Saturday, January 26, 2013

A letter to an old student

Here is part of a conversation I had with a former student - His question is in italics, my response is in normal font.  This student has a great interest in education but is probably going to go to med school upon graduation.

Hi there!
I wanted to check in and see how you are doing and how the family is. How many kids now? 9? 10? 
I also wanted to message you to ask for a bit of advice (as if I didn't ask for enough 8 years ago). This Fall I will begin teaching Biology at a high school (I cannot wait; living the dream) and I'm currently taking a course that's about Science pedagogy and education design, etc. The course has made me think a lot about my experiences with great teachers and terrible teachers, and I really want to hone it on what exactly it is that made teachers like you so effective and influential, and some like one of my college chem teachers so ineffective. So I figured you might be of some help. Do you have any tips from your experience? One thing I'm really interested in is how to create, control and encourage the right type of classroom environment. How do you maintain interest from your students? How do you gain their trust and respect so quickly? I'm spending a lot of time on lesson planning, but I could really use some help with the other aspects of teaching, and I thought you might have a few pointers.
Sorry this message is so disorganized. Don't rush with a response. I don't begin teaching for months.
Also, I wanted to mention that it would be really good to see you in person sometime soon. It's been far too long. I was thinking I could make the drive up to Glade Spring (that's where facebook says you are, is that right?) at some point if that would be convenient for you.
Hope to hear from you soon, and that all is well.
(name omitted)

Hey (name omitted)! This is just like you - you get to where I am in 1/20th the time:)  I am right where you are right now - doing some serious questioning, not so much of myself, but of the system that ... almost encourages... bad teaching. I am now beginning an education of sorts for myself - to try to do some good reading on what is 1) done right in other areas and 2) what is done wrong in so many schools around here. Me and a colleague are going to try to get published and then really become advocates for a change... oddly enough, guess who is also interested in such stuff and might even help us out? (name omitted - another former student, classmate of this one).... and now I might be able to hook you in too:) Nice circle of life thing. Maybe we should all write a book someday.
I am so proud of you for starting where you are starting. Not with the garbage of how to do lesson plans, etc... like there is some formula of how to be a good teacher... but you are thinking of what it is that actually makes a good teacher. That is a great place to start.  Step 2 would be for you to think about what makes a teacher ineffective.  This is all subjective, though - because you see the world through your own eyes and brain - however, there is still truth to be found if you look.
Here is what I think is good and bad about me as a teacher.
Bad: 1) I'm unorganized, 2) my lesson planning is kind of abysmal, 3) classroom management is my own style which involves a lenience bordering on chaotic at times, 4) I hate grading and give really poor feedback, and 5) I don't stick to schedules well
Good: 1) I like working with kids, 2) I believe in them, 3) I can see them the way they will be (you are a perfect example here - you are mr. ultra-successful now... but I never saw you as any different, just younger), 4) I can see boredom creeping in and I can switch direction in an instant to try to win them back (one moment we are talking about mitosis, then next we talk a bit about phantom limbs or something, then back to mitosis - this drives some students crazy, however - but its usually just the good students:), and 5) my classroom management is my own style which involves a lenience bordering on chaos.
Notice how all my flaws (in my mind) are in areas that most people think are critical to good teaching and all the good stuff is just basic human stuff?
They can't make you a great teacher. They can give you tools that will help. You already are a great teacher... just BE.  Just be ok with who you are - the good and the not so good (if not, they will definitely expose it:) Truly care about your students - some will need a great biology teacher, some will need to play ping pong with you. You only think I am something special because we connected. And you can't connect with someone if you don't care for them.
So find out about your students - create situations where you can just talk to them in small groups or individually (like labs) - don't make it about biology all the time. My main goal when I teach a class is that they don't hate it when they are done. I am only laying the groundwork so they can keep learning throughout their lives.  So I don't get all bent out of shape if some biology concepts don't resonate with them now.
And by god, have some fun. Never forget that those kids have to be in your class - you don't... even worse you get paid and they get nothing.
Ok - things to consider. 
1) You are young and cool and some of those HS girls will throw themselves at you. Society does not look kindly upon that even though the difference between you and you student's ages is probably less than many of your students parents. be aware, be honest. For instance, it would have been trickier for me to have helped you if you had been female. I've done it but its a precarious line.  Basically don't abuse or take advantage of your students... keep a clean conscience.  Step back if you need to.
2) Many teachers are burnt out because the profession is hard.. and if you aren't enjoying it... then its going to beat you down. Don't hang around those teachers too much... suck the good ideas from them and discard the rest.
3) Continually evaluate yourself and your class - every day - ask yourself what went right and what went wrong
4) DON'T JUDGE YOURSELF. You should absolutely suck this first year. embrace it, laugh at it... let it make you a little bit better next year. And when you have 17 years in like I do, you will only just kind of suck... and you will still embrace it and still laugh at it.
5) Accept yourself.  The good and the bad.  Students respond to genuine... and they are repelled by fakeness and hypocrisy.  It takes a long time to be ok with who you are - just make that the goal and keep striving for it.  And hey, if the teaching thing doesn't work out - at least you have accepted yourself:)
Ok, that should be good for now - I would love to talk with you anytime - its difficult to get away, but if you can make it to Glade anytime - you are more than welcome here! Keep in touch - as you do lesson plans, feel free to shoot me questions about what I do for certain topics - shoot me an email and I will share my google folder that has all my biology stuff in it
Good luck, old friend. Keep me posted


  1. I appreciate that your former student asks about creating a classroom environment. We get misdirected, I think, when we try to motivate students. And interesting that you emphasize self-acceptance. How does that idea square with trying to improve oneself -- in this case trying to improve one's connection to students?

  2. Hello Eric,

    You have some interesting thoughts on education. Your take on the intelligence v motivation seems controversial when compared with modern thought on the subject. Our school system has implemented the Skillful Teacher course on a division wide basis. The division is placing such emphasis on it that every teacher has been mandated to complete it by the end of the year. The main idea of Skillful Teacher seems to hinge on the conflict of intelligence being a fixed trait that determines success (bad) vs. intelligence being more malleable and readily affected by student effort (good). The creators and followers of Skillful Teacher maintain that as educators our greatest job is motivating and encouraging the student to work harder.

    While I wasn't comfortable with some aspects of the course, I agree with the basic idea that hard work leads to (some sort of) success. As teachers we should try to motivate students to put forth top effort. As a math teacher I see many students who grasp the basic ideas of the objectives but fail or perform poorly in the course and on tests because they don't put forth enough effort to learn enough about the topic to perform at an acceptable level. The enduring question is how to tap that potential? Johnny can do the work, but Johnny doesn't do the work. How would you address that issue?

    On concerning what makes a good teacher: My uncle has been in education for his whole career and has worked at many levels of education. When I was entering the profession he told me what makes a good teacher. It's short and sweet and in no particular order.

    1. The teacher must be able to get the student from A to Z.
    2. The teacher must know the material.
    3. The teacher must be in charge in the classroom.
    4. The teacher must have a desire to actually be there.

    He also emphasized that if any of these items are not present then one can't teach effectively. Besides these points he left it wide open noting that excellent teaching methods could look 10 different ways in ten different classrooms, but at its core, teaching comes down to these essentials. I love the simplicity of his advice and can't find much fault with it.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. You point out, correctly, that my approach is different from that of the Skillful Teacher Program. I expect that student motivation will be undermined in the long run by pressure exerted from the teacher. Of course more motivated and harder working students will perform better, and the teacher can play a role in cultivating student motivation, but it needs to be about the student. We get too easily misdirected into thinking it is about the teacher.