I’m a student, trust me

11 years of school has given me plenty of experience with all sorts of teacher in all sorts of subjects. Being predominantly academically minded, a decent and inspiring teacher is really quite crucial to me. I’ve had some pretty outstanding teachers in my time, and I’ve included aspects of their styles in the points below. As a Lower Sixth student, I offer some simple advice for teachers from a student’s point of view as to how to improve.

Although I’m not a teacher as such, I’ve lately had the pleasure of running a few revision sessions for years below me for Classical Greek, and I have limited experience in making the subject matter (literature and grammatical forms in my case) appealing for the students, with literature being covered only in my sessions rather than the lessons due to time constraints.

These steps are in no particular order, and are purely the opinion of a student who understands a little of the demands upon someone so integral to the development of a child.

1. Acknowledge your pupils outside the classroom

Smiling or wishing students a good morning maintains another side of the teaching job – the mentor and go-to person. Teachers who acknowledge students in the corridors are more likely revered by pupils.

2. Have as short a turnover time for marking work as possible

Teachers who are slow to take in and mark books on a regular basis (i.e. when they have nothing more important to mark, or no reports to write) don’t inspire confidence in students. Teacher-marked work is much more reliably accurate than student-marked work; for important homework tasks, or mini-tests, try to mark it yourself (unless you specifically want the pupils to understand the mark scheme). Which links to my next point…

3. Don’t be too generous in marking

Over-generous marks help nobody. They incite false confidence which may later be dashed. It is better to be as harsh as possible; in public examinations, the discrepancies between examiners is in reality so great that the difference between a ‘harsh’ marker and a ‘generous’ marker could be a grade. In the classroom, it’s much more useful and beneficial to be on the low end of the spectrum. Whilst younger students will prefer you to give them as many marks as possible, older students will realise that it really doesn’t help.

4. Don’t leave the classroom as soon as you end the lesson

There will usually be someone in the class who wants to ask you a question perhaps beyond the curriculum of that lesson, to query something you’ve said or to request extra assistance. If you leave as soon as you’ve released the class, you are discouraging them (however unintentionally) from doing so, especially if…

5. Be easily available!

…you’re hard to find otherwise. Check and reply to emails from pupils regularly (including in the holidays if possible!), and try to ensure you can be reached during break or lunchtimes.

6. Inspire your pupils

This is easy to say, and relatively difficult to do. Genuine enthusiasm for your subject is the first step. Encouraging extra questions from students related to the topic studied is another; don’t refuse to answer if it isn’t completely and directly related to the content of that lesson (if there are constraints of time, ask the pupil/s in question to wait at the end of the lesson so you can discuss it). Include interesting details about the topic which cannot be found in the textbook; effectively proving you have properly studied the area makes it much more likely that your pupils will be interested in what you say, especially if it contains humour.

7. NEVER read straight from presentations or from sheets

By a certain age, it’s fair to assume everyone can read. If you waste time reading chunks of text from the board or from hand-outs, even the most eager students are hugely unlikely to bother listening. If at all possible, avoid chunks of text where you can. Physically writing out notes on a whiteboard is better than ordering pupils to copy it off a presentation – and leave gaps, to engage their brains.

8. Spend the first half of the lesson wisely

Trawling through the latest homework or the latest test is really dull for everyone, even you. Outline common salient issues straight away, and make them clear. Don’t dwell on it. Speak to individuals if necessary, rather than trudging through their problems at the expense of everyone who doesn’t require that clarification. An excellent history teacher of mine used to spend the first 20-25 minutes of the lesson in a broad discussion of the topic for that lesson – teaching us, including facts he collated from personal research, and interacting by asking lots of different people.

9. Try not to spend an entire lesson reflecting on a mock/test

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, so different people will have messed up different questions or parts of the test. Go over questions which caused a lot of people strife if necessary. Never ever go through the test question by question, especially in a science test where there are lots of different questions. Giving the students the mark scheme, so they can identify exactly the points which gain marks, is a much more efficient use of time. Encourage them to ask you about any questions they personally got wrong. Students who lost few marks, or who made only silly mistakes (as opposed to having clear deficiencies in their knowledge) will have wasted almost an entire lesson. Only in the event of a mass catastrophe of a test should you force the entire class to trawl through the paper for an hour.

10. Don’t be too lax, nor excessively strict

Punishing somebody for their first late homework, especially when there is a good reason or the simple fact they’ve forgotten it, is perceived by the student community as unforgiving and cruel, especially for stressed students. Of course deadlines have to be made, and students who inform you of late work in the lesson or don’t bother should be reprimanded, as should serial offending. You probably think that you’re not bothered what the pupils think of you, as long as you produce good results, but in fact I’d argue that the popularity of a teacher is linked to their efficacy and potential. For older students, allowing students to do whatever they want is actually negative (in contrast with younger years who love any excuse not to work), and is a cause for popularity decreases. You need to ensure that students work hard in the lesson in most lessons.

11. Watch your manner

Rudeness is a significant cause for complaints to senior management teams, even if directed at other members of staff or ideals rather than a pupil. It is not acceptable to humiliate pupils in front of the whole class unless it is clearly humourous or they are behaving in a churlish manner; simple disagreements of perspective and analysis, for example, is no cause for public embarrassment for pupils. Swearing and blasphemy will also lose you respect. Inevitably, you will prefer certain students to others, but if you indulge this favouritism, the others will perceive you as unfair and biased – you must especially not let this influence your marking. Being good-humoured rather than moody and/or angry etc. will also have an impact on the effectiveness of your lesson.

12. Incorporate different things into the lesson

One of my German teachers is also very musical, and so, for example, the declensions of some irregular verbs are matched to melodies and then sung. In one of my previous maths classes, there was a high proportion of athletes, and so we practised transformations of graph parabolas by a sort of ballet-style co-ordination of arm movement and height change. Younger years appreciate the inclusion of drama, whilst older students engage their cognitive processes with the content of the lesson during debates. If all lessons contain exercises from the textbook, dry and uninspiring note-taking and limited class discussion, the students are less likely to recall the subject matter at a later date; by being original in certain lessons (easy enough in science through fun experiments/demonstrations) it helps them to retain the memory.

13. Prep.!

As afore-mentioned, this history teacher I once had used to read extensively around the topics he taught (he’d then offer to lend members of his classes the books, which I personally found very beneficial), and include details of the books or studies in our lessons. One of my Latin teachers continually reads papers and references ancient sources to elicit interesting details for his lessons. My most recent mathematics teacher used to compile examination questions and give them us as a pack, which was of the utmost use for honing particular skills and practising as we progressed through the course. If you can deliver a wider range of more interesting content than the textbook, you will inspire your pupils. End of. Teachers who rely too heavily on the course textbook give the impression of insecurity in the subject area and a lack of interest which disappoints eager pupils and makes weaker pupils uncertain. Those who don’t research questions posed by pupils or, especially with subjects containing literature, possess gaps in their knowledge regarding the background or references in a given text will be regarded suspiciously by certain pupils, whilst others will begin to wonder how much you care about teaching or the subject. If you appear not to know crucial aspects of something on the specification, there will be cause (albeit perhaps kept secret from you) for serious concern amongst pupils who come to rely heavily on teacher input.

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