November 2014

What Poor Teachers Can Teach Us

by National Hall of Fame Teacher Alan Haskvitz

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I was blessed as a teacher by having some of the worst teachers as role models and that includes public school and college. Each one of these enabled me to learn what not to do as a teacher and can provide others with ideas on how to improve their teaching.

This article isn’t about sour grapes, it is about turning negatives to positives and that is what we can learn from bad teachers. I am sure all of us sat through courses where the instructor lacked the basic skills to teach. It was boring and frustrating and sometimes we paid with low grades. The point is that we can learn from these weaknesses to make ourselves better teachers. Call it turning negatives into positives.

In high school I had the worst geometry teacher imaginable. He had his favorites, and I wasn’t one of them. In the end he won because I failed the class. I took the class in summer school and received two A marks for the same material. The difference was that one teacher wasn’t a teacher and the other took the time to teach. I took a summer school class in literature from a teacher from the Claremont Colleges while I attended Cal State. He assigned each of us a book of his choosing. At the end of the class we wrote a review. He gave me a C, a failing grade for a graduate student. The day I got the paper back I went to talk with him. He had left on vacation. Oh, the reason was for the low mark was that he thought my work was copied. It wasn’t, but he didn’t care to ask me. Thus the first lesson lesson learned is that teaching is to care about your profession. You are a professional.

The best way to learn is from good role models. If you find them in your teaching preparation program you are in luck. If you have a choice try to enroll in those classes taught by practicing teachers who have been successful in the classroom and are familiar with current state testing and standards. The worst teachers had one thing in common and that was they had no idea what good teaching was and didn’t bother looking because they felt they were doing a fine job. Be warned student teachers that this is your best chance to see some noteworthy role models. Don’t take the easy way for your observations and visit convenient schools or friends in the profession. Search out the best to be the best. So lesson number two is take the opportunity to look at what quality teachers are doing. At conferences attend those sessions where classroom teachers are presenting. When you are given a professional development day see if you can visit other schools. If this fails, I highly recommend something I have learned a great deal from. I give the students a letter at the end of the year and ask them to send it me after they complete their next year of study and tell me what I could have done better to prepare them. They don’t have to sign their name, either. Although the return rate is only about ten percent, the results are valuable. Yes, you get thank you letters, but more importantly I learned that my grade structure was too complicated (I was giving points.) and so I changed all of these to become a better teacher.

Remember sometimes there is a difference between the best teacher you ever had and your favorite. Analyze why you feel that way. I was doing a television interview in Canada and one question I was asked it what is the difference between the two. I explained that they needn’t be mutual exclusive, but in the main the best teachers taught you lessons you could apply long after you left their classroom and the favorite teacher had a class that was fun. I frequently read statements from students writing about a teacher’s class that was so much fun. When I ask them why it was usually because it was easy. A middle school expert once told our staff that he could tell the best teacher on any campus because that is the one the students complained about the most. And the complaint? Too much work. Being easy isn’t always being good for the student. So to be a better teacher make a list of the traits of your best teachers and try to emulate those as best you can. The lesson here is to separate your favorite from the best.

Another negative experience I benefited by was having teachers who isolated themselves in their subject. I don’t mean that kept the door locked, but they didn’t make their subject applicable to life and other subjects. It was simple a matter of memorization. In junior college I had a teacher whose final was to put 100 historical events in order. That teacher could have been replaced by a computer program and the learning would have been the same. So the next lesson is don’t isolation your subject from life.

Next lesson is not to isolate yourself in the classroom. Sharing questions, ideas, and asking for help doesn’t reflect negatively on you. Making friends with the classified staff is a must. They know what is going on and can provide valuable assistance in how things are done. Poor teachers don’t make themselves available. They hide in the staffroom. One of my teachers was never available for help. He told the class that his job was to teach during school hours. After school he went out to coach the football team. If you weren’t on the team you were out of luck. In the years since his attitude became a topic of conversation at every reunion. His ears must be burning, but more importantly he lost an opportunity to help and that is what good teaching is all about.

There were no shortage of teachers who had favorites and sometimes that created a problem for the student. To avoid this be fair to all your students but remember that they are not your buddies. Understanding them and having compassion for their situation is to be encouraged, but be aware that such “friendships” may be taken differently by the student. I don’t allow late work unless there are circumstances that the students can not control. If they wish to turn in late work that is fine because it is a learning experience. However, they receive no credit because they is also a learning experience.

