Teaching Tips from the Farside
One of the great losses to western civilization was when Gary Larson stopped writing the Far Side. I use to love reading those cartoons about the bizarre and the unexpected. Perhaps the reason I like them was because I felt that my career as a teacher was like those cartoons. Sometimes, bizarre, sometimes backward, often not what you expect.
Here, I would like to give you some of my “Farside” observations on teaching. I really came upon teaching as a profession through the backdoor. I had not started out with the intention of being a teacher. But now after having taught for 25 years, I can say that it’s been a rewarding experience. Most of my comments apply to secondary education, but you college teachers might find some application. Finally, I did not go out and read the teacher books to give you this information. I’ve read many of those books before. Some of them have some good tips; some of them are rank nonsense. What I’m giving you here are maxims that have guided me, some at the beginning of my teaching career; some later. Take what I give you with skepticism. I’m not giving you the “expert knowledge”; just my own experiences.
You’re in Charge, Even When You’re Not
When you go into the classroom, it’s your classroom; take ownership of it. I’m not talking about being a bully, barking about orders. But I am telling you that someone has to take ownership of the class, someone has to be responsible and that someone has to be you. When you lose control of the class (and it will happen many times) still act like you are in control of the situation.
I had just started teaching for a few months. We were playing a drill game in a junior high class between teams. One boy, I’ll call him Billy, was a real spaz and he was a short spaz. He was trying to stand up and answer the question, but I guess that he caught his foot on his chair and went down to the floor as fast as he had tried to stand up. And because he was so short, it’s as if he disappeared off the radar screen, like he had dropped through a hole in the floor. One moment he was there; the next he was gone.
The class lost it. It was an absolute collapse in classroom decorum. The event was hysterical, (I know….you would have had to be there) but I was a new teacher that had lost control of his classroom. What was I to do? I chose to do nothing. Note it was my choice. I could have gained control; chastised them for their unruly behavior in the class, and moved on, but instead I chose to let them have a good laugh out of it, wait until they got it out of their system, and moved on.
I remember that event and my decision and how that decision guided me later on. No human being has or should have complete control of a person or group of people. My first instinct as a new teacher was to “grab control” when control was lost, like tightening the leash on an animal. That’s what I was taught: “maintain control of the classroom.” My sense of responsibility was paramount. My only way to balance losing control and still maintaining responsibility is if I choose to slacken the reins. As long as no one is being hurt and the agenda of the academic program is not being seriously compromised, then I would, from time to time, have to let go of the reins. I usually didn’t know when that would be so I had to be ready for it.
Give Instructions Regularly and Insist They be Followed
Some people are naturally bossy, but I’m not one of them. After all, “who am I to tell other people what to do”? At first, this was difficult for me to do and much of my instruction giving was more rote and not natural. But I knew enough to know that if you spend your time telling kids to “stop” you’ve got a problem. You have to give them direction; you have to tell them what to do.
The reason why is because you have all these students in front of you, each with his own will. But you have them together. Well, there is no “collective brain” in your classroom. To get things done, there must be a single will and that will has to be yours. Give instructions and be stubborn about them being followed.
Have Few Rules But Enforce the Ones You Have
I only had a few rules in my class. I made them clear at the beginning. This was something else that was uncomfortable to me. In fact, I was tempted not to follow the “pedagogical wisdom of the ages” on this one. “I want to set a different tone in my class,” I thought. “I’ll just sneek them in as we go along.” “It isn’t my style to start barking out orders at the beginning; it gives the wrong impression.” You might have a personality that allows you to get away with this, and if you can do so, congratulations. You’re a rare breed.
I didn’t do any of that; I wrote out my rules and clearly stated them on the first day. No matter how sensitive you are to the “tone” of your classroom, your class needs some hard edges and you have to provide those hard edges as a teacher. Some of those hard edges are the physical environment in your classroom: rows straight, surfaces clean, materials put away where they belong, broken fixtures fixed, desk clean. But there also needs to be some hard edges in tone. Your students, for example, need to know that you have moral and ethical boundaries; it’s a hard edge. You have to balance hard with soft in a classroom. If you are always “rules, rules, rules” you are the taskmaster that drives his students without leading them. But if you are so preoccupied with the “tone”, trying to make students as ease and comfortable, you’re not helping them to develop discipline and persevere even when they don’t feel like doing the right thing.
Momentum is Your Best Friend
I heard leadership guru, John Maxwell say that years ago. I remember in education classes they’re telling me “establish routines early.” I did that although I can’t say that I was interested in mastering it. I was just doing it because that’s what they told you to do. But as I began to teach longer, I began to see how important those routines are.
