Monday, December 28, 2009

Advice for educators

It is interesting alternating between teaching English and attending Russian classes, because I can make observations from both points of view. For example, I have more motivation to do homework because I know what it's like to be a teacher. ;)

There was certain advice we were given in training about teaching adults, but I haven't been able to apply it all yet. However, I was able to test it out while being a student, and found that there are a few areas where teachers really do need to plan carefully and pay attention to students' needs.

1) Making lessons "fun"

I always have a dilemma when planning for Sunday school because I know the kids like to get up and move around, but I hate the kinds of games that have just one winner. So I look for activities that have an "everyone wins" objective, which aren't always so popular. more/-

But that's with children. Adults, of course, can handle a little competition. But as far as making the lesson "fun," I find that teachers sometimes mix up relevance with entertainment. Making an assignment personal is an important step in developing conversation skills, but it doesn't have to mean letting go of rules. Just because a student is sharing about his family or participating in a "get-to-know-you" game doesn't mean a teacher should be afraid to correct errors. That's what teachers are for! There are ways to correct errors subtly so as not to interrupt the flow of conversation.

2) What to do when only one student shows up

We were told not to say "Where IS everybody?" when one student is in the classroom. It is as if you are ignoring him. Somehow, something similar often pops out of our mouths to break the silence. We want to state the obvious.

But it really is insulting from the student's point of view. My teachers this semester were pretty good at getting started and acting interested in me even when no one else showed up or if the others were really late. Of course a few times we stalled or switched to an alternate topic for class, but they never made me feel like they had wasted their time to show up just for one student.

I think it's important not only for teaching but for any kind of gathering, to thank the people who HAVE come and to make them feel welcome. It's usually not necessarily to draw attention to the empty seats or to make an announcement about needing to change plans since so few people have come. If you are concerned about the others' health or whereabouts, you could ask someone who knows them, AFTER the class...rather than taking away from the class time.

3) Grading and expectations

I don't know about you, but I'm more motivated to work harder when the teacher expects more of me. If I know she isn't going to collect or check the homework, why bother to do it? If I know she's an easy-grader, why should I give 100% effort? I could work just a little bit and get a satisfactory result.

Students need honest feedback about how they are doing. It isn't just the donkey-carrot theory about getting them to work hard. If you want them to succeed, they need motivation to work hard, and they need to know what they can do differently. And as far as respect, they need to know that their effort doesn't go unnoticed.

4) Giving clear instructions

We practiced and practiced phrasing instructions so that they would be understandable to learners of English. We practiced checking for comprehension before beginning the activity. But I have to admit that I usually get lazy and give instructions in Russian, or just start the activity without any explanation and see if any questions come up.

But as a student, with all other factors being in order, I found that I felt a little panicky when we started an exercise without complete instructions. Or without a simple question from the teacher about whether or not we understood.

As a student, it's important for me to know:
-how to know when it will be my turn, or how to express that I want to answer the question
-how exactly to answer the question (i.e. a model)
-what resources are available to me (new vocabulary, a grammar chart, etc.)


  1. Nice piece on education. I taught elementary students, 5th and 6th graders, for 32 years and learned probably as much as I taught. We always started each morning with "rug time" down on the floor. Some of the students would share. Many of them would start with "Me and ...". I would stop them and they would start over. This did not correct the problem, as many of the students continued the practice. So, after about two weeks I said that if anyone started with "Me and...", then he/she would lose his/her sharing time, unless they caught the error before someone else did. Everyone was listening carefully all year long and trying to catch someone with the error. The one who caught the error got to share. It certainly worked and was always done with a laugh and by the end of the second month, the error was seldom made. Students were always looking for my grammar and spelling errors and it was a great opportunity to laugh with them, praise them for detecting the error, and modeling that as humans we all make mistakes and we are all learners.
    Also, for a number of years educators were taught not to "frustrate" students because it would hurt their self-esteem. The results was work was made easier and there was less frustration. We all know that some of our greatest learning comes from frustration. I'm glad that educational philosophy did not last long.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on education.
    What ages do you teach Sunday School?

  2. Thanks, Hosea! It is nice to hear from someone with more experience. :)

    The kids are 3-13, and you never know who is going to show up! So that makes it hard to plan activities...

  3. Some very interesting perspectives! I think when there are few students, my expressions of surprise or disappointment are usually voiced on behalf of the student who will, perhaps, now not enjoy him/herself so much with "just me". It IS hard not to say something! The atmosphere will be very different when there are usually 10 students and today only one!

    I find things to appreciate about both the teacher who is "relaxed" and who I do not need to worry about pleasing. I can branch out, be more creative, take risks, have fun with it. However, the teacher who makes me a bit stressed that I'll meet expectations, might get a bit more out of me in his way, too. I know I would hate to have ALL of this second variety, though!

  4. That's true, it is mostly the student who misses out on conversation practice when he's the only one, but still, you don't want him to regret coming to class the moment he walks in!

    I think it is possible to have a "relaxed" atmosphere, yet have high standards! Nervous or fearful students certainly won't learn much, and mistakes should be forgiven. The expectations should be high, but be presented in such a way that the teacher expresses faith in the capability of the students. "I'm asking this of you because I know you can do it." "I think you can do better, and I'd like you to try."


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