How not to suck as a teacher!

I’ve been teaching for 14 or 15 years. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do after school but ended up at college getting my teaching diploma in 1997. I’ve been teaching since 1998, with various time-outs for travel and other interesting global adventures. Like most teachers, I have good days and bad days, good lessons and not so good ones.

Reasons that I think why I have always come back to teaching:

  1. I am qualified and able to get a teaching job relatively easily
  2. I’m a good teacher, good at what I do and I enjoy it!
  3. I’m never satisfied in my learning, I always want more – more knowledge, more growth

I hardly see myself as a veteran or some grand old educator forever to be remembered in the corridors of old school buildings, but I work hard and do my best, not just for my students, but also for my fellow colleagues and school. I have learnt (and continue to learn) many of my own lessons in my time in class. I want to share my own thoughts with you.

Here is my own personal list of the things that I think make a good teacher. You will see that some of them perhaps go against what your school or train of thought might dictate but remember that this is me, not you. Take what’s good and leave the rest. I’m not the perfect teacher and still have lots to learn but each day is fresh and you never know the dynamics coming your way.

My totally-not-professional-or-academic list of how not to suck as a teacher

Have a sense of humour
A sense of humour is a very important ingredient in the recipe of life! It picks up the atmosphere in the class, relaxes you and your students. It makes lessons enjoyable and memorable. It also helps you cope with stress better!

Sometimes you should have a plan, sometimes not
Have a plan, that is good. But realise that sometimes you may not be able to stick to the plan. Be flexible and go where the flow takes you! Some lessons can teach you things when you don’t stick to the plan.

Sometimes you should be prepared, sometimes not
Yes, it’s great to be prepared for your lessons and know exactly what you’re going to do. BUT sometimes it’s just as great having no idea what you want to do or where you want to go and then the real fun begins! Being unprepared at times forces you to think on the spot and, more importantly, use your creativity.

Be the teacher you always wanted as a student when you were in school
Everyone you speak to will have that one teacher they really didn’t like, and that one teacher they still remember fondly. Be the teacher you wish you had when you were in school.

Sarcasm is ok, but not too much
I’ll admit it, I am the worst when it comes to sarcasm. I can’t help it! I have a terrible sarcastic side and it comes out in almost every lesson! Fortunately, my students get me and they can handle it. But, you will find that one student who is rather sensitive and perhaps doesn’t get you like the others. So, employ your sarcasm in a fun way but always be aware that it might backfire at times. You will learn that it is important for even a teacher to be able to apologise to his/her students if something goes a little awkward in class.

Don't give answers, ask questions
Do not ‘spoonfeed’ your students. They learn nothing! I ask my students questions that get them to find the answer on their own. I give hints and clues, allowing the students to deduce and investigate the answer for themselves. It works.

Be the friend your students don't have
I disagree with the notion of “I am not your friend”. I believe that a teacher may be the only friend that some students have in school. Yes, there are professional lines not to cross – but being a friend is not crossing the line. Remember your students are far more than academic objects to be filled with knowledge. They have struggles, emotions and a whole life outside of school of which you may be unaware of.

Be available
Simply put, be available. Be accessible. Make sure you are there if a student requires assistance with something. Don’t leave straight after school, hang around a little in case some students wish to see you. You will find more students coming to get work done or asking for help outside of their normal class times.

Show respect and earn respect, don't demand it
Demanding respect without actually earning or deserving it does not work. It does the opposite. I show my students that they will earn my respect and in return I will earn theirs. It’s a relationship. The dynamics of a teacher’s relationship with his/her class are affected by many factors. Not every class you have will see you the same way. It’s a juggling act!

Your classroom is your kingdom, survey and conquer
Feel free to move around. Walk, jump, slide…whatever you want really, it’s your classroom! Take a look at the walls around you, what is on them? Movie posters? (Please, please…stop with the movie posters! Enough already, it’s not cool anymore and just an excuse to put something up on the wall that has NOTHING to do with your subject!) Make your kingdom a happy and fruitful place.

Smile, make jokes and make your students laugh
Why not? Have fun. Students work better if they’re in a good mood. Play music. Tell cheesy jokes (that is what teachers do!). SMILE! Why must you control your class with fear? How does it empower your students to learn if you are the stern authoritarian who rules with an iron fist? It’s just not me. I tried to be like that as a first-year teacher, because that is all I knew – it didn’t work.

Keep a positive disposition at all times when in front of your students
Teaching is like acting. It’s a show. You are the main star and your students the supporting cast and captive audience. There are days when I feel that I would much rather be somewhere else than in my classroom – those days are tough. But, when the students enter, I am smiling and positive – for their sake. This is no easy task and requires much discipline and self-control on the teacher’s part. So, smile in class and cry in the staffroom.

Be yourself as much as you can
As much as you are an ‘actor’, it really helps if you are honest about the kind of person you are and you are just ‘yourself’ in front of your students. I’m not talking about you telling them your deepest inner secrets or struggles with depression or whatever! I’m saying just be yourself, don’t pretend to be someone you are not. Because when life is kicking you in the teeth, your pretending won’t hold up and the students will not recognise their teacher. Now, this point might come in stark contrast to the previous one, but hear me out. Just be natural and allow your students to see you are just a human being, not a machine as some may think.

Show your students that you are there for them and they are important to you
This is part of earning the respect of your students. If they see that you are there for them, they will respond with a maturity that may suprise you. I tell my Matrics that they are my most important class and will always have my time and full attention. I tell my students that they are important to me. I tell each student who says “I can’t” that “You can!”.

Know how to relate to your students
What I love most about teaching teenagers is that they keep me young inside! Most people guess my age quite a few years younger than what I actually am. I put this down to the fact that I know how to relate to my students. What music are they into? What movies interest them? What do they do after school? Where do they party? Who smokes? Who drinks? Who might be doing drugs? I don’t have to do anything that the students do (thank goodness!) but knowing the culture they are a part of helps me as a teacher to relate to them. If a student is having a bad day, I don’t force them to work. I let them chill and do whatever they want. Their emotional state is more important to me than what they would have learned that day. And, besides, they would not have learnt anything in their state of mind anyway.

Stress will kill you
Literally. It’s a scientific fact. Trying to deal with stress is a tough one to tackle. I don’t have any answers for this one. Recognise when you are getting stressed (or depressed) and get some help. A stressed teacher is no fun in class.

Don't take work home
This one, I saved to the end. Can you think of any teachers that you know that DON’T work at home? The nature of the job, unfortunately, places the most inhumane working hours on teachers for which they are not compensated. Most teachers never have enough time to finish their actual marking or prep at school due to full timetables and/or extra duties after school. So, they end up taking work home. The reason I don’t like this is that those teachers with families end up taking away from family time and, one day, there may be regret. I have started trying to leave most of my work at school now. I don’t even check my work email once I am home for the day. Try to leave work at work, as hard as that may be.


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