Monday, March 17, 2014

The Difference Between Good and Mediocre Teachers

     Mediocre teachers show up on time all year, teach lessons, grade papers, give tests, write down grades, fill out report cards, and consider returning next year.   They also usually find time to text during school.  I have no idea how they ever find time to do that.
     Good teachers do all of the above (except texting), and one additional task that makes all the difference in the world.  
They take personal responsibility for their students’ performance.
     This means that if a student is not doing well in any subject, the teacher will personally feel that it is his or her responsibility to figure out a way for that student to succeed.  
     If it is math, they will find a way to help that child understand whatever concept he is struggling with.  They will draw pictures, use manipulatives, repeat, slow down, sing songs, or do whatever it takes to get that child to understand.  Sometimes it involves taking a few backward steps to regain some lost ground and then proceeding forward. But that is all right, as long as there is true comprehension eventually, and hopefully soon.  
     A mediocre teacher will make the problem all the child’s fault and say that the child is a “hard learner”.   I don’t believe in that concept.  Some children obviously catch onto some concepts faster than others, but I personally believe that it is my responsibility to make sure that each child understands what they are supposed to be learning, and that usually means presenting the material in a different manner if one child is struggling to understand it.  
     I believe that if one of my students isn’t doing well, then it is my fault for two reasons.
Either . . . 
I am not presenting the material in a way that makes sense to them; I am not trying enough different ways to get them to understand, or not presenting the material in a way in which they are able to understand, 
or . . . 
the material is really too complex for the child and I need to give them simpler material so that they can comprehend on their level and then proceed forward (which is rare).
     It would be so easy to present the material once, give them their papers, and go back to my desk and text.  I could think that if they do poorly, then it is their fault, not mine.  
     I take the other route.  They can understand, and I believe it is my job to figure out how they will be able to understand.  And this is different for every child.  Some just need to read or see the material, some have to hear it, and some need to touch objects to really understand (like using pieces of pie for fractions).  There are many different ways in which this can be accomplished.
     For example, a teacher could . . .
take a few students back a few steps to regain lost ground before going forward again,
give up his or her morning break every day to tutor students, 
draw pictures and make up funny ways to remember spelling words for some struggling spellers,
give fun writing assignments daily to improve students’ self-expression in writing,
stay in during lunch grading endless papers so that he or she knows exactly which students are struggling (or excelling) in which subjects , and which concepts need to be reviewed the next day (my students are used to food smears on their papers),
make up  mnemonic devices and hand signals for science,
collect and dig through personal belongings for “hands-on” items the students can see and/or touch to aid in their understanding,
and find interesting stories from history and their personal life to share to help them to remember concepts.
(Wouldn’t that sentence be a BLAST to diagram?)
Now that is a LOT of work.  Why would a teacher do all that?   
Because he or she is taking personal responsibility for his or her students' learning.  
      Now, I realize that every once in awhile there is a student who just does not care enough to try hard enough to do well.  I must admit though, that in my experience these are very few.  If I do run up against one of these, I still try every way I can to motivate them (see posts on “Leverage” and "Motivation") and often this works.  If not, I will still try as many things as I can, then I eventually come to the sad conclusion that they just do not care and will not try harder no matter what I do.  The interesting thing is that they usually still always pass everything (with a 70 or above -- we aren’t talking honor roll grades here).  I hope this is because I am doing a good job at teaching my subject matter.  
     So, are we as teachers doing everything we can to help our students comprehend the material, or are we letting them struggle on their own because we believe they are "hard learners"?  The choice is ours.  

Photo explanation:  Teaching how to divide fractions:  the fraction on the left stays the same, the fraction on the right is flipped upside down, then we multiply.  (There is a multiplication sign on the white board.)