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This handbook is a compilation of convictions and bits of advice about teaching, all drawn from my 30+ years of experience as a teacher and school administrator. I have drawn it up to help teachers, and especially beginning teachers, to do what all professionals need to do from time to time—namely, reflect more deeply about their professional responsibilities and learn from the experience of others.
The handbook does not pretend to be exhaustive or definitive. It touches briefly on some important matters in teaching: principles and ideals; class leadership and direction; disciplinary matters; homework, tests, and grading; and relations with parents. Each of these sections, and many others left undiscussed, could have been expanded with countless other topics, details, and experiences.
It is my hope that this handbook can be put to use most effectively by groups of teachers meeting in discussion sessions (for instance, in faculty workshops), where experienced instructors can use the notes as a framework for expressing their own opinions, experiences, and reservations or qualifications on each point under discussion. Newer teachers can thus learn a lot, not only from the notes here but also from what more experienced professionals have to say about them. A discussion like this ought to generate the sort of anecdotes, concrete experiences, and pointed bits of advice that younger teachers find so helpful and encouraging at the start of their careers.
Teaching: Professional Ideals & Principles
- Teaching is a vocation, and it is an art. This means several things:
- Not everyone is suited to it; but those who are really called to it as a life's work find a sense of mission and purpose in life—and profound happiness. Part of the task of a beginning teacher is to find out whether he or she has this vocation.
- Large parts of the work are ultimately mysterious, for the real "matter" of teaching is spiritual: the mind, will, and imagination of young people. A teacher must, therefore, have respect for things spiritual, be prepared to cope with the unexpected, and enjoy leading groups of students without ever really "controlling" them.
- Teaching requires much practice, skilled technique, and constant imposition of order and planning—for young people badly need order and rather resist it. But within this ordered, rational framework, a teacher exercises imagination, spontaneity, and something like a wonder at life that he shares with his students. A teacher's work, like that of any other art, is therefore a harmonious balance between reason and imagination, planning and spontaneity, reflection and purposeful action.
- Teaching is, therefore, frequently tiring and even exhausting work. People with the vocation sometimes tire out, but they never burn out. On the contrary, they manage to maintain youthful energy, enthusiasm, humor, and spirituality all their lives. Though they acquire the strengths and outlook of mature adulthood, they never lose the hearts they had as children.
- It's important for any beginning teacher to realize that his students will eventually forget most of the "material" imparted in class. Students who earn an "A" on a test given on Friday will get a "B" or worse on the same test given, as a surprise, the following Monday. (If you doubt this, try it yourself.) Though information is the basic material that each teacher deals with, it is not what his job is all about. The imparting of information and even certain skills is not an end but rather a means.
- The teacher's fundamental mission is to support the students' parents in their task of raising their children to become competent, responsible, considerate men and women who are committed to live by principles of integrity all their lives. This long-term vision of the students' welfare and happiness in life—how they will turn out as adults—is the driving force of every good teacher and coach. An instructor who loses this long-term perspective (ideal, really), who gets bogged down in day-to-day nitty-gritty, can grow to feel overwhelmed by drudgery and discouragement.
- To look at it another way, the task of a teacher is to lead his young people—by example, directed practice, and word (in that order)—to grow in personal strength of character, called "virtues." These may be briefly described as follows:
- sound judgment—ability to make the important distinctions in life: truth from falsehood, right from wrong, fact from opinion, guesswork from certainty, sloppiness from professionalism, heroes from "celebrities," nobility from squalid vulgarity, and so on. Children are led to hold a respect for learning, if not a love for it, and for people of intellectual and artistic accomplishment.
- responsibility—ability to live with the consequences, however unpleasant, of our free decisions; the ability to carry out one's duty to others whether we feel like it or not. Responsibility is also an active sense of how our obligations in life derive from the existence of others' rights and sensibilities.
- fortitude—perseverance, toughness, "guts." This is the acquired ability (sometimes aided by temperament) to either solve problems or to live with them, but not to seek escape. It is the power to withstand difficulties, hardships, setbacks, tedium, disappointments, even physical pain.
- self-discipline—ability to say "no" to oneself, to delay or forego gratification, for the sake of some higher good. It is the ability to enjoy the good and great delights of life in moderation. It is the sort of self-restraint, healthy self-respect, and good manners that people generally refer to as "class."
- moral uprightness—a habitual considerateness, a sensitivity toward the dignity, rights, and feelings of everyone, without exception. It is, in John Henry Newman's expression, to "have eyes for the needs of those around us." It is compassionate understanding, the essence of charity.
- Each of the above powers can and must be imparted to our students; and each is learned by the students in the course of their work, fulfilling their responsibilities as students, and in their dealings with everyone in school. No matter what the subject or course of studies—whether mathematics, science, languages, literature, athletics—each class forms a framework within which young people are led to become competent, responsible, considerate adults. So, it is worth each teacher's reflection from time to time: how can my classwork with my students lead them to grow into attitudes and habits of responsible adulthood, long after they've forgotten the "material"?
- Very important: All of the above depends on the students' ongoing respect for their teacher, and respect always derives from some perception of strength. Young people sense, and admire, the above-mentioned strengths in their teachers, even beginning teachers. And young students, like all the rest of us, tend to imitate people whom they admire. Beginning teachers tend to worry too much about being liked by their students; but what they should care more about, and constantly work toward, is that their students respect them. If you strive to live as a person of judgment, responsibility, perseverance, self-mastery, and refined thoughtfulness, your students will respect you—and even come to admire you deeply. Somehow, mysteriously, they sense when you are firm with them for their own long-term benefit—that your obvious hard work is for their welfare, not your own—and they therefore let you lead them. But when they sense that a teacher cares too much for what they think of him, when he's working to win their approval for his own sake, then their attention wanders. Their attitude toward such a teacher becomes a mixture of amusement, indifference, and eventually contempt.
- This respect has to be mutual. A teacher needs to show that he respects his students' dignity, rights, and feelings—and that he sees them as men-in-the-making. One concrete way this is shown is in one's manners: Do not refer to students by their last names alone; use their first name (or nickname) or call them "Mr.____." This is a small but important detail. One of the marks of real professionalism is courtesy toward everyone. (More such details later in this paper.)
