The Good Teacher
by Steve Schackne
During a pre-semester strategy discussion in a university this summer, the conversation involved, to a large extent, on how to make the students do what the teachers want them to do. How do we reduce absenteeism? How do we make them show up on time? How do we make them do the homework? This naturally segued into “what do we do if they don't do what we want them to do?” Take two marks off for every unexcused absence, one mark off for tardiness, three marks for every missed homework assignment, flunk them if they miss an exam. At the end of this two hour meeting, one got the impression that the session was as much about controlling and punishing the students as it was about helping them to learn.
Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and teacher, says,
“We don't like our kids. This [United States] is a country, this is a nation of people who don't like our kids. Therefore, the teachers are babysitters.”
While McCourt was talking about America and I currently live in Asia, the university pre-semester meeting I sat in on was redolent of a subtle but universal adversarial relationship that often exists between students and teachers. Part of this is a vestige of history where the power relationship between students and teachers was rigidly defined, and coercion was commonly accepted. More recently, the social and legal empowerment of students, combined with the deteriorating financial and social status of school teaching, has left both students and teachers unclear as to how their relationship should really be defined. Coercion is certainly no longer an option--students and their families have lawyers represent them now-- and with the low regard of professional teacher training institutions, even well-intentioned teachers are sometimes forced to fall back on using the “carrot and the stick,” which makes them, in McCourt's words, “babysitters.”
In previous articles, I have outlined a common sense approach to dealing with classroom methodology, whether it be teaching vocabulary, leveling your students, or deciding on how to evaluate and assess. If this can be used in discrete classroom situations, why can't it be expanded to include a general approach that would help define a good teacher?
Principles used in business can also be adapted for education. A good manager helps her staff to become better at what they do, helps them to become more efficient, helps them to achieve more; in short, helps them to succeed. So it should be with a teacher. A good teacher makes it easy for students to succeed, without sacrificing the challenge that brings a sense of accomplishment. And how does the teacher do this?
First, understand that students have different learning preferences. Some enjoy the intimacy of tutorial work, while others feel more secure learning as part of a class. Still others enjoy, small group work or pair work. Some students thrive on task-oriented or problem solving activities that involve a lot of spontaneity and information gap work, while others enjoy and actually learn by wrestling with traditional textbook exercises. Some students come alive in the social atmosphere that an educational institution offers, while other students progress more rapidly in the friendly and personal confines of their home. In short, some students need structure, others do not; some need chaos, others need solitude. It's the teacher's responsibility to understand the learning styles of his students, and to “play to” these preferences. While teachers can't be all things to all students, the “golden nugget” approach, briefly popular in the 70s and 80s advocated a syllabus with a variety of methods, and activities in the expectation that students would gravitate towards approaches they felt most comfortable with; idealistic, of course, but trying to force students to learn with a lockstep approach that they are not tempermentally suited to will result in a less than successful, often unhappy, experience for both student and teacher.
Set reasonable goals and make those goals clear to the students. This may sound intuitive, but it can be a bit tricky to put into practice. Most classes, no matter what their label—beginning, intermediate, or advanced—contain students of mixed abilities, so defining “reasonable goals” can be a bit difficult. What is reasonable for one student may be demanding for another, and boringly simple for a third. Given prolonged periods of language stasis, however, encapsuled in terms such as interlanguage and fossilization, many students who feel they have mastered a language element have not; rather, they can produce the language sporadically, but have not completely assimilated it.
