Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Three Things Every Teacher MUST Do for Students to Succeed

I know, I know . . . I was just ranting about bad teachers a couple posts ago. But this isn't necessarily about bad teachers; it's about bad teacher education and a bad system. These three items come from my years in the classroom and from the last few years with my eldest in public schools again -- and for the record, they aren't exactly primary issues.  They are secondary, but when they are violated, they make the primary a moot point. So, for your edification, Three Things Every Teacher Must Do for Students to Succeed:

1. All important information must be communicated more than once – and preferably in more than one format. My daughter recently had to take a quiz over a couple of chapters she hadn't read – that nobody in the class had read – because the instructions to read the chapters were written on a side board in the classroom and never mentioned in any other way. That quiz was a total waste of time; it completely failed to assess their understanding of the chapters – it only assessed their acute observation skills and their ability to make educated guesses.

If you want your students to read chapter 24 tonight, write it on the board in front of them AND tell them so out loud. If they need to include three examples in their science report, tell them so AND include that fact in the assignment sheet. If the carbon cycle is essential for them to know, explain it in words AND give them a reading assignment that explains it . . . AND do a demonstration in class that illustrates it. If there's anything that educational research has taught us in recent years, it is that students absorb knowledge in different ways and that repetition is essential.

2. Make your expectations clear. I can't believe how many assignment sheets I see from my daughter's teachers that are so vague, neither of us can figure out exactly what is expected. This should be a basic skill taught in teacher education: how to communicate your expectations clearly. My eldest has an project she's struggling with right now; she said to me yesterday, “Mom, I don't even know what the point of this is. I don't know what I'm supposed to learn.” That's not her failure. That's the teacher's failure.

And a subset of this caveat: when it becomes obvious that your instructions were not clear, own up to that and fix the problem. My daughter stopped approaching high school teachers for help long ago because of how many times they made her feel stupid, lazy, or irresponsible for not understanding this stuff the first time around. (Ooooooh – OOOOHH – that one deserves a rant all to itself!) 

3. Your objectives, instruction, and assessment should all correlate. If your classroom time is all focused on A, B, and C . . . and then your test is about D, E, and F . . . honey, there's a big problem here. Why do YOU think your students are failing?

Sometimes, the issue is that teachers are given required objectives and assessments that they don't like and don't agree with. They want to delve with their students into the meaningful content of a novel that could reach the kids' hearts, but the district exam they have to administer asks for types of characterization and the author's hometown. I can sympathize with that. This is the problem with top-down educational management.

But, the fact remains that if a student's success in class is dependent on passing that test (whether you like that test or not), you do need to spend classtime addressing the content matter included there. Yep, that is “teaching to the test”. It is an unfortunate but necessary evil the way we have our educational system set up. A better choice is to give teachers more leeway in their objectives and create their own assessments that cover those objectives. Better yet, have uniform objectives, but give students and teachers more leeway in the time and means to meet those objectives . . . but that's a topic requiring another post.

Actually, most teachers know this stuff, I think. It's just that they get lost the day-to-dayness of school life and lose track of the basics. So, here's a reminder.  Feel free to forward this post to any of your kids' teachers who might need that reminder.  :)  (Okay, no, that might be rude . . . )

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