get in with the popular kids. Do not forget the kids on the margins. I messed up a lot of things as a teacher (don’t throw books out of windows, whatever you do). Yet I am proud that, as student senate moderator, I would have in my office at any one time: football and basketball players, the atheists and the devout, the gay kids and techies, the hunters and the performers, the super smart and the struggling.
- A note on teaching boys vs. girls: My great-great Aunt Mary, Sister Margaret Ann, OSU, told me many years ago that boys were easy to teach because they had short memories. Girls, she found, were more difficult because they held grudges. That might be a gender stereotype and I’m sure there are exceptions. If Aunt Mary said it, though, I reckon Sister knows best. I have never taught girls, really, so I can’t speak to them but for various anecdotes. I can attest, though, that I’ve eaten the face off of male students on a Tuesday only to have them come back on Wednesday as though nothing had ever happened.
- Go to sporting events, cultural events, and clubs. If you take an interest in them, they’re more apt to be interested in what you’re teaching.
- These kids live a great deal of their lives behind computer screens. Do whatever you can to get them to engage with you, or one another, in a healthy way. Remember, you don’t need to be relevant to be respected. If they respect you because you show them respect, you’ll be relevant.
Category #2: the Know Yourself, Be Yourself Division. True, nobody know you like you know you. But you can always know yourself better. And the better your know yourself, the less you’ll be inclined to foist your foibles onto your students (and fellow teachers).
- Respect your students. They are human, after all, even if they don’t always act or smell like it.
- You can laugh with them. To be truthful, they can be brutally funny. Do not, however, scapegoat a student or fall prey to a mob mentality.
- Don’t abuse your power over them. You are modeling what it means to be an adult. Instead of pandering to them, help elevate them.
- Be yourself. Students have a 6th sense for detecting silliness. You don’t need to be relevant to be liked. You need to be yourself, your adult self, and give them an example of the type of adult they can aspire to be. If you’re joyful and excited about your material, it’ll rub off eventually.
- If you chaperone, don’t be a moron and drink before the event. As adults, we don’t think it’s cool for students to show up drunk at events. It’s even less cool, and downright pathetic, for adults to show up to high school dances having had a few drinks. Wait until after the dance to have a cocktail. I loved going out for drinks after dances – we usually debriefed the event (and made fun of the ways students danced or dressed).
- For God’s sake, don’t ever let students see you texting in school. (For that matter, if you won’t let your students do it, don’t do it yourself. They hate hypocrisy.)
- Relatedly, observe the school’s social media policy. You should not be their Twitter followers or Facebook friends.
- Do not make them the center of your life because you are not the center of their lives. They are vitally important to you (it is your job, after all) but you have to remember who is at the heart of your life. I prayed before bed each night so that I always fell asleep with the One who was the center of my life. I’d suggest such a practice to anyone: who is at the heart of your heart?
- I see teaching as an act of hospitality. Your work these years in preparing yourself have furnished you with a deep cupboard of resources. Each day, as you prepare, you are setting the table for your students. As you vary the table-scape and change the menu, you’re always serving yourself. Many students are picky eaters to start, so resign yourself to serving chicken nuggets and fries at first. With grace and patience, you’ll have them eating sushi, filet, and drinking the fine wines of your discipline by the end of the semester. A semester, or a year, is a long banquet. Take your time and savor it.
Category #3: the Technical Teacher Tricks Division. These are the things I learned through trial and error that you can just steal from me (I stole some of them myself) and put into your own toolbox.
- When you give a quiz or a test, use a variety of colored papers. Cheat sheets are usually written on white paper.
- If you put “Test Form A” on green paper and “Test Form B” on blue paper, it could be the exact same test but the students will think you’re particularly ambitious and that you’ve created two different tests.
- If you give a Scantron test, take it ahead of time! Make sure the questions are clear. There’s nothing worse than having to redress questions in the midst of an exam.
- Their test time is not your computer time. If you turn your back on them, they will cheat. This isn’t overly pessimistic, it’s simply a recognition of the reality of original sin in the world. As a wise Jesuit teacher once quipped, “See nothing, but observe everything.” Be alert and vigilant!
- Know the extended testing policy of your school. (I’ll be honest: I think “extended time” can be totally abused. Our policy was for students to get “time-and-one-half.” Thus I wrote my tests with the idea that it should take them 30 minutes to complete. Since our classes were in 45-minute blocks, I treated all students equally: everyone was given extended time. I’m egalitarian like that. Besides, it prevents students from leaving the class after having seen the test, finding answers, and returning to it.)
- Kids cheat. Don’t take it personally.
