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Some lessons learned

March 5, 2011

This is my 31st year as an English Language Teacher. In that time, I have learned a few things about teaching that weren’t in my textbooks, or if they were, I have long ago forgotten that I saw them there. Some of these I have seen in other places, I think, but I don’t remember where. These are not deep lessons, but are pragmatic everyday guidelines.

First, I do not have a big voice, so if I try to shout in class, my voice rises in pitch and sounds rather desperate. I feel like I have lost if I have to shout or raise my voice, so I don’t compete with the students. I remain quiet or occasionally when I was younger I would clap my hands. If that doesn’t work, and it has worked over the last few years, I might mention a test. We shouldn’t compete with the noise because 20 or more students can easily make more noise and make us feel even less in control. Along the same lines, I tell the students I can only understand one person at a time. This seems rather obvious, but enthusiasm can overpower good sense at times. I don’t hear well in the first place, so more than one person talking can be a real problem for me. In addition, and more importantly, with only one person speaking, we can all hear what the person is saying and make that person the central focus.

I gave several midterm exams this week, which is where this lesson comes from. Cheating occurs with the eyes and usually after the first 10 minutes. I watch students as carefully as I can and watch for movement which may signal someone’s eyes moving to another person’s paper. In this regard, baseball caps can be handy tools for cheaters because it is difficult to see the eyes under the bill of the cap. The simplest approach then is to ask the student to remove the cap.

I hated busy work when I was a student or when I am a student, so I do my best never to give busy work. I encourage students who struggle to work on practices targeted on the areas they have difficulties with, but I also tell them to work only as long as they can pay attention whether it is ten minutes or an hour.

In class, I make jokes about myself not about my students. I read this on someone’s blog a while back, and it validated my own approach. I don’t talk about the students in class to criticize though I might praise a student when everyone else clearly recognizes the superior accomplishment. I praise the students when they do good work, but I don’t make jokes to belittle them or poke fun at them. I will joke with a student who likes to joke, but even then I try to be very careful because it is so easy to make an innocent joke that gets misinterpreted. Humor seems to have more pitfalls for English Language Teachers than for other teachers.

I never grade when I am angry or tired. I once saw an office mate get off the phone with her husband after a disagreement and begin attacking her students’ papers. I distracted her long enough for her to cool down. I can’t be fair when I am angry, and when I am tired, I can’t be accurate.

Finally, I keep relearning the most important lesson: “It’s about them, not about me.”

None of these lessons seem especially profound, but they come from my struggles to continue to make myself a better teacher.

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