Monday, May 18, 2015

In conversation with a young trainee teacher

Two weeks ago I found myself in deep conversation with a young trainee teacher. I accidentally let it slip that I had been a teacher in the past and suddenly she had heaps of questions to ask. To be honest, I'm always afraid of giving young teachers advice. I'm afraid of being too cynical or too realistic for their ideals.

While she walked away grateful, I walked away thinking I need to think this through more thoroughly lest it happens again. Here are some of her questions and my responses (including after thoughts) -

1. How do you get students to like you?


What I should have said was. . .wrong question. As teachers / educators (as the government likes to say) our aim is not popularity but rather equipping our students to learn, to ask, to think for themselves. So the question might instead be - how do I educate in such a way my students can learn without me?

Either way, your students will learn. They've been learning without being taught since the day they were born. Learning with their eyes, discovering with their hands and making meaning out of what they witness and experience every single day. 

2. How do you act fierce? 

My first response - why do you want to act fierce? Well, she explained, because there are times when you have to be fierce.

Well then, be fierce. Not act fierce. Students are discerning and sensitive human beings. They can immediately tell when a teacher is putting on an act. There's nothing more stumbling for a child than a fake teacher. So if you have to be firm and for good reason, do it as sincerely as you would laugh with them or have fun with them in any lesson.

A word of caution - giving respect precedes being respected. 

Too many of us teachers, walk into a classroom expecting that we ought to be respected simply because we are higher in the hierarchy of who-knows-what. But the reality is, respect that is earned has far more lasting impact than respect that is expected.

3. How do I 'connect' with my students?

She went on to clarify that she was afraid of two extremes. In one case, she might get too friendly with her students, the line between student-teacher gets blurry. On the other end, if she were too distant she might not be able to engage the students where they are at.

This is a very real struggle for many teachers. And I must say that it is difficult but necessary to find a balance between those two ends.

First things first - a teacher is not a friend. He/she might be a professor, a counselor, a disciplinarian or even a parent, but you are not their friend.

It may sound very harsh, but that clarity is so important in the classroom. Once you cross the line into friendship, you're opening a can of worms to their expectations / emotions etc. How betrayed they would feel if you had to scold them one day in front of the rest of the class. In short, a teacher is not a friend.

So how then do teachers make the connection?

Watching amazing teachers in their element over the years, I've found that the best teachers listen. Before entering a classroom, they listen to the atmosphere with their eyes. They listen to the buzzing amongst the students, whether a test had just ended or they were tired from a run. Using these cues they immediately make subtle adjustments to the pace of their own lessons to meet the students where they are. And almost immediately, students are engaged and connected.

4. How do I get student's to like the subject I'm teaching?

Well - do you like it yourself?

The first step to every effective educator is one who is passionate about the subject he / she teaches. If you fall into the trap of having to finish your curriculum, your students might do well in exams, but they might walk out of it hating the subject.

Conversely, if you like the subject you teach, it must mean you like learning about it. And if you do then half the battle is won, because all your non-verbal cues will automatically hint to your students that this subject is fun / useful or whatever the case might be. You don't have to tell them verbally why you love it, all you have to do is be sincere.

People tell me I teach the most boring subjects in the world. You can probably guess what they are.

But I've never once thought that way myself, because the moment I was bored, the battle for engagement would be lost instantly. So instead, I thought about what and why I loved those subjects and created lessons in line with those thoughts. Yes there are seasons for tests and practice papers, but certainly a few (if not most) lessons can be fun and adventurous?


Closing thoughts...

It was difficult being a teacher in Singapore. There are 101 things you are expected to do / to be apart from teaching. I made many mistakes. Befriending my students or being misguided by my emotions at times. 

But I'm grateful that my students have been patient, understanding and even supportive throughout the most difficult seasons. I'm most thankful that despite all the errors I've made, they choose to remember the good that I've tried to bring into the classroom and as a result into their lives.

spot the teacher

I'm not a great teacher, but I have had some of the most amazing students, and that leaves me grateful.


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