Every day might have both negative and positive events. Celebrate the positive and learn from the negatives. If a parent’s comments leave you down, consider what you can do in the future to alleviate that feeling. Use the word challenge instead of problem. It helps eliminate negative feelings. Good teaching isn’t easy and that is why it is important to have a mentor at the school to discuss these matters with. Above all, stay away from those who consistently are negative.

All too frequently I had teachers who were interested in their subjects, but didn’t have the versatility to relate the subject matter. They were knowledgeable, but transferring that ingredient to the students was lacking and so the motivation dipped. To avoid this I recommend you continue your education taking courses in a variety of areas based on what you can afford can be worthwhile. Skip the basket weaving, but the one on world cultures might be of interest and how about business law? Education is a lifelong quest and being intellectually curious can help you “reach” students better by helping them make connections.
When in college I had a professor who could not find my term paper. I not only handed it in, I gave a presentation with it. The point is that being disorganized isn’t the problem, the problem is not having a system in which student work is documented. If you teach nearly 200 students, as I do, this is no easy task. But I have developed a system that works well and includes recording the date the assignment was handed in and a note if it wasn’t completed correctly. It takes time, but it also enables you to see trends and to gain insights into the personalities of your students. Thus lesson number 9 is be organized.
There was a German teacher that thought he was good at teaching, but poor not at discipline. He would rather tell a joke and be the students friend. As a result, those students who struggled weren’t given the extra help as he entertained the class. It is essentially that you have a good sense of humor, but it is also essential that you know when it is time to be serious. This teacher hadn’t master that vital trait after decades in the classroom. So, the lesson here is from the first day of school make sure that the students know how the class is run, the grading and homework requirements, and when you are available to help them outside of class. Make your procedures clear and be consistent. I write homework assignments a week in advance on the board and have them write it in their calendars. I post instructions on the board and leave them there for a few days. When they come in the room they get out their notebooks and get ready to work. They are told to use pens, how to format their papers, how to take notes using the Cornell method and I have modified, and the attendance and tardy rules are and the consequences. I post them on the bulletin board as well as the discipline rules. Next, have the students fill out an information card with their interests, parent contact numbers, and any other data that you may need. Keep them in a file. Finally, during the first week of school contact every parent by email or phone. During the Back to School event have a handout with the rules for the parents to keep. Also list what the State requirements are for the class and how to contact you.
Lesson 12 is to show interest in the student. I remember in elementary school students would bring in things that interested them, including a fair amount of insects, snakes, and other creepy crawlers. The teacher showed great disdain for these and lost an opportunity to reach the student. After a while the students didn’t even bother showing them to the teacher, but found the custodian who would tell them about their care, what they were, and whether the “find” should be kept or released. A book written about teaching in a tough New York school showed how a teacher used rodents to provoke student interest. In my class a bullied student brought in a caterpillar in a container. I let him keep it in the room and other students found it and asked him questions. He soon became the expert and the bullying stopped. Showing interest is that powerful.
There was one teacher who was quite likeable and he loved the theater. His class was enjoyable, but there wasn’t anything of substance offered. He would come dressed up in period costumes and give give a performance that provided insights into that characters thoughts. The problem was that the lessons were like a primary resource. They were interesting, but unless you had the background the value was quite limited. The idea certainly has merit, what was needed was a proper setting and more pre and post lessons to put the presentation into focus. So the next lesson is to put yourself in the student’s position. What are they going to learn from your lesson and how will you know?

Next up; communicate who is in charge. Move around the room as the lesson permits. Some teachers never leave their desk, but somehow know what is happening in the classroom. Take your pick. Which ever method you choose be alert. Some teacher know when the bell is about the ring as the students put books away in anticipation of their escape. These teachers are allowing the students to dictate the use of time in the classroom. Poor teachers let the students run the class whether it is to allow one student to dominate or to allow the students to leave when the lesson needs a conclusion. Make it clear from day one that you are the decision maker and their friend, but not their buddy.
Lesson number 14 is not to hold a grudge and always give the student a choice. In high school my friends were going to Las Vegas to play a game. I wasn’t good enough to make the team, but I wanted to go anyway. So I ditched school and went. I was prepared for the consequences. There were none. The counselor heard my story and wrote on the unexcused absence form “not truant.” I took it to every class and teacher and they simply accepted it, except one. He asked where I was and I told him. He called the counselor and the coach and expressed his outrage. At the end of the year he gave me the lowest citizenship grade possible. How dare I miss his class. I never understood why, but it was clear that this one incident had alienated him and he wasn’t going to let me forget. If I student does something wrong give him an opportunity to make it right, but make sure he or she knows the consequence. And, don’t take comments students say about you personally. If that means letting the moment pass so be it.
Finally, poor teachers probably got that way because no one bothered to show them how to improve. You should always be willing to listen to ideas and never quit going extending your education.