- Another indispensable element of teaching is humor. Young people naturally have high spirits, and they are drawn to adults who have enough self-confidence to enjoy a good laugh with them from time to time. An occasional good laugh gives unity to the class, and it reinforces an important idea in the young people's minds: that they and their teacher are on the same side, that they are not adversaries.
- It's also important for a teacher to try to understand how each of his students is different, and learns differently. Some students learn readily by hearing; these seldom take notes in class, but they remember a great deal. Others are visual, and they need to see what is being taught; they need a lot of whiteboard explanation, sketches, note-taking or copying. Some students work in spurts, and they need to be pushed/encouraged during slump times. Some are sensitive to weather changes, becoming sluggish and irritable on low-pressure days; these students are often sleepy for an hour or two after eating. Some may have physical or undiagnosed medical problems (such as progressively poor eyesight) and a teacher needs to be alert to these possibilities. All of these variations, and knowledge of what to do about them, come with experience in teaching. But a beginner should realize that his class has many different components, and that some problems with students lie outside his job-performance. As soon as he grows in confidence and experience, he can deal with these disparate matters competently.
- One of the main advantages of a small school is the ability to get to know students well and to see their personalities develop over time. A good teacher will think deeply about each of his students, trying to see what strengths, talents, possibilities lie within each. He can then tell each student which personal strengths should be developed, leading perhaps to an excellent career. Typically most of us are among the last to recognize that we have a certain gift; because it comes so easily to us, we tend to undervalue it, and fail to notice that we can do something easily that other people find vexing. This is a valuable insight to young people, very encouraging to them, especially during the uncertainties of adolescence; teenagers typically tend to exaggerate and worry about their faults, both real and imagined.
- Related to this small-school advantage is the possibility of appreciation. In a small setting, a teacher can more readily notice a student's conscientious efforts, irrespective of grades earned. A teacher can note when a student is really trying to do his best, or is trying harder than before. A good teacher will go out of his way to express appreciation and encouragement to a student for his earnest best efforts. After all, the real "results" in life lie within the young person's character, not just in the columns of his report card. Indeed, the world is filled with highly successful people who earned so-so grades in school but who worked conscientiously to attain them.
- A good teacher will not give the impression to students that the "material" of his course is the last word in our understanding of the subject. He will explain, or at least mention from time to time, the unanswered questions, the uncharted frontiers, and as-yet-unsolved problems and challenges that remain to be tackled by people of their generation. This extends as well to other areas of intellectual work. That is, a teacher should occasionally refer his discipline to other fields—showing the interconnectedness of history, literature, religion, science, mathematics, and so on. In short, a teacher should be—and should show himself to be—a well-informed, cultured, engaged citizen.
- Related to this, a teacher should be well read in his field. He should have ready a list of works to recommend to his best students, these young people who can go on to higher level work or to more extensive understanding of the discipline. Staying up in one's field is one of the hallmarks of professionalism.
- One piece of advice for beginning teachers: Don't judge your suitability for teaching by your performance the first year. This initial dip into teaching is usually tough and bewildering for everyone, no matter now talented. (Non-teachers nearly always underestimate how complex and difficult teaching really is.) Try the work for three years, and then make a career decision. If you decide to stay with it, plan to arrive at a final decision after the seventh year. By then you should know whether you are willing and able to make the sacrifices of this vocation—that is, whether the intangible satisfactions of this calling are so great as to outweigh the financial and other drawbacks. After seven years, a teacher should know whether he is doing what he was put on Earth to do. And, if he doesn't feel this level of calling, he ought to pursue some other line of work.
Class Leadership & Direction
- Directing a harmoniously unified class is a core duty of a teacher. He is obliged to set and maintain standards of order, civility, concerted effort. Despite a school's emphasis on individual attention, most teaching is necessarily done in groups. So a teacher must be able to manage and direct a group effectively. (If, after three years, he finds he cannot do this, then he ought to consider a career change.)
- Young people, like the rest of humankind, need to know what is expected of them in any collaborative effort. Therefore, a teacher needs to spell out (preferably in writing) what will be the rules for comportment in his class. This is aside from the school's general rules, which pertain to the school community as a whole. These rules, fairly enforced, form a real framework for building character strengths. Some such rules would be the following:
- No talking out of turn or otherwise acting in such a way as to infringe on the rights of others to be heard—including the teacher's right to have his students' undivided attention. If you have something to contribute to the class, raise your hand.
- No mishandling materials: writing on desk-tops, throwing missiles, littering, eating or drinking in classroom or halls.
- No lying, period. If you name appears on a work, it must indeed be your work. That is, do not cheat.
- I come prepared for class and I expect you to do the same. So, come to class with book(s), notebook, homework, assignment pad, and writing materials.
- Homework and tests are your professional work. They should be clear, reasonably neat, and submitted on time. They should give evidence of careful thought. There should be no sloppy misspellings or faulty English usage; credit will be taken off for substandard English, just as in normal professional life. Also, do not rip out papers from notebook, and make corrections carefully.
- I reserve the right to read aloud (anonymously), exactly as written, any paper submitted in this class. You can save yourself possible embarrassment by reading your work over before submitting it, exactly as adults do in daily professional life.
- I also reserve the right to give unannounced quizzes in class based on your homework assignments.
- I render a professional service to your parents and I am obligated to keep them informed about the quality of your work. I will call them from time to time, especially if I think your job performance falls short of their expectations.
- If, for some reason, you could not complete a homework assignment, you should submit a note explaining two things: first, why you could not complete it on time; and secondly, when you promise to turn it in. In other words, when homework is being collected, you must turn in either a homework or this note. Later, when you make up the late work, please mark it "Late" at the top.
- One of the distinctions you must learn as you grow up is that between "indoors" and "outdoors." (Young children scarcely know the difference.) "Indoors" implies a greater level of civility, restrained behavior, and appropriate dress. Therefore, in class: no throwing anything, no wearing of caps or windbreakers, no jostling or wrestling, no loose or missing neckties. I don't expect perfection with this general rule, but I expect you to try.
