Advice For A Young Teacher (but also applicable for old ones)

Photo Credit: Kalexanderson via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Kalexanderson via Compfight cc

A former high school student of mine messaged me last week and announced that he probably might be a senior high teacher this coming school year. He asked for my advice on how to connect with students and how to handle unruly behavior. Since I was about to go somewhere at that time, I said I would get back to him but I forgot about it until today when I was reviewing messages that I recently received from other people. So to make it up to him, here’s a whole article’s worth of advice.

Note that this advice is what works for me, my personality and my character. It may not necessarily work for you or for other teachers. But since you chose to ask  me, then I will naturally share what I found most effective in my own experience.

  1. Be yourself. Do not put on a mask. Do not create a teacher persona for the classroom and another one for the outside world. This comes from my own experience as a student. I found that I was able to connect most to teachers who were not afraid to let down their guard, or who didn’t put on masks in the first place. They did not feel the need to project an air of authority all the time, but were willing to ask students their opinions and genuinely listen to and consider them. Students can smell pretentiousness a mile away and are easily turned off by it.
  2. Anchor your lessons on reality. If there is one aspect of teaching where you should expend most of your effort on, it is this. The one question that will always be on your students’ minds is “What does this (whatever the lesson is) have to do with my life?” It was in your mind when you were a student, and it was in mine as well. Share your own experiences whether they are insightful, funny or embarrassing (be yourself, remember?). You can talk about how you’re struggling to pay bills, or that particularly interesting conversation with the taxi driver, or misadventures in your love life (teenagers love this one). If it helps to drive home the lesson and bring it closer to how it will matter in their lives, share it. Your students will appreciate you more for it.
  3. Learn to be funny. Humor is a wonderful way to connect and make your students feel that you are human too — that you enjoy a good laugh as much as they do. “But I’m not a natural joker! It comes out corny when I deliver it,” is the objection of many who come across this advice. Well I have news for you. No one is a natural joker. No one was born a joker. All of us were born crying.

    I was not a “born” joker either. My humorous lines are either copied from others or accidental spur-of-the-moment ideas that are difficult to replicate. But I made a conscious effort to learn how to deliver jokes. There were a couple of classes I taught where the last 5 minutes or so of the class would be my joke time. I delivered jokes that I heard from other people, conscious of the timing and the proper delivery of the punchline. Later on, I learned to be more spontaneous with my humor. I learned to inject unexpected one-liners into an otherwise serious lecture. I don’t always get a laugh, and when that happens I shrug it off and just continue as if nothing happened. Never go into a meltdown just because your students didn’t laugh or didn’t get your joke.
  4. Mingle with your students outside class hours. When I was a teacher, I didn’t stay cooped up in the faculty room. I enjoyed visiting the classrooms during lunch hour. I liked going around the school and mingling with this or that group of kids waiting for their parents or guardians to fetch them. I had no agenda but to just say “hi,” then sit with them and listen to their stories, or tell some of my own if I think I have something interesting to share. I like asking them about slang words developed by their generation and it helps me learn their language and I even use it in my lessons. Young kids always find it funny when an old guy tries to mimic the way they talk. Sometimes, I intentionally misuse the slang and allow them to correct me.
  5. Be authoritative without being authoritarian. When I was a younger teacher, I had the tendency to be hot-headed. I would lose my cool and walk out on classes. I would shout loudly at them when I became irritated. But over time, I noticed that those methods diminished in effectivity the more they were used. The first time I shouted in class, they were all shocked and fell silent. But the more I shouted, the more they became used to it and it wasn’t so effective anymore.

    It was also at that time when I learned from the video “Molder of Dreams” by Guy Doud, that “obnoxious behavior is very often a cry for help.” So I learned to be calmer in my approach. When students started talking at the same time I was, I would immediately stop talking and just look at whoever was talking. Everyone would eventually stare at them as well until they got conscious and stopped talking too. It was a better way that didn’t require me to expend much energy and didn’t make my blood pressure shoot through the roof. For habitual offenders, I talk to them privately outside class and ask if they have deeper problems or issues with me.

    In terms of handling students who think they are right (but actually aren’t) — but whom I want to impart the lesson of looking at the question from a different point of view — I don’t use the “I’m a teacher, you’re a student, so shut up and listen” argument. I try to convince him by using reason or by showing evidence or actual experience why his opinion might not be so valid after all — and I give credence to whatever part of his argument is worth praising as well.

I’ve had many students who have become teachers, and some are even teaching my own kids today, but I am always glad to hear of one more who has decided to go into the profession. Teaching is not just about imparting skills and sharing knowledge. It is sharing yourself and your life. It is planting a seed whose fruit you may not see until many years have passed.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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