Tuesday, February 25, 2014

To Be a Better Teacher

This is something I think about a lot and even discuss with my students sometimes, but I'm always reminded of one of the most simple truths about the teaching profession: in order to teach, we must not forget how to learn. 

I think it is essential, truly, for teachers to always be taking a class of some sort. It doesn't really matter what the class is, but there are some guidelines to adhere to. The class you take should be in something that you: 
a.)  have not yet mastered, b.) puts you outside of your comfort zone, and c.) you cannot claim to fully understand. 

Why? Because in order to teach better, you need to remember what it is like to learn. 

Graduate school quickly slips into the past, and we simply cannot retain (in the way we need to) the experience of taking someone else's class (of being the student) forever, so that is why we have to look for opportunities to be students elsewhere. For me, I take yoga classes twice a week, and I also actively sign up for professional development that is outside of my comfort zone (ESL learners and grant writing, anyone?), but as stated earlier, it really isn't the content that matters. In graduate school, I was made to learn salsa dancing and basketball by a professor who was making a point: remember what it is like to NOT be naturally gifted at something. Because whatever it is you teach, chances are, you have natural ability in that area, and it is too easy to forget, over time, that your students might not. 

For as much as we may have learned about pedagogy and how students learn, and as much as we have the skills of a teacher (the ability to cater to different learning styles, communicate expectations, and hopefully, make learning rewarding and meaningful), these skills, and even past experience, will only get us so far in the classroom.

We cannot leave our empathy for the difficulties that learning entails at the door. We cannot forget that encouragement and praise really does make the difference some days. We cannot forget what it feels like to be trying and not "getting it." 

So I recommend taking a class (or learning from someone that is better than you at something) and having the following experiences constantly: 
  •  Attempt something very seriously. Fail embarrassingly, preferably in front of a group of people.
  • Experience the courage it takes to try again. 
  • Feel DISCOURAGED. Why can't you do this thing that everyone else is doing?  
  • Work on something a long time...experience your teacher's patience. Does the patience of others make dealing with your own frustration any easier? 
  • Be hard on yourself when you can't get it right. 
  • Hear your own negative self-talk. Experience what it is like to have to turn that thing off. 
  • Get something right the first time. Feel the awesome luck of it. 
  • Work really, really hard on something for YEARS. Finally get it right. Experience the sheer joy that accompanies that accomplishment. 
  • Be the one that smiles when you hear "good job" or "you're doing great." Feel proud when your teacher calls you out for something good.
  • Be the one that isn't paying attention and gets called out for it. Hey, we all space out sometimes, and it doesn't always mean we don't care. 
  • Have a bad day and then try to learn something new. How easy is it to leave your bad day behind and focus? 
  • Be really excited about something. How distracting is it towards your ability to learn? 
  • Ask what you can do outside of class. Try to practice on your own. How dedicated are you when the teacher isn't around? 
  • Experience the courage it takes to keep showing up when you know you may not be good. 
You got all that? 

Good. Now you probably know what each of your students may be feeling on any given day walking into your classroom.

So? Be patient, be invested, see the individual and the whole picture of your students, give the benefit of the doubt when needed, push them further when necessary, help them through frustration, disappointment, anxiety, and fear...encourage them, you can't do it enough. Appreciate them. They showed up. As you might find, that alone isn't always so easy...

Here's to always learning. To the effort, the triumph, the failure, to all of it.

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