[Note: Later sections in this paper suggest other guidelines for class.]
- More will be said later on matters of discipline. What counts here is the general notion that you, as responsible leader of the class, make clear the limits of people's behavior—the lines at which the students' actions begin to infringe upon the rights of others: you, their parents, and other students in the class. You will not let them cross over those lines without correction and, if necessary, consequent punishment. The basic idea here is justice, what is fair. Boys have a high tolerance for rule-giving and even punishment as long as they perceive that they are being treated fairly.
- You must work from a plan. You need a plan for the year, the semester, the month, and the upcoming week. You may vary from these as necessary, but you must clearly set out to control what happens in the time ahead. The students should be told clearly what the plan for the year is: "This is what we will have studied and done by Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break, final exams." Then, from time to time during the year, refer back to the plan and show how far we have come and what we have left to accomplish. (Note the we.) This helps your students get a sense of real progress, which is one of the best inducements to sustained effort.
- One common shortcoming of new teachers is the nature of their class planning. Since they have recently emerged from a university setting, where most teaching is done in abstract lecture form, they tend to overplan what they will lecture about in class. They see the upcoming class as a 45-minute span within which they do 98+% of the talking, straining to "cover the material." They do little or no planning about what their students should do in that time. A more experienced teacher will, of course, plan what he wants to explain; but he will spent most time planning what he wants his students to do—work at desk or whiteboards, exercises in class, debate or competition, questions to elicit discussion or controversy, and the like. The younger the students, the more active they must be in class and the less ability they have for just sitting and listening to the teacher talk. This tendency to lecture is the biggest single problem that a beginning teacher needs to overcome.
- Here's another way of looking at this preparation question, an old axiom in teaching:
—A first-year teacher teaches more than he knows; he spends hours studying, writing out notes for the upcoming classes.
—A more experienced teacher teaches just what he knows; he spends more time preparing questions to ask in class, activities for his students, and the like.
—A real pro teaches what his students need to know in order to move ahead.
- Beginning teachers tend to overestimate the importance of their material—forgetting that their students will fail to remember most of it anyway. One important attitude for all teachers to bear in mind: interest and enthusiasm are more important than encyclopedic detail. A teacher needs to communicate his interest and enthusiasm for his field, even at the expense of much detail. Some detail is necessary, obviously, especially in the upper grades. But no textbook or set of handouts can substitute for a teacher's enthusiastic explanations. If a student acquires an interest in history, for example—or science, or Russian literature, or any intellectual discipline—he probably will go on later to study it in depth. That is, the detail can come later. But too much detail at the early stages of education can stifle or snuff out young people's interest altogether.
- It's a wise practice at the beginning of the school year to seat students alphabetically, at least for the first half of the year or the first marking period. This accomplishes several things. It lets you learn their names more quickly. It establishes your authority more clearly at the outset. And it generally serves to separate pals whose close company leads to distracting conversations and fooling around. Out of consideration for those individuals whose names begin with A or B, you might seat the students in reverse alphabetical order.
- The most ineffective posture for teaching is to sit at a desk facing one's students. A teacher is most effective when standing, moving around the front of the room, or at least standing at a lectern or rostrum on his desk. When he sits, he should do so on the edge of his desk. The idea here is that the teacher is in motion or prepared to go into motion quickly and easily. If you sit at a desk for any length of time, you become a "talking head" and your students' attention wanders elsewhere.
- Related to this posture question is the importance of writing frequently on the board. Younger students can learn to take notes simply by copying what the teacher writes at the front of the room. When you come to a term or phrase or important date, always jot it on the board. Remember, too, that many students are visual learners; they recall what they see, but have trouble with merely auditory information. If you write matters down, you reach both these groups; if you don't, you reach only the hearers.
- Form a habit also of setting aside one corner of the board (say, upper right-hand side) for writing out homework assignments, and do this long before the end of class. You can note who is copying this information and how—in assignment notebook, on scraps of paper, on odd pages of class notebooks, etc. Where the homework is noted may be related to whether, and how well, it is completed. Whatever you do, refrain from merely reading the assignment aloud; there's too much possibility for misunderstanding, and even for your neglecting to mention the homework assignment at all.
- How do you keep class notes, papers, and the like together? One efficient device is the multiple-pocket folder; another is a 3-ring binder with pockets inserted. One pocket is for notes, another for announcements and class lists, and other pockets hold collected tests/quizzes and home assignments. Carrying these papers around in one binder is an incentive to correct and grade them with reasonable dispatch and return them to the students.
- One item in this binder should be slips of paper with each student's name. These can be shuffled and called up at random to ask questions of the class, select students to go the board and write their work, and so on. When their names can pop up at random like this, students are much more attentive.
- You should be aware of the "dead zone" of your classroom when you're teaching. If you are right-handed and face the class, you tend to give minimal attention to the far-right corner of the class; that is, you will hardly notice or call upon students sitting up front to your immediate right. (If you are left-handed, the reverse is true.) You need to go out of your way to direct your attention to this area fairly often. Sometimes, mysteriously, if you allow open seating in your class, students who want to escape your notice will sense your inattention to this "dead zone" and will sit there.
- If you are teaching students aged 13 to 15, be on the alert for any who may have progressive trouble with their eyesight. The rapid physical growth of this age group is often accompanied by myopia. If some students are squinting or rubbing their eyes in class, especially when copying from the board, they may need an eye check-up and corrective glasses. Give a call home to the parents, who will greatly appreciate your thoughtfulness and attention.
- Important: Never, ever, give your classroom keys to a student. If a boy needs to get in some room, go with him and let him in personally, either right away or later. This is troublesome, to be sure, but much less so than trying to remember or track down whoever borrowed your keys and forgot to return them. It also obviates problems with vandalism or theft, and keeps students out of suspicion who might have had classroom keys on them when such incidents occurred.