Discipline: training that perfects the mental faculties

Ten Skills Every Student Needs and You Probably Don’t Have Time to Teach
by National Hall of Fame Teacher Alan Haskvitz

After 40 years of teaching there comes a time when you want to just yell at the curriculum designers and textbook publishers that they have the cart before the horse. Teachers need to be allowed to spend more time teaching students how to learn and less on preparing for a test which measures nothing applicable in the real world.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I feel that every teacher would love to really teach students how to get ready for the challenges ahead of them and use the curriculum as a stepping stone to that goal. Over the years my students always were at the top in the State in terms of standardized testing. Indeed, some of them had perfect scores. The problem was I was teaching them how to take the test. Fortunately, I as able to shorten the material required for the course by removing those elements I though were essentially chaff so that I could teach them essential skills. Essentially, I started by teaching them how to discipline themselves. This worked so well that I still get letters from students, some decades after they were in my class, thanking me for teaching them for life. I have never gotten a letter thanking me for teaching them the Monroe Doctrine.

Here is the list and it far from complete, which are skills that need to be taught. Feel free to comment and add your own.

Learning how to Learn

Developing a love for learning is essential for any educator. It is the most important lesson a teacher can impart to a student and it is also the most difficult. A teacher may have to face a variety of hindrances from lack of parental care, nutritional and emotional problems, and even severe mental concerns. Regardless, there needs to be an effort and the best way is to become a facilitator by prodding, motivating, and providing a diverse array of learning materials to challenge the student to learn for themselves. Most often the textbook, frequently filled with data with little relevance to the student, is the main focus of instruction. And, perhaps, that is the way it must be if the goal is a test that measures improvement in the acquisition of this data. The teacher can feel confident as he or she has covered the material by sticking to the textbook. Motivational, hardly, but that is how teachers are frequently judged. There is another way to do this, but it is time consuming and requires a multitude of rubrics. Providing a variety of materials and having the students learn from them is an arduous task. However, once it is done a teacher can spend the rest of years modifying, adding, and individualizing lessons to meet the needs of the students. ReachEveryChild (cited below) provides a variety of sources for this free material and is an excellent place to start individualization.

The second part of learning how to learn based on whether the student is an auditory, visual or kinetic learner and how to use these to their advantage. It is impossible for a teacher to use all of these methods when presenting lessons, but a student can create their own lessons to help them acquire the knowledge. In my classes I have students create poems, songs, graphic organizers and the Cornell note taking system. In this way there is a variety of methods for them to learn. I insist they use my linking and three transfer method of learning as well. The linking method makes them link what they are learning to other things they have learned and create a “learning tree” of it that they add to throughout the year. The three transfer method is to have students read the material, take notes on it, and transfer that material to another mode such as notecards. I also recommend presenting the answer to a question and have them supply the question. This is an excellent test of finding out what they know. It can be used in all subjects.

What is Valid

If you have time, giving the student a variety of short articles to read and asking them to figure out what would be the best way to judge this material is very worthwhile. This process should also include a study of the various types of propaganda, how to evaluate a website for bias, and stereotyping. That is a lot to swallow and so it is best as part of a school-year long program. If you are teaching social studies an ideal unit could be the differences of opinion between the South and the North about slavery. Learning how to learn is not just about the acquisition of skills, but for the student to acquire the ability to judge the material. One of the best tools to get students to read is Sherlock Holmes and the Sign of Four. As the students read the article they keep track of the characters and reach various conclusions as the teacher hands them the next page. The lesson makes them detectives, but more importantly allows them to learn for life. Seldom are we giving all the answers, but we must make decisions by what we know and judge what is valid.

Speed Reading, not just reading.

It isn’t any secret that the first basic skill is reading. But not just reading, but speed reading. Close reading will follow much more quickly if students can learn how to read rapidly. Reading for facts and reading for pleasure can both be more enjoyable if a student acquires the ability to focus on several words at one time. I taught second graders how to read over a 1000 words per minute at their grade level. The usual improvement was always 200 to 400 words per minute more and this was for language arts and social studies materials. Interestingly the comprehension improves as the speed level doubles as the student concentrates on the material. It is a win-win, but it most be reinforced until it becomes a habit and it takes at least 30 days for it to become a habit. Be warned that some students are resistant to it and so online speed reading sites can help them challenge themselves at their own rate.

