Be Clear. Be Concise.

Teachers need to be clear in all forms of instruction. Saying this much is obvious, but how to actually be clear is less so. We must first take our audience into account, our students. How old are they? Are they native speakers? How much do they already know?

Once we have a working knowledge of this, we have the hope of being clear.

Planning brings clarity.

Plan out your instructions/procedures beforehand. Do not plan the activity and neglect to plan the how-to.

Routines bring clarity.

Develop routines for daily tasks. Routines are especially helpful during transition times. When routines are established, students can instantly know what to do just by observing a teacher’s hand motion.

Teachers must be concise. Being concise helps to bring clarity because it is easier for students to remember a short set of instructions than a long set.

Editing brings conciseness. Look over your plan, cut out what you do not need. Remember, to base your cuts on your students’ background knowledge.

Start with clear and detailed explanations and then fade the explanations out over time to help your students master the content. “To tie an overhand knot we will first…then…and finally…”

Overhand Knot Tying Example
Novice Expert
Image result for overhand knot

(with teacher demonstrations and assistance)

  1. Tie an overhand knot.

For concise explanations, start with the goal. “We will tie an overhand knot.”

This helps your students follow the instructions because they know the end/goal at the beginning.

Cut what you say. Do you like, um, you know, use filler words? Be cognizant of how you speak and actively work to reduce how often you use unneeded words.

The meaning of clarity and conciseness is obvious, but actually being clear and concise is difficult. You should intentionally work at it.

Teachers and Workload

Teaching is a tough job, but we can make it harder than necessary. Hopefully your school is actively working to reduce your workload by reducing the amount of data drops and by reviewing its marking policies. However, even if you are stuck in a school with many data drops and onerous marking policies, you can work to reduce your own workload.

One way is to simply grade less! It sounds too good to be true, but it is. Grading student work is not a particularly valuable form of feedback. Instead, you can look into whole class marking. This will drastically cut down the time you spend grading, and, as an added bonus you will be giving actionable feedback to your students.

If you are saying you cannot do this because your school’s policy, you likely still have work arounds. Grade formative assessments on completion. Have more in class assignments. If you have book scrutinies and every student needs to have correct answers, don’t include your harder more summative assessments in it. Instead, choose easy ones that will look good to your school so you can get the paperwork done quickly and spend more time focusing on what matters.

If the school policies and enforcement are so strict that these work arounds will not work, I’d suggest looking for another job elsewhere. It is not worth the stress.

Another way to reduce your workload is to set a firm leaving time. I will leave work at X o’clock and be home for dinner. Setting this as a firm personal deadline can be immensely powerful. It will also help you realize that the work can wait, it will be there tomorrow. And generally, even if it doesn’t get done, you and your students will be ok.

Teaching is a profoundly important job. We change students’ lives. And we should celebrate that. However, it is important that we do not burn ourselves out in our drive to be good teachers and help students succeed. Remember, if we quit teaching, we will no longer have the same impact. Find ways to reduce your workload to increase your sanity.

Teaching and Truth

  1. Teachers must love their students.
  2. Teaching can be a good career and even a calling, but it is a primarily a JOB.
  3. Every student learns in roughly the same manner.
  4. Teachers should show their students the truth as far as possible while building their students’ knowledge of the world.
  5. Knowledge truly is power.

Finally, something that is not controversial. Students should learn the truth in school, as far as is possible. As far as is possible is the key phrase because not all subjects are concerned with truth per-say. English class would be the most obvious example. Students will read books of fiction and write opinion pieces. In history and science, moral dilemmas come up.

In these cases, the teacher’s role is to build their students knowledge of the world through the subject. You cannot prove Shakespeare’s work to be more true or accurate than Brontë’s. However, you can analyze the strategies each author uses, the genre of writing, along with the history and culture surrounding the author. When a moral dilemma comes up in history or science you can educate your students on the actors’ thought processes, the stakes, their level of knowledge, and worldview. You are also able to take advantage of hindsight (Even with hindsight, the right decisions are often not obvious).

This process of showing students the truth enables students to get the bigger picture and puts the content into a meaningful context. This gives students a more accurate view of the world and provides them with the fundamental tools of critical thinking: background knowledge and various procedures.

Every Learner is the Same

This is the third article in a series of 5 where I work to develop my philosophy of education. What follows should not be taken as gospel, yet, I believe it should be taken seriously.

A philosophy of education in 5 steps.