- It has already been mentioned that you should not call students by their last names. This discourtesy breeds a reaction of disrespect. Similarly, you should avoid other faux pas:
- Don't make comparisons between students, even in private conversation. These inevitably lead to some resentment. This is especially true of siblings; if you are teaching a younger brother of a former student, avoid comparing them even in your own estimation. There's a strong temptation to do this, of course, but you should avoid it as much as possible. A younger brother deserves, and appreciates, being considered solely on his own merits as an individual.
- Don't whisper to a student in a hallway or any other public place, especially in front of his friends. This looks secretive, and it may give rise to suspicion among students that the boy is a lackey or tattletale. If you wish to convey something to a student privately, make an appointment to see him in your office or elsewhere, someplace where you can converse in a normal voice.
- If you happen to know a student personally from elsewhere (say, you are a long-time friend of his family), do not show special warmth or familiarity with him in class or in front of his friends. This puts him on the spot and suggests favoritism.
- If you find yourself consistently edgy and irritable at certain times of the day, take a close look at your caffeine intake. Frequent coffee drinking, especially in the morning, can lead to raw nerves and unnecessary conflicts with high-spirited students for a couple of hours afterwards. It can also lead to exhaustion by late afternoon. If you suspect a problem like this, try taking decaf or cutting back significantly on regular coffee for a couple of weeks and notice if there's an improvement.
- Related to this issue of irritability is the importance of apologizing. If you've lost your temper with a student, you owe him an apology as soon as possible. By extension, if you harangued him in front of his friends, you ought to make your apology in public—as a matter of justice. Students come to respect a teacher who apologizes; they see that he values justice ahead of his pride. Students respect your consistency in fairness, your earnest attempts to be always fair with them. Here, as elsewhere in dealing with young people, your attitudes influence them more than your course's material.
- If possible, you should keep a small supply of rags, sponges, and spray cleaner in your desk or elsewhere in your classroom. Use these frequently, even every day, to clean off desktops and other surfaces. A heavily doodled desk invites still more doodling—and this doodling is one sign of inattention, even boredom, among your students. It's not a bad idea to have some malefactor return after school to clean under your supervision; very likely, he is one of those most responsible for messes to begin with. If necessary, do the cleaning yourself. The importance of cleanliness in maintaining a classroom tone of professionalism cannot be overestimated.
- It's also a good idea to have some folder or desk drawer for setting aside "desk memoranda" to yourself—notes of experience that you jot down during the year and just tuck away for later study and learning. (Most of the notes in this paper came from such odds and ends gathered over the years.)
- Finally, bear in mind that the best technique for managing a class successfully is to get each class off to a crisp, strong, purposeful beginning. When you plan a class, you should concentrate on the first 3 to 5 minutes: what you will say and how you will say it. After a while, this becomes virtually intuitive, but a beginning teacher needs to work at it until it becomes habitual. Some teachers rely on the following:
- Sit at the desk initially until everyone is seated and more or less talked out; then stand and launch into action.
- Begin writing notes on the board and talking to the class; the students will begin to copy and shush-up other students whose noise is drowning your voice out.
- Take out your slips paper with the students' names and start shuffling them, making eye contact with the class and leading with a question from the home assignment.
- If the class appears sluggish and torpid, tell everyone to stand, breathe deeply, and stretch. This produces some laughter and lifts people's spirits; then when everyone is seated again and refreshed, you're ready to go.
- As soon as students enter the room, immediately send three or four to the board to put their homework answers up for all to see. While they're doing this, you roam the room to glance at everyone else's papers.
Discipline, Correction & Punishment
- Bear in mind that "discipline" means learning, not just correction and punishment. The comportment and attitudes you are trying to impart in class are really those of normal, civilized adult life. You are not trying to exercise control as such; this motive is ultimately ineffective—not just in school but in the home as well. What you are doing is to lead the boys, by example and directed practice and sometimes correction and punishment, to live as responsible, considerate, mature adults. And you are doing this for their long-term welfare.
- When this is your attitude, you thus distinguish between the fault and the person. You make clear to the boys that you mean nothing personal in your correction of their faults and mistakes. On the contrary, you are directing them because you care what sort of men they will grow up to become. You think too highly of them to let the grow up with their faults intact. You thus "hate the sin but love the sinner." Boys who have been well brought up at home will recognize this distinction in your mind, and they will eventually appreciate your efforts for their welfare. Naturally they will not like being corrected (who does?), but they will sense that you bear them no personal ill-will and that you stand ready to forgive and forget once they've set matters straight through taking corrective punishment where necessary.
- It is a teacher's obligation to be eminently and obviously fair. In class, and in all your professional dealings with the students, you try to have fair dealings with everyone. You have no favorites and no pariahs. If the rules of the class are clearly spelled out, as they must be, and if consequences for non-compliance are also made clear well ahead of time, then the basis for just collaboration is established. Make clear to the students that what is called "obedience" among children is called "cooperation" or "collaboration" or "teamwork" in normal adult life. Everyone has a boss; everybody answers to somebody. That is, it's normal in adult life for some to give direction and for others to collaborate by taking direction.
- This adult-level direction will have greater effect on the students when you treat them approximately the way you and other adults treat each other in collaborative situations. Concretely this means:
- Though you must occasionally mistrust their judgment (because of their inexperience), you always trust their integrity. Integrity means a unity of intention, word, and action—that we mean what we say, we say what we mean, and we keep our word. If you suspect a student of wrongdoing, you owe him a presumption of innocence. No snap decisions or rash judgments.
- You always offer a student a chance to explain himself. And since the lives of adolescents are often complicated, you give him time to do this; his explanation may be lengthy but, in the end, reasonable. Do not cut off an explanation through your impatience.
- At the heart of the explanation, try to discern whether the young person tried to do the right thing. Give credit for trying, and don't just punish for strict non-compliance with the letter of the rules. (For instance, a student who did the wrong assignment is less culpable than someone who just skipped doing homework altogether—though both failed to turn in the assigned lesson.)
- Whenever possible, correct privately. If you chastise a student in front of his friends, you incur his embarrassment and resentment; you also automatically earn the other students' scorn. (As said before, don't hesitate to apologize for an over-reactive correction, especially one done in public.)
