4 positive qualities to model to your learners.

1. Be polite:

Be polite to everyone, including the most annoying student in the most annoying class, the one which you have come to dread when you see it on your timetable, the class which makes your stomach clench as you see them lining outside the room.

If you have a quick wit and a dry sense of humour, resist the urge to make friends of some in the class at the expense of others. It can be very tempting to tease the loud, hostile but slow-witted child whose party trick is insolence and overt refusal to do anything you ask him to do. It can be very rewarding to meet this behaviour with a gentle, lighthearted but deeply felt jibe in response, especially when you notice the other kids getting the joke. However, it will not encourage your problem student, who, seeing the laughter of others, will put more energy into his rudeness, the colourful nature of his epithets and his determination to win over you at all costs by owning the classroom and making it impossible for you to teach. And when the behaviour escalates and you end up having him removed, spitting and raging, from your classroom, you will know that you are at least in part to blame for the state into which he got himself.

We can only control our own behaviour, and scrupulous politeness and a smile, even if you have to force it, is more likely to deescalate poor behaviour. If you then seize on something which that student gets right in the classroom, you are more likely to get him onside.

2. Be accountable:

If you haven’t managed to get around to marking that set of books, be aware and acknowledge that some students will be disappointed that the homework that they spent a lot of time making as good as they could get it has not been marked.

You’re not expected to be superhuman; teachers always try to do more than they are physically able to do and often books don’t get marked. Just acknowledge their effort. If you make a mistake when writing something on the board, be grateful when a student points it out. If they hadn’t, then the mistake might end up as learning in the students’ minds. Consider rewarding eagle-eyed students who point out your mistakes; it encourages students to look more closely and analytically at what you write.

3. Be a learner:

If a student asks you a question to which you don’t know the answer, acknowledge that you don’t know the answer. Give them the chance to see you learning and enjoying it.

Not being omniscient is not a sign that you are somehow failing as a teacher. In fact, you betray a lack of confidence by being unwilling to acknowledge that you don’t know something, and by blustering and either guessing or basing your answer on some half-remembered fact, you may mislead a student who is trying to go the extra mile with their work. It is the really confident teachers who are prepared to say “I don’t know the answer to that one. What an excellent question!” You can either ask the student to find out the answer for you so that you can both learn, or for a more complex question you can commit to finding the answer and bringing it back to class.

4. Be interested:

Exhibit enthusiasm for what you do. Look for the angle which makes even the driest material interesting.

As a languages teacher I can tell you that to utter the word ‘grammar’ in any classroom results in instant yawning. I expect I could say ‘grammar’ to my dog and he would start to yawn and look sleepy. Now, grammar is quite a chunky bit of a language, and its not really possible to teach languages without a LOT of grammar lessons. So language teachers have to be creative. Some teachers are really good at communicating enthusiasm and are able to turn a grammar lesson such as “formation and use of the imperfect tense” into an engaging puzzle. Others can’t so they will deliver the necessary and desirable didactic content, and then think of ways of reinforcing it creatively. Grammar lessons I have heard about or seen have involved clothes pegs, wheels created in class, students lined up against walls, competitions involving headlong dashes to the board…

It doesn’t really matter – the point is that you are doing your best to help your students master the understanding, skills and knowledge. You’re recognising that this could be dull and rather than just TELLING the students to learn, you’re interested enough to do something different to support your teaching and their learning. Obviously there is no rule that says learning has to be fun, but nor is there one which says that students will learn because you teach. 

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