(Originally published on gettingsmart.com on August 1, 2013.)
I have learned the best way to improve my teaching practices is to listen to the people who matter the most…the customers, the students, the ones I serve. It seems the last few years students have been more than willing to “burn up” my ears with their opinions. Perhaps they felt the need to correct me when lesson plans lacked interest and engagement, or perhaps they simply sensed the sincerity of my educational inquiries and decided to enlighten a 40-year-old, baldheaded teacher of fifteen years. I’ll assume the latter. Whatever the reason for their eagerness to divulge educational bits of advice is immaterial here. However, the certainty, conviction, and passion behind their musings cannot be denied. So, in keeping with my self-prescribed plan for professional rejuvenation and development, I have compiled a list of the top 10 suggestions for today’s professional educators. Directly from those who matter the most, the students. What has been my question to initiate such mature discussions? I always ask, “If you could walk up to a machine that dispenses great educators at your disposal, what characteristics would you select to create the teacher of your dreams?” Of course, I figured I would get comments reminiscent of Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” music video or maybe even a bunch of teenage girls remarking how they would surely pay attention if Channing Tatum were behind the class lectern. To my surprise, none of that. Instead, I was pleased to continually hear a rapid, machine-gun list of characteristics that should be practiced by all educators. According to the experts, the brilliant students who fill our classrooms, today’s educators should be…
“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” –Marcus Aurelius
This characteristic is definitely a no-brainer. Overwhelmingly, students choose the word “positive” to describe their favorite teachers. As one brilliant young lady said to me recently, “There’s no way in the world a teacher can expect us to be excited about learning when he starts class by saying, ‘All right, I don’t wanna be here either, but we gotta get some stuff done.’” Fifteen years ago when I started teaching, my supervising professor gave me sound advice: “Stay away from negativity, shut your classroom door, and teach your butt off.” With the exception of closing off my classroom, I try my best to adhere to his advice. Likewise, if I ever find myself in a negative environment, I need not foul the air with verbal poison. I can simply vote with my feet and walk away from the pessimism.
#2 A Forward Thinking Professional
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” –Albert Einstein
What does it mean to be a forward thinking professional? According to the customers, educators should not rely on doing the same things they’ve always done. Instead, teachers must always seek to stay connected to current educational trends and classroom practices. This most definitely includes being cognizant of the latest educational sites, apps, and gadgets that could potentially help students reach mastery of the standards through efficient and engaging technology tools. As one student said to me, “It says a whole lot when a teacher says, ‘Put away those darn cell phones and quit tweetering with your friends on FaceVine, or whatever it is you’re using.’” And she continued by adding, “Obviously, it’s not too exciting when the teacher follows that up with, ‘Now get out a pencil and sheet of paper to turn in your one-paragraph journal.’” So, what’s the best way to stay connected to all things awesome in education? For me, Twitter is my starting point. From this powerful, social media giant, I learn of new educational tools, and I am challenged to move forward by reading thought-provoking blogs from fascinating teachers around the globe.
“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.”-Baruch Spinoza
Yep! I know. This is a tough one. How can teachers be fearless when faced with pay cuts, job losses, less classroom time, increased standardized testing, and a new teacher evaluation system? Heck, I’ll be honest. Teaching demands ten times more than it did when I first stepped into the classroom. It’s hard to imagine being twenty-three, fresh out of college, and thrown into a classroom of thirty-five boisterous students. Yes, I did it many years ago, but with all the extra responsibilities, it seems a daunting task. The answer, however, is rooted in the above quotation from Baruch Spinoza. If we can ground ourselves in the hopes that we can be the superhero educators of our dreams, then our fear of dealing with the minutia that zaps our energy and robs us of precious classroom time will easily subside and melt away. Only the product of our hope, and engaged classroom of personalized learning, will remain.
“Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.” –Thomas Merton
I was amazed recently to discover that most students think all teachers do is go to work and argue with students, only to go home and grade papers until collapsing from exhaustion. In essence, many students think teachers have no lives. In fact, students want to see the exact opposite. They want to see teachers leaving “work” at work. They want to see teachers having a blast with their families. They want to see teachers in the community involved in non-work-related activities. This doesn’t mean that you need to go get a tattoo that says “YOLO” or go to a Lil’ Wayne concert, but students continually want teachers to simply live. Maybe students say this so they won’t receive extra homework from overzealous instructors, or maybe their suggestions are more altruistic and they want adults to recapture that kindred spirit of adventurous and excited living that our overloaded brains must have squeezed out.
#5 A Leader and a Follower
“The task of leadership is not to put greatness into people, but to elicit it, for the greatness is there already.”–John Buchan
Quick question: What feels more natural, easier, to you? Leading or following? I guess it depends on the situation, right? Well, surely being the curriculum leader in your classroom feels natural, but how about following? Students continually say that following is just as important as leading. Admittedly, they want their teachers to be confident leaders who understand the direction of the classrooms. However, students often told me that after the standards and learning tasks have been introduced, the best thing teachers can do is get out of the way. Allowing students to “play” and “explore” with the assignments in mind provides them with a more natural way of learning. Students repeatedly informed me that when they have a voice in the direction of the class, when they are allowed to choose how to demonstrate mastery of the standards, they ultimately feel as if the classrooms are theirs and intended solely for their benefit. The end result? More engaged and enthusiastic students learning in an active, not passive, educational environment. Please check back next week for the remaining five suggestions for teacher improvement. In the meantime, I’ll be checking myself next to these five suggestions while trying to determine how much I would be worth if I could be ordered as a teacher.