- Don't rub it in. Do not say, "I told you so," or "If only you had listened to me...."
- Do not give group punishments. These are almost always inherently unfair, at least to some people in the class.
- Note that sometimes, especially at the beginning of the year, an entire class may seem to be a problem. There appears to be a general air of disruption, with everyone joining in. But you will generally find that two or three of the students are the ones most responsible, and active problem cases. They have a small band of more-or-less passive collaborators, and the rest of the class largely follows along with the flow. Your task should be to identify the two or three ringleaders and deal with them swiftly and effectively. Speak with the headmaster and other school officials. Then speak with the boys individually, making clear that the next steps will be to call their parents and then, if necessary, hold a conference with them. After these steps come suspension or even expulsion. A "surgical strike" like this on the leaders usually does much to bring the rest of the class in line.
- Earlier we mentioned how a teacher can suffer mood swings that affect his comportment and judgment. Much the same can be said for students. Please bear the following points in mind as you face the problems of class direction:
- After age 11, boys seem to have a cyclical emotional development. Their odd-numbered years (11, 13, 15, 17) are relatively troubled times. Boys are often cocky, critical, lacking in self-esteem or self-control, moody, inward-turning, controversial, and
sluggish. In the even-numbered years, by contrast, they're more "normal": extroverted, upbeat, high-spirited, emotional (even romantic), and idealistic. So if eighth-graders (age 13) seem more sour and irritable than the year before, don't take it personally; it's no reflection on your teaching. You need patience and understanding and (to the greatest extent possible) an even-tempered direction. Give them—and students in other odd-numbered years—class debates and team competitions as an outlet for their critical/competitive spirits.
- Several days in a row of low-barometric pressure makes adults and adolescents sluggish, rather depressed, and cranky. Tempers can flare. Interestingly, however, low-barometric pressure seems to have the opposite effects on children who have not yet reached puberty; they become manic, wildly energetic, aggressive with each other. (Psychoactive drugs also seem to have reverse bipolar effects on children and adults; that is, children are generally calmed by stimulants and stimulated by tranquilizers.) This combination—depressed teachers and manic children—can lead to explosive classroom situations. This is less likely to happen among teachers who are aware of the physiological forces at work during periods of prolonged bad weather, and who take these aberrations into account. So stay loose, make allowances, and watch your temper.
- Boys between the ages of 13 and 15 literally do not know their own strength. They have much more powerful muscles but they retain the judgment and impulsiveness of childhood. Thus, ordinary "horsing around" and physical rough-housing among boys this age can lead to serious injury. For this reason, teachers of boys this age must work more conscientiously to stop rough-housing among students, especially in hallways and other relatively undersupervised areas. You must break up fights before they grow out of hand and someone needs a trip to the hospital.
- You must never strike a student, ever. Aside from the legal and medical problems that may arise, there's a further problem. The student cannot strike back, and this removes all sense of reasonableness and fairness from the "correction." Any other students who witness this physical blow will side with the student who is hit. And, of course, if the student does impulsively strike back, he is in extremely serious trouble with the school—a trouble far worse than the original provocation.
- You owe it to parents to keep them informed if their children seem to have a habit of non-cooperation or if there's an instance of more-or-less serious misbehavior. But you should not expect the parents to enforce your corrective measures; it is your job, not theirs, to maintain and enforce cooperation in class. You should call the parents at home to keep them informed; be calmly businesslike about it: ‘This is what your child has done, and this is what we are doing about it." It may be necessary to reassure the upset parents that their son is really a fine young person but has just made a mistake that needs correction. Parents very much appreciate this effort to keep them informed.
- General rule: Never threaten a punishment that you are not fully prepared to carry out. If you make an excessive threat, especially in anger and haste, then one of two problems will follow: either the punishment will be unreasonably harsh or you will be forced to back down and moderate it. In either event, the corrective lesson is lost, and the student loses some respect for you. You avoid this by calmly planning out the negative consequences (punishments) for non-compliance and by announcing these beforehand in a businesslike manner.
- Some suggested punishments:
- Have the student return to class during lunchtime or after school to redo work or write out punish lesson or wash and clean the room.
- Have student write an essay at home explaining what he did wrong and expressing apology; have him get one of his parents to sign this. Collect it the next day.
- Call home to parent(s) during day or at night, or drop a brief note explaining the situation.
- Give the malefactor a topic for an essay or letter and have him write it, either after school or at home. (Note: Sometimes these punishment essays/letters are the most personal, expressive, and interesting pieces of writing the students do in school.)
- Have student redo problem sets or definitions or exercises from his textbook; this serves to review lessons that he has neglected while fooling around.
- The general strategy for such punishment exercises is to give the students constructive work. What should be avoided is mindless and pointless make-work: adding up columns of figures, writing a sentence 75 times, and the like. As long as they're going to put time in anyway, they ought to be putting their minds or hands to work. Any other type of boring, repetitive work conveys, at least implicitly, an attitude of personal spite by the teacher rather than constructive correction.
- What to do about cheating? It's useful to distinguish two types of cheating on tests/quizzes: (a) spontaneous, and (b) premeditated. Even normal students will sometimes be tempted to sneak a glance at someone else's answers. This should be punished, of course, but should be treated as a relative misdemeanor. But a premeditated act of cheating (such as bringing a crib-sheet to a test) is much more seriously dishonorable; it calls for much more weighty punishment. (The school should have a policy on this; any school must be able to trust its students' sense of honor.)
- If you find that a student has copied another's homework, then tear up the work of both parties—the one who copied and the one who cooperated with him. Then punish both people. Frequently the person who lent his homework did so reluctantly, under pressure from the copier. Having to undergo a punishment for this will give him a reason later to flatly refuse any further requests for his homework. You are thus quietly doing this student a favor; no one can blame him, after having been "burned," for refusing to share his work with anyone.
