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.

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