What would you say is the difference between someone’s ‘work’, their ‘job’ and their ‘profession’?
If you teach, which of these words describes your teaching?
Until about thirty years ago, teachers were regarded, alongside medics and lawyers, as a professionals, worthy of admiration and respect. More recently, for a host of reasons, this perception has broken down; teachers have a ‘job’ and do a range of ‘work’, but something important has been lost both from the day-to-day nature of teaching, and how the profession is perceived by the public. To assign blame is largely futile, but I have some suggestions for ensuring that we approach our work with true professionalism by addressing a couple of issues, introducing one or two new elements, and following some ancient but valuable advice. Here are my ‘Life-Hacks’ for a happy, successful, professional teacher.
Become a Happy Professional Putting These Ideas into Practice
Look after Yourself
It’s so basic but so difficult. Keeping well rested and in a positive state of mind relies on controlling the levels of stress and anxiety in your life. A huge boost to your problem-solving capacity, and your general well-being, is to fix a time by which you’re heading towards bed. The implications of working while poorly rested are all too familiar to many of us; irritability and short-temperedness, difficulty paying attention, lethargy and negativity. My habit is to stand and move around throughout my classes, and feeling light on my feet helps keep me active, responsive and mobile.
As well as getting sufficient sleep, we must ensure it is good quality sleep. Take a break from your devices in the half hour or so before bedtime; this has been shown to aid falling asleep, whereas bright screens are linked to wakefulness and insomnia. Try not to snack late in the evenings. If you’re a smoker, you don’t need me to tell you what to do. And, even if you’re doing all of these good things, consider one more addition to your evening routine:
Slowly but surely, Western society is adopting this ancient, simple method of refocusing our energies and allowing distraction and worry to ebb away. Whether in the morning, at lunchtime, after work, or in the evening, ten minutes (or more, if possible) of quiet sitting provides benefits which scientists are still scrabbling to quantify. People who regularly meditate tend to become angry less often, to forgive more readily, to laugh more easily, to shrug off the unchangeable rather than become stressed by attacking it, and have fuller, more rewarding social and family lives.
For teachers, meditation can bring that equanimity – the willingness to accept the rough and the smooth – which serves us well when dealing with problem students or colleagues. I’ve found myself less distractable and funnier since I began meditating regularly; its impact is highly individual but its effects are uniformly positive.
There are a lot of web and other resources on meditation, but here’s the basic procedure:
- Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Sit on a couple of cushions, or whatever works for your body, and cross your legs so that you are stable and won’t need to shuffle around.
- Breathe slowly in and out. Focus exclusively on each breath, the passage of air in and out of your nose, the feel of each breath as it fills your chest, the nuanced sensations which we ignore but which are rooted in a rather beautiful symmetrical simplicity. Notice everything but don’t react to it. Ignore the small discomforts; they will likely pass in a moment.
- Thoughts will occur. Let them go, again and again, observing them disappear from view like a passing cloud. Don’t become attached to any thought at all – not the fact that you forgot to load the dishwasher, or that Girls is starting in half an hour, or that you’ve got a horrendous cable bill which you can’t afford. Let it all go.
- Stay there for as long as you feel you can, then slowly get up and continue what you were doing. Bring the awareness of your breath and your body into everyday life. The rewards from this simple routine will surprise you; best of all, it’s entirely free of charge.
Get Regular Exercise
Make sure your heart gets a workout at least three times a week. This could be almost anything from a swim or a game of tennis or basketball, through to a jog on a treadmill or at the park, a brisk walk with your dog, a few push-ups and sit-ups at home, or an exercise class. Working out pours healthful chemicals into our brains, just the kind every professional needs to think and teach at their best. You’ll also look and feel good, boosting your confidence and sense of self-worth.
If You Don’t Write It Down, It Never Happened
This maxim reminds us to make plenty of notes throughout our working day. Tricky questions from students, ideas for a new activity, a reminder to check the meaning or etymology of an unusual word, a note to call a colleague or arrange a meeting, all go straight into my notebook, where I also keep my lesson plans. You might use a device instead; I’m just a little old-school.
Proper Planning Prevents Poor Pedagogy
Even if they’re very vague or flexible, every class you teach should have a set of objectives. This doesn’t turn the class into a dry, impersonal ‘product’ which you then ‘deliver’ to your students. It simply organizes your intentions so that the people who are giving their time and money to learn from you will never find themselves short-changed. Consider for each semester, perhaps also for each class, the overall learning aims your students have. What do they most need? What mistakes are you hearing? What elements of their skills set need to be boosted?
This is often done through testing, but I’m coming to believe that a more subjective approach, in parallel with routine quizzes and tests, can be of benefit. After all, exams rarely reveal the true nature of a student’s mindset and skills; tests can be a dreadfully blunt instrument, forcing certain types of answers while failing to accommodate those with different learning styles, methods of self-expression, personal interests, etc. As a teacher, you spend hundreds of hours with these students and are better placed than any examiner to judge their relative aptitudes and weaknesses.
All of this subjective and test-based data flows directly into your lesson planning. Say, for example, that your students aced the multiple-choice section on conditional forms. Does this mean they can use all four of them fluently? Find out by building a spoken exercise into your plan; true fluency isn’t expressed as a choice between three or four answers, but as the spontaneous, individual, accurate production of language.
Planning keeps us from forgetting what should come next, organizes the class time into sections which reflect our learning aims, and gives the teacher a sure-footed confidence as they progress through the class, exactly as though they were driving with a GPS rather than navigating from memory.