Write at Grade Level +

The first thing on teaching a student to write is to explain the types of writing based on the purpose. Taking notes while on the phone or writing a compare and contrast essay may be different in length, but the ingredients are the same. However, for longer works you need to teach the student to write at grade level. I have the students write a one page paper on their favorite vacation either real or imagined. Next, I have them underline all the one syllable words. After that they circle any word that they have not known since primary school. The Fry Formula is applied and the students record their writing scores. They is always silence as the students realize that they are writing at several grades below grade level. Now, that isn’t necessarily bad, but it does force them to expand their vocabulary and that is good. I always have a few Thesaurus books on hand and show them how to use them. The results are immediate and the students not only improve their writing, but improve their thinking and organizational skills as well as they strive to improve. My article (citation below) provides an in-depth look at this successful practice that has enabled my students to win numerous writing competitions.

Teach Them to be Journalist

This vital profession is based on training that every student needs. The ability to communicate, to judge facts, and to influence others with their work. There is no other profession that is so vital for students to learn from because it is essentially what they are going to do nearly every day of their life. A good journalist seeks out evidence and judges it. They write using the who, what, when, where, why, and how approach. They use the inverted triangle that helps them organize facts. Finally, it teaches them to be curious and ask questions and, very importantly, take good notes.

Teach Them to be Lawyers

Perhaps, oversimplifying, but lawyers earn them living by researching and providing evidence that their cause is correct. This requires an examination of evidence and organization. This is another valuable trait that can help students of all ages. For example, was George Washington was a good president? Can you prove it? Can you provide evidence that he was not so good? Some may call this critical thinking, but that type of thinking can not really be utilized until a student is able to have a variety of experiences that enable them to make a critical decision. Thus using the basic skills of an attorney in proving a point and providing evidence to that end are skills they are going to need to write essays persuasive and expository essays and in life.

Be Accountable

At the beginning of the school year I ask the students to look around the room and, without naming names, tell me how many other students they would hire to work for them based on the knowledge that they wanted good workers. After that I ask them to write that number down, fold the paper, and place it in a basket. I take out the numbers and place them on the board to come out with an average. In almost every case it is ten percent of the students or less. That means that the others already have a reputation of not being good workers. The reason for this is that many students simply do not hold themselves accountable. Immediate gratification, poor parenting, the need for quick teacher assessment with little assessment of the assessment, all help feed a “who cares” mentality. This results in large scale cheating with little fear of consequence. Research has overwhelming shown that rewards must be intrinsic to be a lasting value. If students are to be held accountable there must be a reward system that works and entices parent buy-in.
People Skills

We aren’t talking about cooperative learning, we are talking about the ability to get along with others regardless of differences. We are talking about good manners, social skills, negotiating skills, and the ability to work together to create a common goal. Skills as basic as how to talk to people on the phone, how to ask permission, or even showing remorse or concern are missing and yet vital for life.

Handling Emergencies
Handling emergencies is also seldom taught at school. Yes, fire drills are held, but what value are they to the student when a fire really occurs elsewhere? My students wrote and had published in the American Fire Journal the problems with school fire drills in the hopes of enlightening others. School administrators essentially ignored it because it wasn’t an area to be tested. Sad, because the issues the students brought up were important. For example, why does the fire extinguisher stay in the room during a fire drill? Why do the students stand up in rows when an explosion could knock them over? Who knows where the dangerous chemicals are? What do the various colored helmets that firemen wear mean? Needless to say, handling emergencies is a vital skill. Why doesn’t every student know CPR? How to stop bleeding? Or to identify a person having a “fit” and knowing how to act? Taking this a step further, how to teach students not to panic and to learn how to identify people should be taught. But, who has the time?

Skills for life

Setting realistic goals, identifying propaganda and bias, budgeting time, operating a computer and touch typing, triage work assignments, handling money and investments, observation skills, where to find information and measure its accuracy, and learning how to listen can all be incorporated in the curriculum. Each of these carry lifelong importance and all can and have been taught within the curriculum if there is time. There are free units of study on almost all of these areas available. The teacher needs to be given the time and flexibility to personalize them for their class.

Before I get off my high horse I must add one more thing and that is for the student to learn how to be happy. My friend Larry Martz, an editor with Newsweek, wrote in his book Making Schools Better, about the small bite principle. This is a simple plan where small strides can result in large gains. An educator who just takes one of these ideas to heart could make a huge difference knowing well that it is at least as significant as anything on a standardized test.