  1. Teachers must love their students.
  2. Teaching can be a good career and even a calling, but it is a primarily a JOB.
  3. Every student learns in roughly the same manner.
  4. Teachers should show their students the truth as far as possible while building their students’ knowledge of the world.
  5. Knowledge truly is power.

Everyone learns the same, roughly. This is controversial, like other aspects of my teaching philosophy. Yet, I believe it to be true, in a broad sense. No matter your views of education’s purpose, or how we measure it, learning is ultimately about knowing and doing. Educators differ over which is more important, yet few argue that only one is important.

Cognitive science has shown that, at a fundamental level learning is about the connections neurons make. When neurons fire in the same or similar patterns, learning is strengthened regardless of whether the idea generated by the firing neurons is actually true. For example, if a child practices 2+2=9, the more these neurons fire in that particular pattern, the more ingrained this learning will be.

As educators we can take advantage of this by using retrieval practice and spaced repetition. When students use retrieval practice, they are recalling the facts and or concepts, thus, strengthening that memory. When students use spaced repetition, we are taking advantage of Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve as they recall the information again and again over time. Another effective strategy is to combine retrieval practice and spaced repetition with elaboration. Elaboration is when students make connections (identify relationships) between different facts and concepts.

The result is that the neurons responsible for the practiced knowledge/skill fire more and more in the same and similar patterns. And the memory gets strengthened.

As far as I am aware, what I wrote above is essentially a universal truth. I do not believe there are any exceptions to this rule. Different people may learn at different rates and have different limitations due to cognitive abilities/disabilities, background knowledge, and motivation, but the process of learning will be the same for all and all can benefit from instruction based on sound research. 

Teaching is a Job

This is part 2 of a post series where I explore my teaching philosophy. It is a very much in process document. Hopefully my efforts to formulate my thoughts are helpful for you too.

  1. Teachers must love their students.
  2. Teaching can be a good career and even a calling, but it is a primarily a JOB.
  3. Every student learns in roughly the same manner.
  4. Teachers should show their students the truth as far as possible while building their students’ knowledge of the world.
  5. Knowledge truly is power.

Even if you feel you were born to be a teacher or that teaching is your calling, like myself, you should view teaching as a job first and foremost. The reason being is that teaching can easily take over your life and those who view it as a calling are especially susceptible. When that happens, not only does your quality of life suffer, your teaching suffers, your students suffer.

I believe that teaching can easily take over your life because it is inherently intimate. You interact with the same students day in and day out. You see their struggles, failures, and successes. You learn about their interests and home life. The relationship we build with our students drives us to do more. And this is emphatically a positive.

However, this drive has a darker side. It can lead us to obsess over our job and we can become over-dedicated.

  • Regularly taking work home, and working unpaid
  • Taking on more responsibility at work, for the kids, and somebody has to do it
  • Planning lessons late into the night
  • When you have a social life, it consists of talking about work

When this happens to a few people in a school, the culture changes. Instead of being pleased by some teachers going above and beyond, it becomes an implicit expectation.

“Why didn’t you check your email over the weekend?”

“Look at all the great manipulatives Teacher Joe bought for his class. It would really help your students if you got some too.”

“Teacher Sally went to Wal-Mart and spent $400 on school supplies.”

“Have you donated tissues to the school yet? We really need them at the beginning of the year and during winter you know.”

When this happens at a few schools, the district’s culture changes. In a few districts, and the educational culture of the state begins to change. In a few states, and the nation’s educational culture changes. I believe that this culture is a major contributor to teachers becoming burnout and to teachers being taken advantage of by the school funding system.

The antidote, I believe is to maintain the view of teaching as incredibly important, inherently valuable, and fundamental to a flourishing society while viewing it as a job. A job has a “clock”. You are responsible to work from time A to time B. Before and after, is yours. A calling has no limit, jobs do. This is a freeing realization.

Now that I view teaching as a job (albeit, one I feel called to), I have found it much easier to go home with papers ungraded and imperfect lesson plans. This, in turn, has drastically reduced my stress. Which, then, has made me happy to go into work, and I feel that I am able to be more productive with my time there.

A teacher who is burned out is suffering and this teacher’s suffering is causing their students to suffer too. Sometimes doing less allows you to do more. Teaching is a job. A stressful one, but a good one. All teachers should strive to improve. But, to improve, you must stay in the profession and learn how to manage the stresses and temptations that come along for the ride. The best defense is healthy boundaries.

If you feel called into the field of education, welcome! It is a fantastically fulfilling place. But don’t make it your life, it will eat yours. If you make it your job, you just may fulfill your calling.