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Education Humor
With Regina Barreca

Teaching Tips
No One Told You

"Apparently, teaching is difficult. I must admit, I was taken entirely by surprise." Paul sends me this shocking information in an e-mail from the Czech Republic, where he and another one of my boys has just started teaching English (I am now old enough to have my male former students refer to themselves as "Barreca's Boys" without anybody thinking twice about inappropriate behavior: I accept this for better and for worse).

Paul continues: "I thought all I had to do was stand in front of a class, tell a few jokes, point out a couple of key ideas, and ride a wave of dialectical creativity all the way to the bank." Not so, say his Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) instructors in Prague. Evidently, to his dismay, he is "supposed to create these strange creatures called lesson plans, pre-teach ideas constantly, be able to think on my feet (and quickly, at that!), and be capable of explaining to non-native speakers exactly why the English languages feels it necessary to use a bazillion modal verbs (oh yeah, and that means I have to know what a modal verb is). I've been in teacher-training for two weeks, have taught two full lessons and parts of three others, and already I want to collapse into exhausted sleep by noon each day."

Naturally, I am delighted that Paul is learning how to plan a lesson, as well as being educated in the finer points of grammar. Also, if he falls asleep at noon every day, he is likely to stay out of trouble.

But of course, what he really needs to learn are the classroom's real lessons.

Strangely absent from any official curriculum--and in certain cases considered a form of contraband offered only through secret conversations and in code--it is now time to reveal the discrete, covert formulas, practices, and dictums we long-time teachers know to be true.

They are as follows:

  • You can always get easier but you can't get harder. New teachers often want their students to like them. This is a mistake. It's just dandy if they end up liking you, but during the first few days and first few weeks of class, what your students need to do is respect you. They need to concern themselves with their performance and your judgment of it. You do not really need to concern yourself with their judgment of you. The students are not your friends, just as your own children (if you have them) are not your friends and just as your own parents (if they've done a good job) are not your friends. Being an effective teacher depends in part on your willingness to establish boundaries and maintain them. If you come in acting like Mr. Rogers, you cannot then turn into Mr. T; you cannot come in as Betty Boop and turn into Judge Judy. You can lighten up throughout the term, but no one will take you seriously if you become tougher. Much better to start out tough and end up warm and fuzzy.
  • Even if students say they don't care about anything, they do. Help them recognize, articulate, and embrace their appetites.
  • Nothing but nothing beats remembering the names of your students. Allow me to emphasize the fact that this is a very important skill. If this sounds overwhelming because you have so many students, just remember you only have to remember their names while they're in your classes. It is only necessary that you remember their names in situ. Once the class is over, you should feel free to say simply, "Hello there!" with sufficient enthusiasm.
  • One important way you can help your students succeed is to make them understand that the heart fluttering and breath-holding feeling they have when they think they're going to be asked a question is anticipation, not fear. They should associate excitement rather than trepidation with the idea of being called on. Although it's sometimes tedious to acknowledge every comment a student makes during a discussion, it's worth it. Calling on one kid after another without recognizing what the previous student has said in any way is as disrespectful as somebody talking to you at a cocktail party, but looking over your shoulder to see if there's someone more interesting to talk to as soon as you shut up.
  • Drinking caffeinated beverages is neither a sin nor a vice. Take advantage of the fact.
  • Students do not have to make you happy; that's not their job. Their job is to learn what you're teaching them. You must believe that what you're teaching them is something they'll need to know. You are the authority not because you're in control of the situation but because you can give them what they'll need to carry them through their lives.
  • And finally, whether your classroom is in the Poughkeepsie, in Portland, or in Prague, remind yourself of this: if you're doing it well, teaching always will take you a little bit by surprise.

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