The Good Teacher
by Steve Schackne
In a formal classroom, regulations are often set, some of them necessary (especially with younger students), some of them rather arbitrary. The first requirement would be to make the rules reasonable. By reasonable, I mean can they reasonably be met? At one school I worked at, we had a 5 minute late regulation, anything later was an absence. Some students, however, were coming from a classroom twenty minutes away. Is this reasonable? We had a “no food in the classroom” policy as many schools have. But how reasonable is this when students have classes straight from 10:00 to 2:30?
Second, rules need to be consistent. Adolescents are especially sensitive to inconsistent enforcement of regulations. Quoting Jeremy Harmer: “If the teacher allows students to come to class late without taking action one week they (the students) cannot be reproached for doing the same thing again the week after. Teachers have to be consistent...about what the code of conduct is otherwise the students will lose respect for it.”
Third, don't be unfair. Try to avoid paying too much attention to any one individual; picking on students or having certain “pets” will often create problems. Also if punishment has to be meted out, make sure it fits the crime. A missed exam resulted in a semester “F” at one school I worked at; does that sound fair to you?
Last, don't be hypocritical or as Harmer says, “don't break the code,” the code being what many teachers refer to as class policies. A teacher should be subject to the same code of behavior as students. The students need to arrive at a certain time, so does the teacher, assignments should be turned in on time; likewise, assignments should be corrected in a timely fashion.
Be flexible. Be sensitive to student attitudes, moods, and feedback. Don't be afraid to change or modify the syllabus if something isn't working. Trying to ram approaches, techniques, and activities down the students' throats in order avoid classroom problems will only earn you contempt. Don't be afraid to admit a mistake and rectify it. At a military school some years ago, I blasted a student with 20 demerits (a rather severe penalty) only to realize that evening that I was as much at fault as he was. I let my temper get the best of me. Next class, I apologized and withdrew the demerits, in front of the entire class. Many teachers feel threatened when confronted by their own mistakes, mistakes which demand redress. Insecurity and the outmoded sanctity of teacher-student power relationships must be overcome. Being flexible is being human.
I have often argued for the elimination of traditional letter and number grades in ESL courses. If the real goal of grading is to give the student meaningful feedback, then qualitative statements such as “...needs more work in mastering use of conditionals....” or “...fluent in speech, but needs to be taught how to write a clear topic sentence....” are more useful than “78” or “B-”. Most language programs, however, stubbornly adhere to a traditional approach. Under the conventional system of number-letter grades, it is up to the teacher to set reasonable standards. By reasonable, I mean fair. Make it difficult to get either an “A” or an “F”--undeserved A's and F's are not only the most misinformative of grades, but the F often requires students to alter their program of study to repeat the failed course. For the majority of students, B-C-D, assess them enough times whereby they can move through levels (hopefully up). I believe in clustering or “ballooning” assessments near the end of the semester rather than ongoing assessment equally distributed throughout a semester—after all, the final score of the game is more important than the halftime score; that is, students learn at different speeds, and evaluations near the end of a term are more likely to measure what they have learned than evaluations given at the beginning or middle. While it is possible to attain any grade in my language courses, I spend a lot of time ensuring no student gets and undeserved A or F. Then, I look at the midrange, always erring on the side of the student. In 27 years of using this approach, I have avoided any serious challenge to my grades.
Citing the Ohio Learning Network, “...feedback is a responsive verbal or non-verbal communication showing a reaction—teaching through the learner's own work....” It comes “...not from a power relationship but a collaboration between teacher and learner—both focused on the student's achievement.”
Much has been written about prompt feedback, but it is especially important in environments where traditional teacher-student relationships still prevail. In some parts of Asia, the school day is long, exercises are often boring, and students are often pressed simply to get their work in on time. At my current school, a student could be carrying over 20 hours of courses; some students are here from 8 to 5:30 every day. This encourages them to concentrate on deadlines, not quality work; writing assignments are often dashed off without proofreading, handed in, then forgotten, as they try to meet another assignment deadline. Giving prompt feedback here is essential, because the students are not used to re-visiting their work, but mentally filing it away, as they grapple with another class assignment.
One way to keep student attention on a writing assignment ( I choose writing here because the area of speaking-listening often offers immediate feedback) is to look at it from a process approach, not simply pre-writing, writing, post-writing, but as an ongoing project where they spend time developing ideas for an article, write it, then go over it again in order to add and/or eliminate ideas, and, on a more mechanical level, proofread for errors. Given the schedules my students have, this could mean assigning only one essay a term, but that essay, through several drafts, would be a major semester activity, providing teacher comment on a weekly basis. Here we find prompt, relevant feedback because the students have a long term involvment with the assignment, it isn't a one- or two-period activity.
Technology has provided new opprtunities to facilitate prompt feedback—email, chat, url resources, and online peer networking are all examples. I personally use email to comment on student ideas for projects, as well as giving them online feedback on drafts. If we accept the Ohio Learning Network's definition of feedback as not a power relationship, but a collaboration between student and teacher, then technology has certainly helped to make prompt feedback easier.
To page 3 of 3
To the print friendly version
Back to the articles index