Many things are accomplished by establishing routines: they help set a tone in your classroom that we're here to work. Second, it allows you to govern rather than rule. In my field of political science, it's sometimes said that there are regimes that are governed and regimes that are ruled. A regime that is “ruled” is one where the ruler is constantly issuing orders and the minions carry them out. There are few policies, so subordinates sit around waiting for an order from the boss. In societies that are “governed” policies are established from the beginning. Workers come in knowing what the policies are and they proceed to learn the policies and carry them out. The task of the leader is to “govern,” to observe and take care that policies are carried out.
But, what does this have to do with momentum? Simply that if you have policies in place and students have learned to follow them, then you can set the pace of the classroom. When students come to class, know what’s expected, get busy doing it, they gain confidence and that will help with momentum.
Once they know your procedures, you can pick up the pace. You don’t waste as much time on preliminaries. You don’t have to issue the same orders every day.
Keep things moving in our classroom. Have good transitions. Move smoothly from one event to the next. A quiz at the beginning of the hour should not have to take the whole class time if you have a set of procedures in place and insist that they be followed at the very beginning.
Momentum will cut down on discipline problems. I use to tell teachers that “momentum will solve 70% of our discipline problems.” Of course, I don’t know what the actual percentage is, but it worked for me. Insisting that students keep up with my pace, following the procedure I laid out, kept them out of trouble. A teacher that has the attitude that “my students don’t have time to get in trouble; we have too much to do” is on his way to greater success in teaching.
You’re Not their Friend; You’re Their Teacher
When I first heard this I didn’t like it. It sounded uncaring and harsh. In fact, it wasn’t until years later that I understood the idea. However, there are several caveats that go with this maxim.
First, never say that in a classroom to a group of students. They don’t have the maturity to receive it in the right way just as I did not for years because I didn’t understand it. Second, you must be friendly, even if you are not their “pal.” Third, many of them will be your friends later. I didn’t think about this when I first started teaching. But, having taught for a while, I’ve had the pleasant experience of having former students contact me after many years to catch up on how I’m doing and to thank me.
My best teachers were not my “pals.” My best ones were notorious geeks that did not fit in with the group. They didn’t try to sound like us, dress like us, and most of them didn’t try to “understand us” (In fact, I’m confident that they didn’t understand us at all). They were teachers that knew their subject, they knew how to teach, and were insistent that we learn the material.
Finally, your students need a good teacher. If you’ve never had a good teacher, that may be hard for you to relate to, but if you have had good teachers, you know exactly what I mean. You should not try to be their parent; it’s inappropriate for one thing, but secondly it’s not your responsibility. You certainly should not try to be “one of the gang.” They have enough peers; they don’t need you to be another one. What they need is a good teacher. Someone that is friendly, but insistent that they work hard and accomplish.
If You Can’t Conquer the Environment, Negotiate It
Classrooms are notorious for being too hot or too cold. Do what you can to improve the environment for your students. If it’s too hot, acknowledge it, tell them what you’re trying to do to change it, tell them that they will have to work to concentrate harder on the task in front of them. This is a part of their education and character training: learning to work in less-than-optimal conditions.
But there may be external conditions outside your control. I taught in California at a time when they were experiencing a drought. When it did rain, I was surprised that the area children would stop what they were doing to watch it, just like we used to watch it snow when we were kids. Our classrooms opened to the outside so when it rained, the kids could hear it and the “distraction meter” went off the scale. I could have berated them constantly about not paying attention, but I learned as a teacher that if you can’t conquer the environment; you negotiate it.
I told them, “I’m going to make a deal with you. I’m going to open all the windows and the door so that you can see and hear the rain. For the hour you can look outside and stare at the rain for a moment, then I want your attention back on what we’re doing." I was surprised that this worked very well. Keep in mind that I was not doing this every day; it was a rare event.
If You Make an Obvious Mistake, Admit It
You are there to teach them responsibility. I’m convinced the best way to do that is to show it rather than tell it. Now, you need to tell them to be responsible so tell them and tell them often. But you need to own up on mistakes that you made. If you made the error publically, then admit it publically. If you have this rule, you will be more careful about making mistakes. Of course, keep in mind: you’re not running a confessional. You don’t need to admit every gaffe, every error. But there will be obvious whoppers that you will commit and everyone knows it; you need to step to the front and own up to it. By doing this appropriately without a lot of fanfare, you will go a long way to teach them how to handle things when you’ve made a mistake.
If Your Student Has a Bad Attitude, Check Your Own
Someone said this to me after about two years of teaching, “If a student has a bad attitude, check your own.” I thought it was just more educational psychobabble. "We are responsible for our attitudes," I thought. But what I found is that sometimes, some of my students were simply reflecting a poor disposition that I had. I had established the context to reflect a bad attitude. I found that when I changed my disposition that, often, their reaction improved. I think it is what the biblical writer was getting at when he said that “a soft answer turneth away wrath.” Once I began to work on my reactions to my students (instead of doing what came naturally), I found that their attitudes were often improved.
And finally, that instruction they give in every teaching school about “not smiling until Christmas” is absurd. Thanksgiving should be long enough.