- A general policy for all your dealings with students is to insist that they show good manners to you and other teachers. Correct them if they neglect to say "please" or "thank you" in their dealings with you. (Naturally, you ought to reciprocate with them.) And insist that they use "Mr." when referring other teachers. If you happen to be in the school office and notice a student failing to use good manners with the school secretary—saying "please" with requests, and calling the secretary by her name—then correct the student immediately. Make this correction privately if possible, but do it right away. It is said that the four pillars of civilized conduct are "please," "thank you," "I'm sorry," and "I give my word." Over time, the repeated use of these terms leads to genuine consideration for the rights and sensibilities of others. This attitude is the basis for all the school's formative work.
- Never discuss a student's discipline problems with anyone who is unauthorized to have the information. If a student has gotten into trouble with you, this is no business of anyone but the school's authorities and the student's family. The matter is confidential.
- One final and important note. To the greatest extent possible, punishment should be carried out in a businesslike and impersonal way. The student made a mistake and has had to live with the consequences, as if he made an error in playing sports. Your punishment is not intended, and should not be construed by the student, as your personal negative judgment concerning his character. You are attempting to correct the fault, not the person. This attitude implies that, after the student has completed his punishment, you are willing to drop the matter and restore good relations. If the student has done a creditable job in his punish-lesson, then praise him for it. Adults give good leadership to young people when they make praise as specific as blame. Don't ever forget that all young people occasionally make mistakes, and that mistakes can be valuable if we learn from them.
Homework, Tests & Grading
- Home assignments and in-class tests are considered together here because they are related. Both call for the students to present evidence of their learning. In home assignments, students have access to their textbook and class notes; in tests, they must make do with what they remember and have reasoned out. But both are important for the students. In as sense, this submitted written work is a rehearsal for the sort of professional work they will someday have to submit to employers, clients, professional journals, and others. Looking upon the matter this way—teaching standards for written professional work: care, completeness, clarity, neatness, punctuality—helps students form beneficial attitudes and habits. In other words, the way the students perform this work is at least as important as the "material" content. You should make this clear to your students and then insist on compliance throughout the year.
- Beginning teachers tend to undervalue homework. They give relatively little attention to its formative dimension. This is because of the tendency, already mentioned, for new teachers to concentrate on their performance rather than that of their students. Beginners tend to carry on with the same sort of teaching that they knew in college, where professors merely lectured and gave only infrequent tests, papers, and assignments—that is, where emphasis was on teaching rather than learning. Experienced teachers at the secondary or elementary level, however, give constant ongoing attention to their students' performance.
- As mentioned before, it is important to write out the specifics of home assignments on the whiteboard, preferably in the same corner of the board each day. And this should be done well within the class time, not at the last minute.
- If you are facing a new class of students, one you haven't taught before, you might try this: grade home assignments for the first week or 10 days but do not count the grades in tallying the students' marking-period figure. That is, use the first week or so just to make clear to the students what standards you expect for home assignments throughout the year—and mark these critically. Once you have clarified your standards, then count up what the students produce.
- If the home assignment involves specific right/wrong data (for example, math problems, one-word answers, spelling, vocab), you can save time by having students exchange homework papers, write their own initials at the top of the paper (to identify the corrector), and then mark answers right or wrong as you and the class go through the exercises together. Then collect everyone's work. You later look over the papers and allot appropriate grades.
- Many teachers use a global scale for evaluating homework. They give a plus-sign (+) for meritorious work, roughly equivalent to an A. They give a check-mark (√) for acceptable, roughly a B or C+. and they give a minus-sign (—) for poor work, which is a C or below.
- It's also important to take presentability into account, how clear and neat the work is. Especially important is students' care to use standards of correct English usage and spelling. Most mistakes of this sort are due to carelessness, not ignorance. If students are not pressed to use what they are taught in English class, they fail to learn that these standards are just that—standards that apply to all the writing they do, regardless of circumstances. If a student's work has been obviously done with careless haste, then he should have his grade lowered accordingly. If his content earned a B-level grade, his careless spelling lowers that grade to a C or less. Some teachers place the letters "ST" (for "standards") next to the grade at the top of the paper to indicate why the grade has been lowered. If this is done consistently at the beginning of the year, students generally get the point.
- Homework should be marked and returned to students within two working days after submission. This signals that the teacher considers their homework important; and if it's important to the teacher, it will be important to them. Any consistently unreasonable delay in returning work sends the opposite message: that homework has relatively low priority to the teacher.
- It is better to assign relatively brief exercises to the students but to insist that these be thoroughly well done. One technique is to assign only odd-numbered problems, exercise sets, questions, etc. for homework; the even-numbered ones can then be used for classwork the next day or even for later tests and quizzes.
- At the beginning of the year, and from time to time thereafter, take the time to collect homework individually from each student as you walk around the room. This procedure immediately identifies people who failed to do the work or to do it satisfactorily. Then, on the spot, you can give a punish lesson, follow-up assignment, or any other corrective measure. Doing this takes more time but it reinforces your determination that home assignments be taken seriously.
- There are times, of course, when students simply cannot complete their assigned lessons. In such a case (and as mentioned before), the class policy should be this: In place of the homework, submit a note explaining briefly (a) why you couldn't complete the work, and (b) when you promise to submit it. Later, when the work is submitted as promised, the student should write "LATE" at the top. This policy is reasonable and fair all around.
- Some courses that lend themselves to essay-type writing (that is, multiple-paragraph answers) can benefit from the following policy: After completing the assignment, the student should put a box at the bottom of the paper in which he writes two things—the amount of time he put into the assignment (say, 40 minutes) and what grade he thinks he has earned (A, B+, etc.). This self-evaluation reminds students that they need to exercise care and check over their work before submitting it. Teachers who have tried this procedure have found some significant improvement in students' written work.
- The time-saving technique mentioned earlier—having students correct each other's homework—can also be applied to tests and quizzes. Have the students exchange papers at random (have them exchange a couple of times to minimize opportunities for collusion) and write their initials at the top so you know who's responsible for the correction. Then go over the correct answers as students mark them right or wrong, and collect the papers immediately.
