Saturday, July 14, 2007

7 Habits of Good Teachers Today

7 Habits of Good Teachers Today
By Dorothy Rich

If I were starting out as a teacher today, I'd have to be a different teacher from what I was in 1956. I thought I was really good then. I'd have to be a different kind of "good."

It used to be that we'd put a teacher, a set of books, and a set of tests in one room and say, "Go to it!" That's what happened to me as a beginning teacher. But teaching has become a much more complicated business. To woo and win students today involves a lot of words with "ing" endings--innovating, motivating, facilitating.

It's not all that hard to get kids moving along when they're starting out in school. Almost all of them come to kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd, even 3rd grade, fresh, eager, and wanting to please. But walk into a 4th grade classroom and immediately you sense the difference. It's puberty and more. It's the outside world barging into that classroom--like a beast devouring our children's attention and interest.

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Not so many years ago, the school was the source of all information. Parents used to say to kids, "Ask your teacher." Today, thanks to the telecommunications revolution, information is not embedded in the school and then sent out to the rest of the community. We all get our data at the same time--and the pace at which it comes is mind-boggling, confusing, even frightening.

Let me describe what I'd have to do differently to be a good teacher today. I'm prepared to use myself as a "before" example.

When I walked into the classroom in my first teaching year more than 40 years ago, I assumed (actually had been taught to assume), that the students before me were ready to learn and that my job was to move them through the appointed steps to the next grade.

I can see those students even now. I was a 22-year-old teaching senior English. The students were barely four or five years younger than I was. But the difference in those days was enormous. I was the figure of authority; I was automatically supposed to get respect. The seats were arranged in straight lines; it didn't even dawn on me to change them. About the only thing I didn't do regimentally was to seat students alphabetically.

I was assigned the seniors, despite my inexperience, because even then it didn't matter much what kids did in the 12th grade. Their main event, the regents' exam (this was New York state), was taken in the 11th grade. That's where the experienced teacher was placed.

Today, if I walked into the same classroom facing the grandchildren of those same students, an important difference for me as a teacher would be that I'd have to assume that many of the students before me might not be ready to learn. Some would not have completed previous grades successfully. Some would be too tired or too hungry; some would be too discouraged, too distracted, too upset about what's going on in their lives outside the school walls.

As a teacher today, I'd have to do what most teachers didn't really do before. I'd need to pay far more attention to my students and what they brought to my classroom. In the '50s, I was all caught up with teaching, and not enough with learning. Even though I was considered a good teacher by all the usual measures, the unwritten ground rules in those old days were these: If the day went poorly, you blamed the students. If the day went well, you praised your teaching skills. When I walked into my classroom then, it was my domain. The door shut behind me, and I didn't talk to another adult all day. And I suffered from the traditional teacher affliction: I talked too much and used up too much class time and attention.

No, those "good old days" were not so good. Public opinion polls tell us that there are really few among us who enjoyed school then. When asked about a major disappointment in their lives, many adults tell pollsters "school." Should that be a surprise? When teachers get together, we sometimes tell a certain secret--that we went back to the classroom because we were the only ones who really liked school.

Teaching has always been a demanding job. Many of us, however, did not know how extraordinarily complex it was. Children and adults don't learn simply because they are taught. There isn't a parent or employer alive who doesn't know this. Yet somehow we have this faith that just because teachers cover the subject children are learning it.

Many parents ask me, "How can we know when our child has a good teacher?" It's an inevitable question and an important one, because it lays the base for judgments about the entire school experience. While there is a great desire to simplify education, to reduce it to formulas and test scores, education really is and always will be "messy." It's about relationships between people, hopes and dreams, and about a future we can't even envision. Kids need good test scores, but they need even more to be protected and prepared for the messy and exciting world in which they'll live.

For parents who ask the question: "Does my child have a good teacher?" and for teachers who ask themselves: "Am I a good teacher?" I've come up with a list of seven criteria. I'd like to call these the "Seven Pillars of Classroom Wisdom," but in less pompous terms, the compilation really is the "Watch Out for These" list. The list does not include bricks of technology. It asks us to look at what's happening between people, in and out of the classroom. This has always been the make-or-break measure in education and never more so than today.

Here, then, are my seven habits of good teachers:

1. Marketing the subject. The assumption used to be that schoolwork was known to be important and that everyone recognized this, coming ready to the classroom to do his or her best. Yet, today, the message from home may not reinforce the school, and the messages from the media are often anti-school. They say to children: Do it now, have it now, don't wait, rush, don't defer your gratification. School, in the older years, is often seen as an interruption in the real business of life.

Teachers today have to start out assuming that they must win over the hearts of their students. It is not an automatic buy-in. We can't just tell them school's important. We have to go beyond that to persuade them. Teachers sell through enthusiasm, making the subject's relevance clear for student's lives, if not now, then in the future. This future, we need to say, is not so far away. These points need to be made over and over, just as they are on the TV when students are being asked to buy a product. A good teacher has to be a good salesperson.

2. Knowing the subject: Teaching it with encouragement. Nothing takes the place of knowledge about and commitment to subject matter, whether it's teaching reading in the 1st grade or teaching Shakespeare in the 10th grade. But it's not enough to know the subject. We have to be able to put it across. What we've learned in recent years is that encouragement goes a long way. To meet high standards, children need a high level of encouragement.

