Monday, October 12, 2015

Avoiding the Pitfalls of Teaching # 1 - Talking To Your Students Instead of At Them

Although  as teachers we spend many years in college learning our subject area and in teacher education classes, nothing - not even student teaching - can fully prepare you for the day that you walk into a school and have your own classroom.  Suddenly that's it.  You are in front of a room of 25 - 35 students all of whom you need to educate, engage and manage.  Unfortunately, unless you have a fantastic support system, you are likely to commit some of the common pitfalls that can make your job that much harder.  Over the next few weeks I am going to address some of these pitfalls and how to avoid them!  Additionally, I have asked some of my friends at teacherspayteachers to contribute their knowledge as well!

Topic One:  How to Talk TO your students (i.e. facilitating a discussion) instead of AT them (i.e. lecturing)! 

When we start teaching we are nervous, especially for the first year or two until we get some experience under our belts.  We want everything to go well, we want our rooms to be well managed, we want to be that super fantastic, great, wonderful, perfect teacher whose classroom looks like one of those out of a 1950's sitcom where everything is neat, tidy, with the students all raising their hands. To achieve this lofty "perfect classroom" we walk in, put the hammer down and start talking at our students through the "stand and deliver" lecture method.  We operate under the assumption that if they are silent, they are listening, learning and perfectly "under control".  Yep, sure they are. (Just like when my kids are suddenly quiet at home it means that they are being perfect angels...)   In all reality, 40% of your students are not learning anything because they don't learn that way, 50% are afraid to ask a question (or robbed of the opportunity to do so because you never pause) and 80% are about to explode from the amount of words and energy that is building up.
No one can sit still, silently for 45 - 60 minutes.  I know that I sure can't.  I get antsy, I start to tune out the words around me, I doddle, I start making lists, I get BORED!  Do we honestly expect our pre-teens and teens to be any different?  At the age we are when we become teachers we've learned some of the social norms, we know how to stay in our seats and at least look tuned in.  Most of the students sitting in front of us don't.  They are in ever changing bodies in an ever changing world trying to balance school, families, sports/clubs, friends, hormones and a thousand other things.  When you are trying to compete with all of that you need to teach how they learn.

So how do you do that?  How do you teach the way they learn?  Simple - you talk with them, not at them.  You allow your students to feel that they have a stake in their learning process and the ebb and flow of the classroom.

  • **  To combat their need to talk you can give them quick breaks where you say "solve this question with someone sitting next to you" or have a quick class discussion about how they see the topic (when applicable) used in the "real world".  
  • **  To combat their need to move ask students to come to the board to solve a problem or have them do a quick "think, pair, share".  
  • ** To keep them engage you can ask "what questions do you have" instead of "does anyone have any questions"?  Ask a student to explain what you just taught in their own words.  

In other words, you involve them in the lesson which gives them the opportunity to burn off some energy and raises engagement rates.  (I talk more about effective questioning here). You talk TO them and listen when they respond back.   If you ask them a question, listen, ask more questions to draw out more information, ask other students if they agree, disagree or have something to add.  You don't want to get them talking, engaging and interested to then just shut them out by not giving their responses any credence.

I spoke with a few other teacher-authors about how they made this shift:

Nikki from Teaching Autism found success when she formed relationships and explored other methods: "For me, it's very different, 99% of our children are non verbal, meaning it's very easy to talk at them rather than with them. It's great to offer choices so that they are independently making choices with you, using prompt cards ( to stir up a conversation - use iPad apps such as proloquo or symbol/communication books ( so that they are able to answer you, get them to point to an answer when you have offered them a choice. 

At first, it can be so hard, how do you make conversation with a non verbal child? It's something that doesn't come to you at first, so don't feel deflated when you feel like you're failing. It's something that definitely grows with you as your experience does. The more you learn about the children, the more you're able to talk with them, look for different signs of communication and promote communication that they look forward to. It's through this, that you start to build strong and professional relationships with your students. Once you have that strong relationship, then you're ready to tackle the teaching world!"

Coach Christopher from Courage To Core shared that the shift happens when you engage the students strengths: "For some years I worked at the amazing Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles, a city where social capital is the subtext for almost every text, where all Instagram’s are about to go viral, and face to face interactions can feel a little like being added to someone’s LinkedIn network. The Archer girls spoke in emoji’s or hashtags or something—codes conveyed in a blink of an eye, because they knew each other and were utterly in their domain at Archer. In class they lunged to answer questions, to hear their voices and those of their peers, and it was a shame not to leverage their social skills to educational ends. When I transitioned primarily to group work in math class, it was as if they had been holding their breaths for a month, waiting to engage full-throated. It was a viral sensation."

It's Kinder Time feels that the shift happens when you make a connection: "I believe that the many years I spent in the city recreation program for children helped me learn how to have conversations with kiddos rather then talk at them. Over time I learned better ways to make connections. Finding out your students interests really helps make connection with them and can open many doors with parents once they see how much you really care."

The pitfalls are there, just waiting, but hopefully together we can navigate them, avoid them or capitalize upon them to the benefit of you and your students.  How did you learn to talk TO your students instead of AT them?  Comment below, I'd love to hear it!

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