The best teaching advice I’ve received

This article first appeared in the teacher teacher December 16, 2019. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

What makes some teachers more effective than others?

Throughout my teaching career, I have asked many colleagues, mentors, and associates for their advice on teaching excellence. Here is a sample of the advice I have gleaned over the past 40 years from exceptional teachers:

  • Be kind. This is the advice I have received most often from great teachers. Being nice doesn’t mean being pushover or watering down your content or academic standards, but it does mean following the golden rule when interacting with students in any way.
  • Let students get to know you. Students sometimes seem shocked to learn that faculty members have personal lives and interests outside of the classroom. Help your students discover who you are and a bit about your life’s journey. The first day of class is a good time to start. It’s easier to learn from someone you know and trust.
  • Help students get to know each other. At the same time, teachers can also help students get to know each other from the first week. As a colleague told me, “I think it’s kind of sad that most students are willing to sit next to someone for three to four months and never learn their name. Many students won’t engage with each other in class unless you encourage them to.
  • Lighten up a bit. It’s easy to take yourself too seriously. Be prepared to laugh with your students when appropriate. Self-deprecating humor can be a great way to communicate with your students. Humor can also be a helpful way to deal with some of the frustrations that can come with teaching. A few years ago, a colleague of mine—after being asked for the umpteenth time at the end of a semester if he would raise a student’s grade—sent the following email message to his students. It let them know the answer was no, but gave them a chance to smile at the same time. Here is what he sent:

Dear students,

I don’t know why, but I get an abundance of emails from students telling me that they’re missing 1 point on an “A” and if I don’t give them that point, they’ll: ( 1 ) losing their scholarship, (2) getting kicked out of their apartment, (3) losing their chance to go to medical school, (4) getting kicked off the rugby team, (5) not being able to get married in June, or ( 6) have to work in a coal mine all summer.

Hey, how are you! Just take a chill pill and relax. A hot shower and a full plate of chicken pad thai will do you good. Chase that with a slurpee. I don’t even care what flavor this slurpee has – don’t make it a blue one. The bruises make your teeth soar.

To see . . . if you put $100 in a savings account, you can’t withdraw $101 — you’ll be overdrawn. Likewise, if you earned an “A-“, I can’t give you an “A” just for fun.

I promise: life will go on, you’ll graduate from college, you’ll work in honorable professions, and best of all, you’ll still drive all your kids to football practice in a really nice minivan. Life is going to be beautiful.

I find it hard to believe that this class is going to determine your future salary and your potential to win a Nobel Prize, let alone who you marry, or whether you live in a nice house.

Comfort. Eat ice cream. Live a little! You can do it! But don’t lose any more sleep over an “A” or an “A–”! Take a step back! You will live to see another day! But, that’s just me. Sorry for the rant, but man, that feels good.

I love you all!

  • Be frank with students. No one likes to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re doing yourself and your students a disservice if you minimize or hide important information from them. If a student is at risk of failing your course, for example, you need to make sure they understand their situation.
  • Capitalize on your strengths. Don’t try to copy others. Be yourself.
  • Always learn. We live in incredible times. Knowledge is progressing on all fronts. Teachers have an obligation to keep learning. As one of my colleagues explained, “if there are few eureka moments for the teacher, there will be even fewer for their students.” You should be on the lookout for opportunities to learn from your students too.
  • Admit when you don’t know something. Never try to bluff. It’s a fact that you won’t always know the answer to every question you might be asked. Let the students know that you are going to try to find the answer. Then, once you find it, teach your students how you did it. It can be extremely helpful for students to understand How? ‘Or’ What we can answer questions. Just as important, if you can’t find the answer, let the students know as well.
  • Relevance of the initial charge. Too often, teachers seem to wait until the end of a lesson to pick up the pieces for students. They sometimes act as if they were pulling an imaginary curtain and saying, “Ta-da! Here’s how it all fits together! It doesn’t work as well with the current generation of students as it did in years past. Today’s students want to see the big picture from the start, not wait until the end.
  • Watch others teach. Whether negative or positive, you can always learn something by watching others teach. Take the time to visit other teachers’ classrooms and discuss their teaching successes and failures with them.
  • Borrow appropriately from other teachers. One of my teaching mentors taught me that it’s okay to borrow from other teachers if you do it with love and with their permission. In fact, if we’re not sharing with each other, we’re all doing more work than necessary.
  • Learn to ask the right questions. Questions that only ask who, what or when do not require much commitment from the students. Generally, the most important questions begin with why or how.
  • “Adjust” your course, lessons, exams and assignments. Don’t try to squeeze as much as you can into every lesson, exam, or assignment. You can’t squeeze two hours of instruction into a 50-minute class, no matter how hard you try or how fast you speak. If you add 10 minutes of content to a lesson, you must also remove 10 minutes from that lesson.
  • Bad day? Shake! Every teacher has lessons that “just didn’t work,” even if the same lesson for similar students worked the hour before. Learn from experience, figure out what could be improved, then move on.
  • Show them, help them, observe them, let them do it. Teaching can often be seen as a kind of progression in which the role of the teacher gradually decreases. You might think of this process something like this: it starts with showing them (100% teacher effort), transitions to helping them (75% teacher, 25% student), progresses to watch them (25% teacher, 75% student), and ends with leaving them (100% student effort).
  • Consider the next semester when preparing for this semester. Too many teachers are in such a rush to prepare for the upcoming semester that they don’t take the time to generalize their preparation and end up doing the same the following semester. Instead, look for ways to reuse lesson plans, timetables, syllabi, assignments, and exam questions instead of reinventing the wheel each term.
  • Share more stories. Stories are powerful and extremely flexible. They can be used to illustrate, explain, entertain, compare, contrast and reinforce. Stories can allow you to teach without it being obvious that you are doing it. Share more stories!
  • Remember, it’s an honor to teach. . . and it should be fun.

When it comes to teaching, the bottom line is that there is always room for each of us to improve. Which two ideas from this list could you explore further?

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Kenneth L. Alford, PhD, is a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University and a retired active-duty colonel in the U.S. military.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Best of Teachers Conference 2019 report. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

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