Lessons I learnt

Steven Rudolph

After nearly 25 years as an educator, I have undoubtedly learned some things about teaching. And while I surely have much more to learn, there are a number of lessons I’ve been taught by my students that I think would be of value to any educator – especially new ones in their initial days. Had someone explained these things to me earlier on, I’m pretty sure I would be a better teacher today. But I’m not complaining; we each learn at our own pace, in our own ways. And when the time is right, we learn what we need to.

Here are some of the lessons I learnt, which I hope will be of value to you too.

Don’t be too nice
All teachers share one common trait: they want to be loved by their students. Even the most bitter of the bunch crave their students admiration, respect, and appreciation. One fatal mistake that teachers make – especially new ones – is to try too hard to get students to like them – right from day one. They do so by being cheerful, smiling, saying nice things, complimenting students, and most dangerously, being lenient.

Now, I’m not saying don’t be nice. Of course you should be nice. But being too nice invites students to perceive you as being a pushover. They will not respect your authority and will work to undermine you at every step. Once this begins to happen with the first few students, it becomes infectious, spreading to even the most innocuous of kids who will attempt to exercise their miniscule capacity for subversion.

Lay down the law
This is the corollary to “Don’t be too nice”. When you meet a class for the first time, you should be very clear with them about the rules of your classroom. These points can deal with punctuality, behaviour with you and with other students, use of language, as well as consequences for improper behaviour.

Enforce the law
Having laws without enforcement is useless. Few people if any follow laws simply because they are there. Most follow them because they fear the consequences they face if they get caught breaking those laws.

After you lay down the law, students are going to test you. They are going to push the limits in every way they can to see what they can get away with. They will come right up to the line with their toes just touching the line – but not crossing it – just to get a rise out of you. That is natural. While children are growing up, they test their boundaries to get an understanding of the degree to which they can exert their egos.

Watch others teach
Teaching is a strange profession in one sense: that practitioners almost always operate in isolation from their colleagues. When a teacher goes into the classroom and the door shuts, it’s just her and the students. She performs her duties without having the privilege of watching other teachers. This is not true of most other professions, where individuals perform their work in teams and in eyeshot of each other. Whether its engineers, advertising copywriters, doctors, lawyers or chefs, the majority of people have the benefit of learning by watching others.

Feed yourself
There’s a book entitled “If you don’t feed the teachers, they eat the students.” How true that is! Teachers give so much of themselves to their students – they are constantly in output mode the entire day, and even afterwards.

Be sure to nurture yourself by regularly learning about your craft. Read blogs, web pages, and books about teaching concepts and techniques. Attend teacher training workshops or educators events. If you fail to invest time in your craft, you will find your classroom getting stale.

Know thy students
If you want to have any amount of control in your class, you will minimally need to know the name of each student. Knowing the name of each student is the basis of a relationship. It also provides you with a degree of control when children misbehave. However, if you really want to make a connection with your kids, you’re going to have to go much further than just names. You’re going to need to know who they are – their backgrounds, their abilities, their family members, their hobbies, and so on.

Model learning
Years ago, when the apprenticeship model of learning was still the norm, students learned by working closely with an able craftsman – watching his every move. While this model is not so much in vogue today, there are still many young professionals who learn by working with senior colleagues or mentors. They observe them in actual working conditions, and pick up the skills and nuances of that work along the way.

When it comes to the teaching/learning contexts that exist in most schools, there is a paradox: if students are supposed to “learn”, then the person they are learning from should be modelling not “teaching”, but rather “how to learn”. If you think about it, most teachers spend their time spewing out information, however, they spend little time teaching children the process of effective and efficient learning.

Make a difference
If you think back to your own teachers, you will surely recall a few who affected you in a profound way – a way that deeply impacted you, which contributed in a large part to the way you are today. Never forget that you are going to do that for some of your students. As a teacher you have a very powerful influence on your students – more than any other profession that exists. Take that responsibility with great caution – and even greater pride.

The author is Director of Jiva Institute, Faridabad. He can be reached at steve@jiva.com.