Why Students Cheat

Making Schools Better

Car Rating Site

Government fuel economy site

How to Improve Student Writing

Student speed reading lessons
There are others

Using the Inverted Triangle

BMW Diesel Sport Wagon: The Family Bimmer
By The Car Family

for more reviews go to

There is something for everyone in the BMW 328 all-wheel drive diesel wagon. For the family there is room for five and a dog or two. For the enthusiast there is the typical excellent BMW handling, suspension, and brakes. For the frugal there is the 30 plus mpg highway mileage and the reliability of a diesel engine. And for the adventurous that all-wheel drive makes light off-roading an enjoyable task. Of course, all these ingredients come at a cost and the wagon’s base price is just north of $40, 000 BMW.

2014 BMW 328d Sedan and xDrive Sports Wagon.

The real story is the BMW diesel engine which has a unique feature that turns off the powerplant at stoplights to save fuel. It starts immediately when you remove your foot from the brake or push the accelerator pedal. BMW’s diesel starts quickly, even in colder weather, with very little chatter normal associated with such robust engines. Matted to an eight speed automatic transmission the wagon does not have to be refueled for about 500 miles.

Mom’s view: A nice combination of practicality and sexy, this BMW even comes in an M Sport package and enough electronic programming features to keep a teenager happy for weeks. There is the iDrive infotainment system, Bluetooth connectivity, and a host of other features that make your life easier… You can even program the suspension. I left the wagon on the Comfort setting and was quite happy with the result, but I could have chosen Eco, Sport and Sport Plus. My advice is to do your homework first as the option list is extensive with an abundance of features for safety, handling, and entertainment. If you aren’t judicious with your choices the price can touch the $60,000 mark, but for that you get a car capable of most everything but driving itself. Oh, it does have an automatic parking feature if you must.

2014 BMW 328d Sedan and xDrive Sports Wagon.

Dad’s view: An interesting choice, this wagon demands attention from those looking for the utility of a SUV and the benefits of a low center of gravity and the ability to easily achieve over 40 mpg on the highway. The ride is impressive with very little noise and the understated interior has superior fit and finish. Interestingly, BMW has equipped the family station wagon with steering wheel mounted paddle shifters to provide control freaks a bit of fun in maximizing the diesel engine’s 280 pounds-feet of torque whenever the need arises. The acceleration is very linear with surprising initial acceleration. Using the Eco mode does give you better fuel mileage, but dulls the driving dynamics. The Eco mode is best used on long stretches of divided highway. The xDrive drivetrain is very seamless and is reassuring, especially when the weather is inclement, however, going off road is really limited due to the wagon’s low clearance level. If you want to play in the dirt BMW’s SUVs are more suitable. You do pay a small premium for the diesel package, but this difference can be made up in about 30 months of normal driving due to the diesel’s better fuel economy, especially considering that most BMWs require premium fuel. Look for good resale too, as this is a fairly rare model. It is an oxymoron to label a car both sporty and frugal, but this BMW is just that. I would get the upgraded interior and have a one car does it all vehicle capable of everything from ski trips to driving on Pismo beach to kidney challenging eight hour journeys without refueling.

Young working male’s view: The 328d diesel wagon requires a special additive called AdBlue that helps with emissions and needs to be replenished at normal oil change times. And don’t forget that because the diesel won’t start if it is not supplied. Essentially, that’s all that is required to enjoy the benefits of this diesel wagon. BMW’s iDrive system has a significant learning curve, but a good salesperson can provide you with some worthy tips to make the benefits easier to utilize. The display is easy to see, as it is the driver’s line of sight, and the SiriusXM is very worthwhile. Interestingly, the iDrive even has a feature that enables you to draw letters and numbers with your fingers and confirms such requests by voice or visually. Interesting, but not as valuable as the optional head-up display as it is difficult to keep this vehicle at legal speed limits. The large panoramic sunroof is nice and the safety net is a lifesaver in emergencies. My thoughts are that the BMW buyer must decide between this and the BMW X3 or X1, which offer increased ride height and useful cargo space, but lack the handling, lower load height, and economy of the wagon.

Working woman’s view: There is adequate cargo space and the 40/20/40-split folding backseat add more useable room as the wagon lives up to its name. As usual, BMW has a variety of option packages. I would certain opt for the Driver Assistance Package Plus with its backup camera, blind spot detection, lane departure warning, side and top-view cameras and proximity sensors as well as collision warning. BMW has a reputation of being well built with excellent handling, superior braking, and performance all the while providing good fuel mileage. The wagon fits and adds the unique factor. I found it compelling, but the rear visibility is limited.

Family conference: If you are looking for something albeit tidier than the ubiquitous SUV, this BMW might be just the tool. The diesel engine is well worth considering, but do your research when ordering options.