Hi, Teacher-Dreamer. Great question. And I was reminded of it tonight when I got in touch with my sponsor teacher from 1995. He’s well into his retirement now but he was a legendary teacher in his day and head of the English department in our city’s largest high school. He took me under his wing and I got to observe how a master teacher runs his class. And I’ll be honest: I didn’t see anything. I had to report back to my faculty advisor all the things I’d noticed in terms of methodology and classroom management. But I didn’t “see” anything. It took me a while to realize why: he made it look easy. He had internalized everything a teacher is supposed to do. I even confronted him about it one day to ask which educational philosophy he abides by, and he answered: “Listen to what they’re saying.”
That was it. It drove me crazy because I couldn’t very well report that back to my university in thesis form. But eventually it clicked. He was saying what Bruce Lee used to say in his “Be like water” mantra. Listen to them. Respond. They will give you something. Respond. Keep doing this with the aim towards making them even more curious and stoked about the process of learning.
But I’ve added my own stuff throughout the years and I can distill a bit of it here for you since you’ll be entering the profession soon, I hope.
1) If you can’t address a student’s immediate needs, he won’t be available to your teachings. Basically, if a kid is in your class and he’s hungry, you need to address that first. So keep a bunch of snacks in your filing cabinet where rodents won’t get to them. They will never come up to you and say they’re hungry. You have to “listen” and watch for that. You have to become curious. And give it to them secretly so that they are able to retain their dignity. Which leads me to my next point.
2) Do not compromise a young person’s dignity. By this I mean there will be situations in which you can easily embarrass a student in front of her peers. And I’ve seen teachers do this, not because they’re mean, but because they’re human. People who have never taught forget how unnatural this whole thing is: asking young people to sit in rows in rooms all day among people they might not readily even like to listen to some stranger try to impart wisdom to them. The whole thing smacks of condescension and waste. So when you see 30 different teenagers every hour, don’t be surprised when some of them act out at you. And as a teacher, you can’t be hurt by it. You have to be above it all. And even in the face of humiliation, we have to think about ways to help kids save face and feel success. Remember that very few teenagers get to really “feel” success in school. This leads me to another bit.
3) Do not take anything personally. Remember back to when you were their age. Every little slight, every look in the hallway, every word by some popular kid carried a sting. So, a young person wakes up and his day starts with his father yelling at him to hurry to school. Then, he has someone in the hallway make fun of his shoes or something as a joke, but he takes that personally. Then, he forgets to do his homework so a teacher calls him on it. Then another teacher calls on him for an answer in class and he wasn’t paying attention because he’s thinking about how much his parents fight and how he wants to be anywhere but here. And then he shows up at your class. And you ask him a question, and he doesn’t know. And you ask him again in a different way, and he blows up at you and calls you something he will regret. You can’t take that personally. At that moment, you are only a symbol of every other adult in his life that treats him like crap. He doesn’t see the cool teacher who helped him with his girlfriend problems the month before. He only sees you as a symbol. So never take it personally. He will apologize later. They always do. And this leads me to my final point.
4) The teacher I mentioned at the start of this, my sponsor teacher, said something that I’ve carried with me to this day: “I would do this job for free if I didn’t need money.” At the time, I found this statement disturbing because there was no way I’d do it for free. But I see now that he was talking about joy. There is joy to be had in this career. There is nothing more exhilarating than seeing a student suddenly “get” a concept she’d been struggling with. There are few things more smile-inducing than watching your grade eights help each other out with assignments while joking around with each other. And the pure happiness of watching them really, truly enjoy learning—man, that’s the reason I returned to teaching after an eight-year break.
There is, of course, a lot more to teaching, but you will enjoy learning all that on your own. I’m always discovering new things about pedagogy and the ways in which teens learn. Teaching is about being a learner yourself. That’s why, when it comes to being an effective teacher, we have to listen to what they’re saying.