Sunday, December 20, 2015

How to teach good

I have seen teachers, good and bad, and I have read books purporting to instruct people how to be more effective in the classroom. I haven't been impressed. I think I run a pretty OK class so I figure it is incumbent on me to give the low-down, the real truth behind how to be a good teacher. Not a great one, mind you -- I have gone on record as saying that a teacher can be taught to be good or better than he is, but greatness is something that is inborn. Not saying I have it, but just that it can't be quantified or taught.

Also, my advice about how to teach good is not the end all and be all of what you have to do to be successful. I can't tell you how to modulate your voice, grade papers, control your body language, sharpen your hearing and peripheral vision, determine a suitable amount of homework or empathize. I can tell you about the actual teaching part. These should no longer be secrets. Maybe they haven't been, but if they were well known, then why aren't they being abided by?

Step one -- make sure what you are teaching matters. That's a huge step and, truth be told, I'm not sure how many math and science teachers contextualize their work in a way that makes it matter. And I'm not talking about the content for a strong honors class who would take notes if you lectured about shoe size. Those students like to learn for the twin reasons of "earning a top grade so as to get into the best college" and "intellectual curiosity." Mostly the first one. I'm talking about working with a class lower than the very top, where students need to be drawn in. Don't expect the material to be self-apparently important or useful. Spell it out. And make sure that they know that you are constantly learning it along with them because it still amazes you and matters. This might mean taking a long hard look at what you teach and challenging yourself to be able to justify what you are doing. I defend what I teach as falling into some broad categories, such as:

a. cultural literacy
b. transferrable knowledge
c. transferrable skills

but I make sure to remind students of the relevance of each during the lessons so that they don't forget that there is a reason to do what we do or read what we read. I can make a student care about Shakespeare by pointing out that the story is universal, or that the lines are well known, or that the exercise of close reading will make for stronger thinking in other contexts. Or some combination. Whichever I chose, I have to be honest and transparent about it. Tell the students that none of this is easy for anyone and there are no shortcuts, but that there is a reward of sorts. If I don't think it is useful, or can't find a reason for them to learn it, they can tell and won't connect. And, yes, in the right relationship, the following suffices: "Because I don't want you going out there and sounding like an idiot -- that would make me look bad."

Step two -- teach the material without regard to buzz words and "best practices." If you can't get up in front of a room, and drive the content delivery by force of your own presence, in the absence of technologies and bells and whistles, leave the classroom. If, and I have said this before, your pedagogy is prioritized higher than your content then something is wrong. A good teacher should be able to walk into a room with a single idea or topic (or even less) and walk out after 45 minutes having had a great class. I am not advocating not prepping, but teachers plan and students ignore (paraphrased from the Yiddish).

Step three -- check to make sure that they are getting it. I don't care if that means looking at their eye contact, asking low level questions to ensure that they heard you, giving homework or quizzes. I care that I can ensure that a student says "yes" when I say "do you understand?" and can be pushed to respond in a salient manner when I follow up with a question about content. Tell them that the next class will cash in on what you are doing today so they should review it so that they can excel tomorrow. Make sure they know that problems on a Tuesday don't magically disappear so Wednesday's material will make sense. Good teaching is about building. Weak foundation? No building. Elicit questions from them so you know what they know, what they need and if they care.

Step four -- if it isn't working, decide why, and react accordingly. Is the content useless? Do the students not understand why the content is useful? Is the delivery not clear? Are the students preoccupied for good reason (life is happening to them, no matter how great your content seems to be)? Are there other variables you didn't consider? Get louder, softer, more passionate, more mysterious, angrier, friendlier or whatever it takes and hope it works. Repeat.

Step five -- realize that any and all methods are just possible resources and what worked yesterday might tank today, or in 5 minutes. Change constantly. Go home tired because you had to be everything to everyone and had to make each student think he or she was the only one in the room and you knew exactly what he wanted and what he was thinking at all times. If you aren't a step ahead, then your are falling behind.

Step six -- realize that success is measured in loads of different ways and on many different scales, all dynamic and variable.

So tell every story, leverage every resource, see any content as either useful or useless all based on what you can do to make it vital. Go home exhausted, crashing from an 8 hour adrenalin high as you walk on a tightrope carrying the futures of a hundred young people. Tomorrow all credit is erased and you have to start all over again.

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