Are You Tough Enough to Teach?

Everybody and his pet rabbit wants to become a teacher. Around this time of year, at least three students tell me they want to become teachers. Later in the year, I often discover, more future teachers pop out of the woodwork.

With eyes that seem to look towards a utopia, these students tell me they want to teach. They tell me they want to share their love of Shakespeare. Biochemistry. The finer points of geography. And they want to inspire. They want to, through their gentle lovingness, spark the latent fire of intelligence and humanity in teenagers obsessed with spinners and dabs.

Some of my wannabe teacher students have less than noble intentions. They want summer vacations. They want to lecture from behind a desk.  They don’t know what else to do. These students – and the way they imagine teaching to be—make me laugh.

What I want to ask these future teacher students, but never do, because I don’t want to stomp on their dreams is this:

Are you tough enough to teach?”

That is the question no one asks.

Years ago, I thought that all I needed to be a great teacher was passion and love.

But I was wrong, and someone should have told me:

To be a great teacher, you must be tough.

If you want to be a teacher, ask yourself: Am I tough enough to teach?

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Research Says High Academic Expectations Work (And Your Students Want Them)

Back in high school, Sandra and I would hang out at lunch and swap our homework and our essays. And then we would edit in red ink on them for the fun of it.

The other girls wouldn’t bother us because they were at the mall buying Twizzlers from Bulk Barn, smoking Marlboros and spitting in the woods, or in the wild searching for boys.

Our kind of boys were so good at math they became school tutors. They, like us, stayed at school for lunch. And so, our high school lunches were spent primarily in libraries. There we edited our papers into shiny, beautiful things to hand to our teachers, or in the math rooms crunching numbers that we hoped would turn into a Pride and Prejudice– style love affair.

The numbers never were in our favour.

We may have miscalculated the probability of finding love among the math tutors, but at least we pleased our parents. Both children of immigrants—Sandra’s Chinese, and I’m Polish—we knew the importance of getting good grades. If we got good grades, our parents let us out of the house.

We made fun of our parents’ strictness. Sandra’s mom once locked her into her room to study. Each year, my parents bought me books of the What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know-style— a great “hobby for summer” my parents called these books. And then there was my mother, who made me write paragraphs explaining why I should be allowed to leave to parties and other events—if the paragraphs were good, I could go.

Both Sandra and I graduated at the top our class, won scholarships, and went to the universities of our choice. And I could write killer paragraphs.

Looking back, I’m convinced that we graduated at the top of our class not because we were better or smarter than the others.  But we desperately wanted to be better and smarter. And we wanted to be better and smarter because of our parents.

By expecting and demanding nothing but the best from them, immigrant parents give their children a priceless gift: the gift of high academic expectations.

We as teachers, in loco parentis, have the same power. In our classrooms, we can set expectations of our students. We can expect them all to learn and perform challenging tasks, or we can expect only some of them to succeed at easier tasks.

If you think you could raise your academic expectations, but you don’t know if it’s worth it or necessary, read on.

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Lessons I’ve Learned: 10 Tips for Better Teaching

I wrote this post when I was studying to become a teacher and working part-time at a private school.

Today marks my one year anniversary of teaching at Trinwood Private School, and nearly seven years of tutoring in the GTA.  After seven years of teaching, I’ve learned a bit about how to get my students to succeed. I’ve followed the wisdom of Confucius: “When you see a good person, think of becoming like him. When you see someone not so good, reflect on your own weak points” – I’ve watched teachers of varying levels of effectiveness and through this I’ve learned about myself. What kind of teacher will I be? The answer is always this: I’ll be a better teacher than I was last year.

I still have much to learn, but here’s what I know to remember  in 2013:

TEN TIPS FOR BETTER TEACHING

1.       GO BEYOND THE BOARD

Whiteboards and markers are artifacts of bygone era. Lessons are most effective when they go beyond the board to include Youtube clips, articles, recordings of speeches, and pictures. Demonstrations using your body, the students in the classroom, and everyday objects succeed. Example:  To explain the idea of “hierarchy,” I show a short clip about the caste system in India.

2.       SILENCE LAUGHTER IS GOLDEN

Machiavelli insists that “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” It doesn’t work that way in education. You don’t have to be loved, but it does help if you’re students enjoy coming to class because you’re occasionally funny. Now, I’m no clown or comedian—I’m a teacher—but why would I chuckle to myself in front of the class like some lunatic when I could just make a joke?

3.       NEVER ASK “DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”

This is a loaded question, in the same category as the question “Does my butt look big in this?” No student can give you an honest answer to the understanding question. There are egos at stake; there are inaccurate perceptions of understanding; and sometimes there is plain boredom with the material. Never ask this question. Give students questions to answer instead.

4.       SPEAK METAPHORICALLY

Southern decay is a molding sandwich. The controlling idea of a paragraph is the heart of a paragraph. The connectors we use are the glue that keeps the paragraph together. The introductory paragraph is the sales pitch—you get the idea. After I started using similes and metaphors with my students, I saw an improvement in understanding.

5.       BUY A “BLACK BOOK”

Remember: Tony has internal eye bleeding since karate class yesterday; Amy has an IB entrance exam next week; Maria has a severe allergy to peanuts; Jason’s parents don’t want him watching any violence on TV ; Carl is short-sighted; and you need extra handouts for next week. Unless you’re superhuman, you’ll need a black book to write all that down. And, when you remember things about your students, it pays huge dividends.

6.       KEEP CURRENT

You are a window for your students to the outside world. Students rarely read the newspaper, but they’re interested in current affairs. They want to talk about the hard things. As a rule, I bring in one current event to discuss in my writing classes per two weeks.

7.       TEACH THE TOTALITY

Students are more likely to like class if they know they’ll learn something useful. They often don’t believe your subject (e.g. English) is useful. In this case, you have to teach not just English (which you know is useful) but other facts immediately applicable in their lives.  For example, while teaching writing techniques you can use examples that teach them what you know about addictions. Or, you can teach English via new technology like LiveScribe. You can use sentence examples that are also famous quotes.

8.       BUILD COMMUNITY

Students who feel connected to their teachers and other students in the class are more likely to enjoy learning. They’re no longer free-floating atoms that happen to bounce into your classroom for two hours a week, but a tightly-knit community. Celebrate birthdays, share major events, tell students a bit about yourself (just don’t overdo it), praise students when they deserve it, and make class projects to display on the wall.

9.       SHOW HUMILITY

When do we use “whom” and “who”? Why do we use “that” here and not there? What is the difference between a semi-colon and a dash? These are some of the questions students have asked that stumped me. I’ve been tempted to say “it’s not important” or “you’ll learn it next year.” But I’ve found the best answer to be: “To be honest, I’m not sure. Let me check and I’ll explain it next class.” Then I do it.

10.   GOALS ARE GOLD

A teacher without goals is a bike without wheels. I’ve learned the hard way: If I don’t know where I’m going, I won’t get there with my students. Now I make monthly goals for my classes (e.g. learn parallelism and sentence reduction), and I make weekly lesson plans too. I write this plan for the class on the board each lesson. When they’re written down, I remember the goals I need to accomplish to be successful that day. It works.

There’s much more, but I’ll leave it at that. I’m curious to hear your ideas.

Do you have any tips from your own teaching practice? OR

Do you remember any teachers that did a great job? What made them successful?