How To Be A Great School Teacher
I have always been a student advocate. I became a teacher with one goal in mind, namely to find a way to better educate students and prepare them for life after school. One singular purpose that served me well over the years.
I began with a one year stint at a local junior college, followed by two years in high school and the last fifteen years were spent at the middle school level. In that time I saw a handful of excellent teachers and quite a few mediocre ones and being completely honest the mediocre ones always chafed my butt. For a variety of reasons they were unable, or at times unwilling, to do whatever was necessary to provide the best possible education to their students and that was simply unacceptable to me.
When I was younger and first starting out in my teaching career I had very little patience with the mediocre educators that I was working with but as time has marched on I have come to realize that my impatience did nothing to improve the situation. Now I find it is time for a different approach, one that may net better results than my impatience ever did.
It is my hope that this article and others to follow will serve as some sort of guiding light for young teachers who are just starting out or for those who are considering education as a career. I only speak from experience and I am fully aware that there are many more characteristics of a good teacher that may not be mentioned on this page. I will leave those for someone else to write about. These, then, are some of the characteristics that I see as crucial if one is to become a good teacher.
TEACHERS ARE HUMAN
One thing I could never be accused of was being secretive or aloof as a teacher. When I looked back at the teachers who had made a difference in my life I realized that one thing they had in common was that they were human beings in the classroom. They showed emotions, they showed feelings, they opened up their lives so that their students could see them as real and not just some cardboard-cutout of a teacher.
I have always told stories about my life in my classes and I believe it has given me a humanness that kids responded to. This is a fine line, of course, because students are not there to hear your sob stories about divorce or your inability to pay the mortgage. However, finding a way to relate your experiences to their experiences is key, I believe, to breaking the ice and forming an intangible bond with your students. I also believe it fosters respect in the classroom and respect is the key to my next point, that of having good discipline in your room.
LEARNING WITHOUT DISCIPLINE? GOOD LUCK!
For those of you who have never taught imagine if you will walking into a classroom filled with twenty-five students, middle school age, all overflowing with hormones and chomping at the bit to break free and run for the hills. Welcome to teaching! I can promise you this: if you do not have discipline in your classroom learning will suffer and suffer quickly! One of the most important jobs of a teacher is to provide a safe learning environment for your students and learning cannot exist if the inmates are running the prison.
I was schooled by nuns and Catholic priests back in the 50’s and 60’s and I can say without hesitation that those teachers demanded discipline and enforced it with corporal punishment; having said that I completely disagree with that sort of discipline. True, in that environment discipline exists but the idea of learning being enjoyable goes right out the window. I decided there had to be a better way and I discovered it early on. I can tell you in all honesty that in eighteen years of teaching I only had a handful of students who simply did not cotton to me as a teacher and it still bothers me to this day that I failed to reach that handful.
What I have found is that discipline can exist in a classroom of mutual respect. Children have always liked me. Part of it is because I do portray an actual human being in their eyes. Part of it is the fact that I have always gone the extra mile to let them know I care about them. During lunch hours I would walk through the lunch room and joke with them while they ate. During recesses when I could I would go out and play ball with them. On quite a few weekends I would go see them play in their youth leagues or at musical performances. For me teaching was never a 9-5 job; in fact, teaching never seemed to be a job at all but rather a higher calling. If that sounds trite and self-serving then so be it, but for me it is the truth as I know it.
When students see that I truly care about them most of my work in discipline has already been completed. They responded to me because they knew I cared about them. Don’t get me wrong, rarely did a day go by that someone didn’t try to test the limits but the key to good discipline is to draw a line in the sand and make sure everyone understands that the line exists for every single student and there are consequences if they cross it. Consistency is oh so important!
ARE YOU INTERESTING OR ARE YOU DULL?
There were times when I was in school that I would rather watch paint dry than listen to the teacher in front of me. When I had student-teachers training under me I would always try to impress upon them the benefits of working a little bit harder to make your subject come alive.
I have dressed up in Civil War uniforms and I have flown paper airplanes in class. I have walked in with a sword and a whip and I have acted the clown; in other words, I would do anything to make my time with the kids special. Do you have those times when you feel everything you are doing is dull and lifeless? Then find a new way! Each summer I would go to workshops to find new approaches and new ways to present the material I was teaching. Make no mistake about it: this takes work and commitment. I have seen students absolutely dread going to someone’s class and I could only shake my head. Learning should be fun! Learning should be interesting! Learning should be exciting! If it isn’t you are missing the mark as a teacher and I can’t say that any more emphatically. Your job is to instill a love for learning in your students and you are not doing that if they are taking catnaps in your class.
TEACHING IS ALL ABOUT ADJUSTMENTS
I still remember the day I walked into the teacher’s lounge and saw a teacher copying their plan book from the previous year instead of filling out new plans. I asked her what she was doing and she said that nothing much is different from one year to the next so why bother filling out new plans for the new year.
Can you say OH MY GOD? Everything is different from one year to the next! Hell, things are different from one week to the next but certainly from year to year. For one thing it is a new class filled with students with varied learning styles. How can you possibly know that lessons that may have been effective twelve months ago are effective now? I have taken a full week of plans and tossed them out the window on a Tuesday because they just were not working. When the ship is sinking you can either plug the hole or sink with the ship. Plugging the hole takes work; sinking simply takes a willingness to get very wet.
RUNNING OUT OF SPACE AND TIME
I could go on and probably will at a later date. If I had to summarize all of this what would I say? I would say life should be lived with passion, whether it be at play or at work. If teaching is nothing more than a paycheck to any of you then you are missing out on the wondrous nature of teaching. Teachers affect a great many lives and there are few occupations where that is true. Teaching should be a higher calling, one born of passion and sustained by passion. There are days when it seems that nobody appreciates the job you do and that is when you need passion to sustain you.
I still have students from twenty years ago who remain in contact with me. That, my friends, is the true reward of teaching, knowing that you have made an impact in the lives of your students and that they walked out of your classroom better people.
I wish that for all of you teachers out there. The world is filled with people who make excuses for why they cannot succeed in their endeavors. Excuses are just the tools of those who are not willing to go the extra mile to succeed.
Find a way!
2012 Bill Holland (aka billybuc)