- One interesting and instructive exercise, if only as a change of pace, is to have students devise questions (for homework) that can be used by you for an upcoming test; have them include their answer for each question. Tell the students that you will select several of their questions for the next test on the subject. Next day, go over their questions and answers. Then follow through as promised, using some of the better questions on your test. It is remarkable to see the quality of questions that students devise this way. They cannot really formulate good questions, of course, without really understanding their subject; consequently, this is an excellent way to provoke thinking and review.
- Pacing is important for quizzes and tests. If your subject area lends itself to frequent factual quizzes (spelling, vocabulary, language), you might institute this policy: Our quizzes will take place each Monday and Thursday; if a holiday falls on that day, we will skip the quiz and go on to the next scheduled one. This rhythm helps students to pace themselves and work steadily.
- Similarly, larger tests should be spread out through the grading period, not bunched up toward the end. If students face too many tests in the last week of their marking period, then they may do relatively poorly on most or all of them. If you space tests out, and even refrain from giving large tests at the end, your students will probably earn higher grades on them. Generally speaking, too, it is better to avoid giving larger tests on Friday, if only because most teachers tend to do this. If you know that your students consistently face several tests on Friday, then you do them and yourself a favor by testing on some other day.
- It's a good idea to hand out tests personally, moving from desk to desk, placing the exam face down on each desk. Then, when everyone has his test, tell the students to turn their exams over and begin. This way you assure that everyone begins at the same time and no one has a chance to surreptitiously check an answer with a neighbor while your back is turned.
- New teachers often neglect to write clear, specific directions on their tests, especially final examinations. Take the time and care to assure that your directions are unambiguous. If someone other than yourself proctors the test (as in a final exam), he may not know what to tell students who are confused by unclear directions. Ideally, each test should be completely self-explanatory so that the proctor need not be asked to clarify misunderstandings.
- Final exams lend themselves to multiple-choice questions, and these have their place on final exams. One disadvantage of this format is that students have little leeway to explain their answers, especially if some questions inadvertently contain ambiguities—where, for instance, two answers may seem equally appropriate depending on how one interprets the question. For this reason, a teacher ought to adopt the following policy: If a student wishes to explain or qualify his answer choice, he should mark an arrow or asterisk next to the question and then write his explanation on the back of the answer sheet or test paper. Then you should take his explanation into account when correcting and grading his work. Sometimes a student will mark the "wrong" choice but his reasoned explanation shows that he really understands the lesson. For this, he should receive at least some credit.
- Sometimes teachers are plagued by so-called "grade-grubbers," students who come up after an exam and press to have their mark upgraded by arguing over trivial matters. Naturally a teacher should be prepared to change a mark in instances where his student has a valid point: the teacher might have overlooked a correct answer or otherwise misjudged the student's response. But if one or more students show a pattern of pressing too often for reconsideration, then the teacher may resort to this policy: I will look over your test and consider your point; but I will also check the whole test for any errors or deficiencies that I may have overlooked as well. If I find these, I will regrade the test accordingly. In other words, the reconsideration can cut both ways—up or down. This procedure generally cuts back significantly on the grubbers' aggressiveness, and it is eminently fair.
- The following point is somewhat controversial, but we'll mention it here for your consideration. If the passing mark for a grading period is 70, then the lowest final grade a student earns should not be below 60, even if the marking-period grades fall below this figure. In other words, if a student earns 50 or 55, this should appear as 60 on the report card. Why is this? So that a student who fails a given marking period will have some hope of making up for his deficiency in the rest of the year. Starting from 60, he has a fighting chance of at least passing for the year. But starting from a dismally low position may cause him to give up entirely, and this is in no one's interest.
- A teacher should explain his rationale for tallying up marking-period grades. He should make clear, for instance, that tests will count for 60% of the grade, quizzes for 20%, and homework for the rest. Students should never form the impression that some significant portion of their grade derives from a teacher's arbitrary subjective judgment. "Class participation" is such a device, and it's not entirely fair; some students are temperamentally reticent in class, though their work is fine. If students sense that their grades depend significantly on their teacher's personal "impressions" (or whimsy or even prejudice), they perceive this as unfair. As much as possible, therefore, the grade should reflect each student's documentable output and performance. Marks earned on tests, quizzes, papers, and homework should lead directly to the final average.
- To look at it another way, if a student were to ask, "What exactly do I have to do in order to earn an A in this course?"—then his teacher should be able to give a detailed, specific answer. A teacher who asks this question of himself—"What does each student need to do in order to earn an A here?"—will set out, in his own mind and in his explanation to the class, a clear-cut set of expectations and criteria for excellent performance. As seen elsewhere in this paper, students (like everyone else) need to know what's expected of them.
- It follows from this that disciplinary infractions (tardiness, talking out of turn in class, apparent inattentiveness in class, and the like) should not directly affect a student's final grades. As much as possible, a teacher should distinguish conduct from job-performance in academic matters. Disciplinary faults can and should be handled separately from the student's performance as a student. If the student sees that you are fair in this matter, you have a much better chance of correcting him effectively in matters of comportment.
Relations with Parents
- One of the hallmarks of an excellent school is its attitude of professional service toward the school's parents—those people who have entrusted their children to the school and whose financial and moral support is the school's lifeblood. The parents, not the students, are the school's real professional "clients." A good teacher sees them this way. His professional obligation is to render high quality service to each of the families who comprise the school's community.
- A teacher's principal obligation is, of course, to render quality instruction and personal formation to the students; this is what the parents are paying for and have a right to expect. But another obligation (one that teachers often neglect) is to maintain clear and reasonably frequent communication with the parents. What parents want, need, and have a right to is information: How is their child performing and cooperating? What needs to be done, at home and in class, to build his strengths and correct his shortcomings? What changes are noted (plus or minus) in school, and to what extent are his problems typical and transitory? What should the parents do over the near-term for the student's benefit, and how should they go about this task?
- Conveying this information, and receiving information back from parents as well, inevitably involves time: parent-teacher group conferences, individual meetings, notes to and from home, phone calls. No teacher should see these tasks as merely time-consuming distractions; they are a necessary part of his job, as much a part of his duties as preparing classes and correcting papers. If you checked to see who are the most effective and best respected teachers in a school, you'd see that they're the ones who try to maintain open communication with their students' parents—who see themselves rendering professional service to each family.