- Craft assignments to help them discover. Stretching them is a good thing, especially if you encourage them and help build their confidence. This is a generation often afraid of being wrong. Embolden them to ask the right questions, even if they get it wrong sometimes.
- If you are a stickler about deadlines, be sure you have deadlines for turning work back to the students. I think I was pretty good most of my testing: if I gave a test on Thursday, they’d have their grades posted online before 10:00 that night and I’d go over the test the next day (provided all students had taken the test).
- Students lose homework. They don’t lose old tests. If you recycle tests, be prepared for them to cheat.
- And: Kids cheat. Don’t take it personally.
- Transparency is your best friend. If your school uses an online grade book parents can access, update it frequently. If there are any problems with students, let the parents know immediately. Younger students (frosh and sophs) probably need ongoing assessment and, therefore, lots of grades. When someone contests a grade, you want to have a paper trail to justify the grade earned.
- Don’t yell. It adds negative energy to the environment and it’s a sign you’ve lost control. You’re an adult. They don’t know how to use deodorant well, most can’t vote, most can’t take a bullet for their country, and none has a high school diploma. Why let them get the upper hand?
- We all know what it is like to have to work when we’re not feeling well. Remember, too, that kids can feel tired and run-down. Give them the benefit of the doubt – if a kid is looking drowsy or unwell, lay off. Many students sleep because their teachers are horrendously boring. Some students doze off because they simply don’t feel well.
- That said, keep their context in mind. Many of them go to bed late, get up early, eat less-than-ideal diets, take multiple classes, and try to balance sports/clubs/family/social life. Their bodies are growing and changing: puberty is hardly ever a pleasure stroll. They experience stress from multiple sources. Just be mindful of this when considering why a student is moody or irritable or not performing well.
- If you are in a Catholic school with a dress code, start class with prayer. Make them stand at their desks. As you pray together, do a quick scan up and down the rows to see that they are in dress code. It’ll save you time later.
- I know it breaks some cardinal rule of education, but my greatest ally in teaching was sarcasm. Mind you, I taught all boys. Further, my personality oozes sarcasm and a healthy cynicism which they found amusing.
- Time and Organization:
- It’s always better to over-prepare than to under-prepare. IF you should find yourself with 3-5 minutes at the end of class, the notion “silent study” or “talk quietly to your neighbor” will soon be savaged. Instead, keep a quarter in your desk drawer. Make the students stand up and play “Heads or Tails.” Rules: You flip the coin. Students stand on their hands on their head if they think it’ll be a ‘head’ and on their backsides if they think it will be a ‘tail.’ Those who guess incorrectly have to sit down. I don’t know why they find this entertaining, but they do and you can get through 2-3 games at the end of a class should you need to do it.
- In a similar vein, you can ask each of them to take out a hardback book (like the algebra text they schlep around). Have them open it to the mid-point and then, like dominos going up and down the rows, to slam the book shut. It takes teamwork, concentration, and practice to get it down to a neat rhythm. When you have guests in your classroom, they like to demonstrate their prowess at this.
- If you provide a handout, have the machine three-hole punch it. It helps keep them organized.
- Speaking of organization, have the homework written in the same place each day. Students like structure.
- Try not to sit during class. First, by standing you’re burning calories. Second, by standing, you assert yourself. Dispel those images of the hip teacher who sits cross-legged on the desk and “raps” with the students.
- The size of a student’s bladder is inversely proportional to the latitude you give in allowing use of the restroom during class. If you are pretty generous, their bladders will shrink to the size of walnuts. Indeed, you’ll find a certain group of students will achieve a level of regularity in your class by which you could set your watch. Let me tell you: it’s not because of Metamucil. I’d let students out to use the bathroom once per semester and then, after that, marked them late to class. After weighing the option, if they decided they really needed to use the facilities, I took it as a sign that they were sincere and generally didn’t mark them late. This practice wholly diminished the interruptive requests for them to go walk-about.
- Technology does not a teacher make. Fads and gadgets cannot supplant a good teacher. Technology is a tool, not a replacement.
Category #4: the Love Them Division.
- Love them. Long after they have left your classroom, years after they have forgotten the content of your course, they will remember you. You are, whether you like it or not, assuming a role in their life’s story. Will you contribute a chapter or a footnote? Will you allow yourself to be a major character or will you play but a supporting role? Be who you are, be your authentic self, and allow them to take of you what they need.
I know this is by no means an exhaustive list, I really only mean it to help in the germination of your own teaching style. If what has been suggested is helpful, great! If it doesn’t help, that’s okay: find what works. Like cooking, teaching is an art. Give your whole heart to it and though each day’s lesson may not turn out as you expected or hoped, know that you’re giving it your best and that your students will be fed.
Cover image by Flickr user tim ellis can be found here.