It’s Great to Create
There are many fantastic textbooks out there, and plenty of terrible ones too, but what’s certain is that no-one ever wrote a textbook specifically with your class in mind.
On arriving in China back in 2000 and flipping through the 1960s grammar-based horror show which was the available ESL textbook, I resolved to gather more and better resources on my own. With limited Internet availability but plenty of help from other foreign teachers and my local colleagues, I brought together exercises which were more fun, far more relevant to my students, and allowed us to practice using the communicative methodology I was brought in to espouse to these trainee teachers. Gradually, I added my own material to this growing folder: short reading comprehension exercises about more recent world affairs; crosswords and word-searches; error correction exercises (which were normally pretty hilarious); debates and speaking activities; creative writing prompts… you name it, I tried to come up with it.
Unleashing my creative side was a terrific experience, and wherever possible, I urge you to gather and create your own material with your own students in mind. This lets you accommodate their interests rather than relying on a textbook to do so; I firmly believe the teacher is best placed to select the most interesting topic areas and (certainly for more experienced teachers) to judge the learning needs of their students.
Professionals Don’t Play Favorites
I’ll put this simply and directly: There Are No Bad Students. You’re within your rights to dismiss this as rose-tinted or naïve, but I believe labeling a class or a person as ‘bad’ is myopic, deceptive and unfair. What you’ve found is that the student doesn’t respond well, or can’t stay focused, or is with classmates who distract them. I refuse to believe that the student is a hopeless case (certain very serious, clinically diagnosed behavioral disorders notwithstanding) and would insist that we need to muster our patience and professionalism, keep a cool head, and do whatever we can to help.
At the other end of the scale, it’s important never to appear to have ‘favorite’ students. I cringe whenever a colleague uses this word, as though it implies that we can rank our students from ‘good’ to ‘bad’, or even worse, from ‘smart’ to ‘dumb’. They are all the same. They have different attitudes and backgrounds, different aptitudes and preferences, but every single one is capable of excelling in their own way. Not every student of yours, or mine, will become a Nobel Laureate or a billionaire mogul, but it’s a wonderful, refreshing, energizing thought that they might.
Don’t Get Mad. Breathe In and Out
You’ve spent hours preparing a really fun consolidation exercise for your students. But when the time comes, they’re unruly and chatty, don’t take your classroom instructions seriously, and little comes of it. You could get mad and blame the students, or you could not. You could yell at them, or not. For some teachers, rule by fear is a favorite model, but I reject this out of hand.
In many of the world’s cultures, shouting is a sign of failure. Losing your temper means simultaneously losing their respect. Nothing turns people off like a red-faced tirade, even if, from a certain point of view, they’ve deserved it. Disappointment and displeasure can be shown through your body language, through small, targeted sanctions, and through a brief pep talk far better than through yelling and castigating. I don’t think I worked any harder for those teachers who lost their temper; quite the reverse, in fact.
We are models for our students, a curious mix of guide, instructor and part-time parent. I would prefer to present a calm, imperturbable face which shows my students that I’m in control, whatever might be happening. And if they’re not interested, that’s simply their loss; come exam time, or more importantly at a later stage in life when these skills become suddenly and centrally important, they will regret not having paid attention. I’m not the kind of teacher who will berate students for not doing what I’ve asked; I’ll do my best to earn their respect, so that they pay attention and follow orders because I’m respectfully requesting that they do. Yelling might be a short-cut, but I feel sure that, at least for most students, it destroys their respect for the teacher. If you feel your control slipping, simply stop and take three deep breaths.
The students file out and you’re left alone in a quiet classroom. This is a great moment for a little analysis. How did the class go? Did we meet our aims? How was the classroom environment? Did everyone have a chance to speak?
Going through a quick, routine assessment of your class will teach you valuable lessons which feed directly into the next lesson plan. What material did you lack? Was there enough time for everything, or did the pace of the class go slack at any point? Were you able to answer all the questions you received?
The results could be a couple of simple notes: Use left side of white board for vocab and don’t clean it; Keep Antonio busy so he doesn’t bother Luca; Ask maintenance to turn down the air-conditioning; Bring a red marker for error corrections on the board; Find good examples of past modals, etc.
Listen to Wisdom
Even if you’ve been teaching your whole life, you can still learn from your colleagues and other professionals. Not all of their advice will be relevant, and you may disagree with it, but that’s part of the valuable dialogue which spreads ideas and helps us interrogate the methodologies, assessment systems and teaching styles we’re all constantly trying to improve. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of those with more, or as much, or even less experience than you; newer teachers were more recently trained, and may bring valuable new ideas to the table. Older teachers often have good ideas on classroom management and discipline; younger colleagues can be great sources of exercises, articles or games.
At the same time, be prepared to offer your own opinions and give guidance, especially to the less experienced members of the staff room. This free exchange of pedagogical thought, often skipped over until special staff training days, should enlighten everyone and offer an open channel for resolving problems and finding better ways to teach and study.
I believe that the best teachers follow a lifestyle dedicated to the competent practice of their craft; this is one reason why fitness, rest and meditation are my first three recommendations.
If we’re in a positive state of mind, free from cluttering worries, and we’re conscientiously prepared and ready to use the latest methods, our guidance will be more valuable, our professional lives will be vital and rewarding, and our students’ classroom experience will be both fruitful and enjoyable.