Let’s assume that you are a true baseball or soccer or basketball fan and you’ve just been appointed manager/coach of your favorite team. You are absolutely thrilled. Your goal is to win the world championship with your team. How exciting is that? How would you go about achieving this goal? My guess is that you would willingly spend hours analyzing every aspect of your team. You would try to think of how you could help each player reach their potential within the team to bring on the victories. You’d study everything about the game to help everyone do better. Heck, this might be so thrilling that you’d do all the work for free just for the opportunity.
Is winning a few sporting events in basketball or baseball more important than helping your students to learn? Of course not – we may occasionally forget how important our jobs are but we should never lose sight of what we are accomplishing. I would argue that you already have a much more important job than any big league manager/coach. They play games; you change lives. They entertain; you make a difference. They occasionally play big games; you have the chance to improve lives every day.
Do you treat your teaching with enough importance? Do you approach your teaching with the same seriousness that you might have for the preparation of a sports team?
Over the past few months, I have been writing periodically about my favorite quotes concerning teaching. I find that certain things people have said can make a difference in how I think about teaching in general and my teaching in specific. Few quotes (maybe none) have influenced me more than the quote for today.
About four years ago, my teaching tips book got some publicity and I began to hear from a few people who talked about their teaching and their thoughts on teaching. One day, I got an email from England. It was from a person that I did not know. The note said something like “we have never met but I have read your writings on teaching and I feel like I know you personally. Here is a quote that has meant a lot to me over the years. And, knowing how you think about teaching, I believe it will mean something to you also.” How true that was.
I don’t remember who sent me that email.
I don’t even remember who said the original quote.
However, I think about this quote virtually every day. I believe that it really does hold the key secret to being a better teacher.
"Teaching does not come from years of doing it. It actually comes from thinking about it."
When I give teaching presentations, people will often ask me how they can become better teachers. They want concrete suggestions – talk more, talk less, use more PowerPoint, use less PowerPoint, work more problems, work less problems, yell a lot, don’t yell at all, test a lot, never test. The problem is that all of those do work for some people at some times but none of them work for everyone all the time.
The one thing that does work consistently (I believe) is thinking carefully about your students and your classes and your teaching and how things are going and what changes you need to make. In other words, improvement comes from seriously analyzing the infinite number of variables that make up a class over the course of an entire semester.
It is easy, especially after teaching for a few years, to go on autopilot. I have known teachers (heck, I have been a teacher) who could teach pretty well and never really think about that they were doing. At times, a teacher can come to function more like an actor repeating the same lines over and over on the stage with predictable results.
In my own teaching, I want to try to analyze every single aspect of the learning process on an ongoing basis so I can do better. I want to stay off autopilot. For example:
--What is my overall goal for my students by the end of the semester?
--What did I ask my students to do today? Did those assigned tasks further my overall goal or were they just busy work? What did they require of the students? How did they change the students’ perceptions and understanding?
--How well did my students perform today? Did they live up to my expectations? If not, what went wrong and how could I have gotten a result I liked better? Were the assignments too easy? Were the assignments too hard? Did I challenge each student enough or too much?
--Is every student improving at the pace that I want? If not, can I make adjustments to get better results from specific people?
--Are my students focusing on memorization or are they improving their critical thinking skills? How am I changing them? Is that what I want? How can I get them away from memorization and more into thinking? Too much education focuses on memorization - how do I get my students away from that?
I could go on and on but you get the point.
If I were a coach and wanted to win a championship, these are the kinds of questions that I would address every day. Why then don’t I think more about my teaching on a regular basis? If I believe that teaching is so important how do I stay off autopilot? How do I keep my teaching fresh?
There is not a good answer to these questions. Or, perhaps, each person has to find their own answer to each one. I want to help my students grow and mature. A good class can help them in so many ways. How do I do that? Hopefully, I think about my teaching in a serious and in-depth fashion much the same way as I would if I were appointed the manager/coach of a great sports team.
The next time I give a teaching presentation (Louisville and Savannah – both in May) and someone asks me how to become a better teacher, my truthful response is going to be: "Teaching does not come from years of doing it. It actually comes from thinking about it."
Go out there and do some thinking.