- Actually, what parents respect and appreciate most is not necessarily the number and frequency of a teacher's communications but rather his underlying attitude—his willingness, even eagerness, to stay in touch, to hear from parents, to take time to chat with them, for the sake of the students' welfare. One of the hallmarks of a real professional, in any field, is the ability to turn aside entirely from one's paperwork and give total, wholehearted attention to someone seeking advice or help; such a professional has a high tolerance for such "distractions" because he always puts people's needs at the top of his priorities.
- Frequent communication with parents is, in fact, an efficient way of maintaining quality control over one's work. Reporting often to parents presses a teacher to reflect often and deeply about each of his students: how each is performing, what problems are evident, what changes are noticeable, what should be done next, and so on. Without this ongoing reflection, a teacher can get bogged down in his paperwork and day-to-day organizational problems, losing sight of the people whom he is serving. He can come to see his job as mere process and task-performance rather than professional service.
- A teacher with several years' experience can convey to parents a great deal of insight and practical advice about children and adolescents. Remember that most parents have experience with only a couple of children (their own), whereas a teacher has known and dealt with hundreds. He's in a position to give much needed advice and encouragement to conscientious parents. Moreover, he can help form (or reform) parents' attitudes and values as well, not by preaching but by conveying information: "This is what I'm teaching your son (about moral values, for instance), and this is why. . . ."
- Here are some guidelines for maintaining open communication with parents:
- Some teachers send home a note to parents at the beginning of the year and invite them to call him if they have a question or concern. He gives the best time for reaching him during the day.
- When a teacher calls home, he plans to spend no more than 5 to 10 minutes in conversation. If more time seems to be needed, then he arranges a personal conference for later.
- When he calls, the first thing he does is ask whether this is a convenient time to talk, and to talk confidentially—with no other children around who might overhear the conversation.
- If the student has some comportment problem, the teacher merely reports that fact along with what he is doing about it. He does not expect or ask the parents to punish the student for him; he's just keeping them informed of what's happening. He also reassures the parents that this correction is not a personal reflection of the student's character or upbringing at home; the boy has made a mistake, that's all, and now has to live with the consequences. It's the boy's fault that's being corrected here, and nothing personal is intended. Parents very much appreciate this attitude.
- Always, without fail, the teacher ends the conversation with an invitation to the parents to stay in touch—not to hesitate to call him during school hours. (At times a teacher may find it convenient to call parents at night, on his own time, but he's certainly not obligated to receive calls at home. By and large, business matters should be conducted during business hours, and reasonable parents understand this.)
- If a male teacher is meeting privately and alone with a student's mother, he should leave the door to his office partway open. This is standard professional practice everywhere.
- If parent convey a serious concern they have about some perceived deficiency at the school, then the teacher must take action at once. Within two days, the parents should see either (a) action to correct the problem, or (b) action to explain why the problem cannot be solved immediately, or even perhaps at all. In other words, within 48 hours parents should get either corrective action or at least a reasonable explanation. What must not happen, in any event, is that they see nothing corrective being done and they get no explanation why. People will tolerate a lot of shortcomings if they see that you share their concerns and are trying your best to resolve them. But they must know that you're trying.
- Related to the above is the fact that many, if not most, parents can at times become very upset and unreasonably angry concerning some aspect (real or perceived) of the school's dealings with their child. This does not happen often, but it does occur. A teacher may receive a phone call from a furious parent or have both parents, highly incensed, come storming in for a discussion. What to do?
- First, remember that the parents may have a point. Perhaps the teacher or someone else in the school has done something wrong to provoke this reaction, or overreaction. Secondly, bear in mind that sometimes the parents are laboring under some other personal problems (financial, marital, professional) unrelated to the "school problem" but largely behind their irate state of mind. So, try to be understanding and be prepared to spend most of your time listening. Do not, under any circumstances, let them provoke you into an equally angry response; this is absolutely unproductive.
- If the irate parent calls by phone, try to deflect the call. Explain that you are busy at the moment and would like to talk about the problem at more length sometime later in the day, and suggest a time. By the time the second call takes place, the parent will probably have calmed down enough to have a constructive conversation.
- If the upset parents come in for an interview, give them all the time they need to vent their grievances. They have rehearsed, as it were, a sort of speech and they need to get it out. Let them do so without interruption. After a while they will calm down—and even grow a bit embarrassed by their intemperate outburst—to the point where you and they can have a productive discussion. Try to get at the facts of the problem, prescinding from guesswork and "impressions." Whatever you do, remain calm, attentive, and reasonable.
- Maintaining a service-oriented communication with parents is beneficial to the school in many ways, and one of these is financial. Parents who perceive that teachers seek to serve them and their children over and above the call of duty are willing to help the school financially. Generosity begets generosity. One axiom of fund-raising is this: People give to successful non-profit enterprises, not needy ones—and successful organizations are those that deliver personal, high quality professional service. So, working to be of service to parents is an investment that reaps later rewards.
Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this material for non-commercial use.
It is taken from the Website of James B. Stenson, educational consultant: ParentLeadership.com.
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James B. Stenson
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
Listen to a speech by James Stenson: "Successful Fathers" (new)
Organizing and Running
a Parent Discussion Group
Advice for Fathers (new)
Born to Serve, Not to Shop--
Effective Parenting in a Nutshell (new)
Danger Signs: Families Headed for Trouble
How Does a Father Protect His Family?
Table Manners for the Home
A Father's Unity of Life
Professionalism & Workplace Savvy
The Vision of Parent Leaders
Family Rules: The Power of "We..."
Discipline: What Works and Why
Coming Down the Home Stretch--
How Parents Deal Effectively with their Adolescent Children
The Headmaster as Leader: Notes about Leading a Secondary School for Boys
Practical Handbook for Teachers: Some Notes of Experience about Teaching
Important Questions for Teachers
What is a Good School?