I have found that when you take an intermediate class of EFL learners and divide them, based on skills and abilities, into quartiles, it is evident that students in the top two quartiles share some lack of mastery with students in the bottom two quartiles. To further explain, I divided a recent class of 20 students, based on a cloze test and a preliminary writing sample, into the top 5, second 5, third 5, fourth 5. Given an institutional test, such as TOEFL or IELTS, these students would be expected to correlate pretty closely to my classification; that is, the top 10 would be tested at a more advanced level than the bottom 10. Nevertheless, 19 out of 20 of these students hadn't mastered the present perfect tense, mastery defined as producing it correctly 80% of the time. Hence, present perfect tense, a language element commonly used and easily defined in English, would become one of my focuses for this class. Generally speaking, in a class divided into quartiles, I would aim my syllabus at the second quartile (4 being strongest, 1 being weakest). Many teachers disagree with me saying that my expectations are too low, but I am looking at mastery or assimilation as the goal. Most students can haphazardly produce complex language, but can not produce it consistently because they don't fully understand the rules of usage (when it is appropriate and when it is not). A single, discrete oral or written evaluation can often mislead inexperienced teachers.
Making goals clear to students involves specifically outlining what you want them to be able to do at the end of the semester. This means the teacher must guard against vague language, such as “improve your use of verbs...” or “increase your reading comprehension.” Goals must be stated in behavioral terms such as “be able to use gerunds and infinitives at an 80% (mastery) accuracy rate” or “write topic sentences which are grammatical and limited in one or more ways, and which clearly signal the topic of the paragraph.”
One criticism often voiced is that, given the often long periods of time it takes for students to master some language elements, many behavioral outcomes can not be achieved in the relatively short period of a semester. That's to be expected. Grades can be computed on how close the student came to meeting the goal. Specifically stating learner outcomes clarifies the direction and destination for the student, it's not meant to be an “all or nothing” proposition.
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.
Make It Fun and Interesting
Motivation or desire is a key to learning; add curiosity and a questioning nature, and you have a primed learner. Motivation, curiosity, and inquisitiveness, however, tend to wilt in a stale, uninteresting school environment. Use personalization and localization to stimulate communication—let the students talk about themselves and their lives. A few decades ago, the highly controversial values clarification approach was widely being discussed in language schools. It was a classroom approach that analyzed how students chose and developed beliefs and behaviors. At one time considered too radical for conservative Asian cultures, it has become, in a less rigid and psychological form, more acceptable as it loosely mimics personalization and localization; that is, it involves real student lives in communication.
Don't be afraid to use realia, that is bring the real world into the classroom, and when it is too large to bring into the classroom, take the students out of the classroom to engage the world. Primary research projects are often broadening for advanced students, while selected field trips can often benefit lower level students.
When looking at classroom topics, get in touch with what your students know, and what they are interested in. Gearing discussion or writing to student interest is always a positive step in engaging a class.
Just as important is to have a positive attitude towards learning and your students. Jeremy Harmer asked teachers and students what they thought “makes a good teacher.” The two areas most often mentioned were teacher's rapport with the students and the teacher's personality; people wanted a teacher who was fun and understood young people, as well as one who could motivate students through enjoyable and interesting classes. In addition, creating a fun, interesting, and enjoyable classroom can have salubrious effects on teachers' morale as well.
Many of the observations above tend to be common sense in nature—be understanding, be fair, set reasonable goals, be flexible—the type of behavior that would set a firm foundation for success in business or personal relationships as well as in a classroom. Yet, adversarial relationships still exist in many classrooms around the world, the residue of academic power cultures or simply the by-product of an insecure, undertrained practitioner. These types often brag about failing large numbers of students (the implication here that a tough teacher is a good teacher), and use coercion instead of management in a classroom. If we come back to our original thesis that a good teacher's goal is “to make it easy for her students to succeed,” then the petty power cultures and adversarial relationships which render so many educational institutions ineffectual and joyless, would slowly wither away.
Griffin, Robert. “Worries About Values Clarification,” Peabody Journal of Education, Vol. 53, No. 3, 1976.
Harmer, Jeremy. “What Makes a Good Teacher,?” Japanese Association of Language Teachers Conference, 1990.
Harmer, Jeremy. The Practice of English Language Teaching, Longman, 1991-2000.
McCourt, Frank. Interview, “All Things Considered,” on National Public Radio, Oct. 1, 1996.
Ohio Learning Network. www.oln.org
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