Oh, how I remember those many English papers I graded and my sense of completion when I had circled in red every misspelled word. My standards were high, like many of my teaching colleagues'. And, also like many of my colleagues, I was not encouraging enough. How I would like to go back and mark those papers again. I would spend far more time looking for what the students did right and working to build on those strengths, rather than pointing to weaknesses.

Raising students' self-esteem, of course, is not enough either. Without solid content, it's like a house with a crumbling foundation. Solid standards mixed with encouragement is the cement for real learning.

3. Using a variety of teaching styles. I really didn't understand how we all learn in different ways. Today, we know so much more about the brain and a myriad of ways to reach different students. I lectured a lot in my early classroom days. I tried to use thought-provoking questions, but I did very little with small groups, or case studies, or role-playing. The use of audiovisual equipment was in its primeval stage then, and the machines never seemed to be available. Some of those problems still have not changed.

I ask parents to look for a variety of teaching techniques when visiting a classroom. Does the teacher use examples? Are students physically moving about? Does it look like children are paying attention? And I ask parents to respect their own gut feelings. Would they want to be in this classroom?

4. Building on family and outside-of-school experiences. As a beginning teacher, I had no idea what my students brought with them to class--if they worked at a job, if they collected stamps, or if there was a divorce going on at home. The word "family" was not mentioned. I knew nothing about their lives outside of school, except if by some happenstance someone mentioned it casually. Today, we know better. Major research studies indicate that readiness for learning, all through the grades, begins at home and that we've got to enlist all families as real partners in the education of their children.

As a good teacher today, my work would be to build a bridge -- connection between school and home so that information, ideas, and people move freely from one place to the other. The "hidden curriculum" of the home and community is not hidden anymore.

5. Involving students as learning partners. I used to leave the classroom exhausted at the end of the day. Actually, I was exhausted by noon. Teaching is hard work, but as I look back, I see now that I made it harder because I was doing almost all of the work in the classroom--my work and the students' too. I would come in with all of the assignments (the lesson plan for the month) and lay them out. I was conscientiously doing my job. But one important part never got done. I never thought to ask for any feedback from these almost grown-ups. Maybe I was afraid they would say they didn't like my plan.

All my students had to do was complete the assignments. If they didn't do them, I would nag or come up with some appropriate grading demerit. This was the business-as-usual style of the classroom. It may have worked or been thought to be working before, but today the routines need to change, if we expect change in our students.

As a new teacher today for students in the middle elementary grades and above, I'd start out my school year outlining the course but then ask--yes, require--students to think about what they want to get out of the course. I'd expect them to have learning goals. And if they couldn't come up with any, even with advice from their parents, or if they were unused to figuring out these kinds of things on an individual basis, we would do it as a group.

Since my lesson plan would be available in advance for students to review, this would not be a majority-vote kind of thing. A teacher does hold the ultimate responsibility, but it would be a discussion of the curriculum that would involve student thinking. A good teacher today has to expect more from each student. The "more" does not just mean more homework; it means more involvement.

6. Collaborating with other adults. When I went into my classroom, I closed the doors behind me. I rarely spoke to another adult, except at parent-teacher open houses, and then I did most of the talking. At faculty meetings, the principal did most of the talking. So as a teacher, like so many others, I was alone.

That's no way to succeed in the often discouraging job of education. Teachers need support, parents need support, the community needs support--and we need it from each other.

Students by and large receive better support from one another than adults do. Teachers need to be able to talk with and learn from each other. Parents need to be able to come to the school to meet not just with the teacher but with one another. One of the major outcomes for parents and teachers when they come together is finding out what works for others--and receiving the encouragement to believe that this can work for them too.

7. Making sure students know they are cared about. When I am asked today about the key factor that makes students like school, study hard, and stay in school, the answer is a "C" word, but it's not "curriculum." The word I choose is "caring."

The problem today is not that our children don't learn to read. Education research has indicated that most children do learn the basics of reading and math in the early grades. Many, however, do not continue these efforts in later grades. One explanation for this, perhaps truer today than ever before, is that to reach people enough to school them, we must meet their deep human need to feel cared about.

The days of you-do-it-or-else are over. Children, as well as adults, need to be persuaded. There is a personal search for caring and for recognition. There is a sense of higher expectations about how we will be treated, even by institutions, and especially by the school.
There are easy ways for teachers to show children and their families that they are cared about: Notes telling the children what they've done right. Calls home asking about the youngster when the child is out ill. "We missed you" comments when the child comes back to class after being out. How I wish I had known to do these in my early classes. I thought I had to be so formal, so stuffy, to establish my authority.

Students have to feel they are needed. Feeling needed can be a tricky business today. Many children seem to have too much time on their hands, while adults seem to have so much less time. Getting kids more involved at home is vital, but so is getting them more involved at school. I remember from my own school days how important it made me feel to clean erasers or to monitor the bathroom or to chair a committee--in short, to be somebody. This is a feeling every child can have and needs to have.

Teachers and parents may well have more points to add to the list. It is meant to be only a starting point. The exciting part about teaching today is that there are so many more opportunities for learning. The hard part is that, even with all the time-savers we have invented, it feels as if there is less time than there used to be.

When parents ask, "Does my child have a good teacher?" knowing what we do today about the importance of the home in children's achievement, I ask, "Does your child have a good parent?" We don't have to be perfect to be good, but we do have to be a team and we do need to make time to do our job together.

Dorothy Rich is the founder and president of the Home and School Institute, located in Washington. She is the author of MegaSkills and a forthcoming book on solving home-school problems, What Do We Say? What Do We Do?, scheduled for release in October by Forge Books.



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