I taught English and English Literature for about 17 years, and developed a reputation as a ‘great teacher’. It didn’t occur to me for about a year that I had any kind of flair for the job: I had had no specific professional training, no apprenticeship, very little mentoring. I had come to the job partly out of economic desperation when my other lines of income collapsed. After a while, though, I began to realise that my approach to teaching was proving successful: I was popular, which isn’t always a good guide to success, but I also got results. Many students became passionate about literature and writing because of my lessons. So I thought I would jot down some notes about the things I feel made me able to do the job:
Quite early on - in fact, from the first lesson - I stumbled on something which worked with teenagers for the next 17 years: humour.
Teenagers are often faced by a dire lack of humour in their lives. They are confronting puberty, approaching adulthood, all kinds of changes in formerly stable relationships and ways of viewing the world, and they crave laughter. It’s partly what drives what we regard as ‘teen phenomena’: partying, drugs, wild social actions. They seek the comfort that laughter brings. Humour is a release from seriousness, a relief from the growing sense of threats and penalties all around them.
But there’s no point just standing in front of a class telling jokes. Teacher-led humour is best when it is on the wavelength of the group, which means listening (see below) and being able to think quickly and wittily. If you can frame your subject with humour, you will be able to get across any number of concepts with apparent ease, as your audience will take on board information willingly and without effort if they are laughing.
Individuals and groups are not made up of fixed or solid characteristics or attributes. Things shift, change, manoeuvre constantly. The ability to detect nuances in individuals and in whole classes is a key to success in teaching. That child you might be tempted to regard as ‘challenging’ can easily be categorised and possibly dismissed, but spot the subtleties in his or her behaviour and you will get through whatever ‘shield’ is being projected and enter into communication.
It’s a truism that everyone is different. Usually it means ‘different to each other’. But it also means ‘different from moment to moment within themselves’. In teaching, you’re never addressing the same group twice, and, in truth, never the same individual twice. Learning to observe minute changes in people can help you become a better teacher rapidly and effectively.
You can develop your relationships with a class through humour and observing nuances, but it will all be to no avail unless you have something to teach about which you are passionate.
It often seemed to me that teenagers were psychic: they seemed to detect my moods and weaknesses through some kind of strange telepathy. They also seemed to be able to tell whether or not a particular aspect of the subject I was teaching interested me or not. I was fortunate in that most of what I was teaching was fascinating to me. Communicating that fascination through voice, body language and using the tools of the classroom environment is a great part of what teaching is. If students cotton on to the passion, all the mechanics of the subject - its laws and parameters, its rules and details - will follow as surely as a surfer follows a wave.
4. Going 'Off Piste’
Part of being passionate is not being afraid to go outside whatever it is you have planned for a lesson. Careful planning is part of the professional duty of a teacher, but no amount of planning can substitute for getting the point across. Yes, planning is supposed to help you to get the point across, but sometimes ‘ad libbing’ something does an even better job.
Once, in reading C. S. Lewis’s classic children’s novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to a class, I noticed that it was snowing outside. What an opportunity! We went outside and simply played in the snow, not accomplishing the specific target of that lesson but forever bringing that book to life and linking it with the real experience of enjoying winter. A case of really going ‘off piste’.
If you have done most of the above and have established yourself as someone to whom a class will pay attention, you can afford at times to ‘go deep’. Don’t stick to the level at which the ‘average student’ is supposed to comprehend your subject: plunge in and explore its deepest fundamentals. The class will follow, and, perhaps amazingly, will contribute. Just because they are teenagers does not mean that they have nothing to add to the wisdom of your subject. Often they have insights that will boggle and amaze you.
There’s plenty of time to come back to the ‘surface’ of the subject and cover the things they’re supposed to know for forthcoming exams and so on. But time spent in the depths will reinforce passion and interest and give some students at least an extra purpose for studying.
All of the above can add up to what they call ‘inspiration’: students come away from your lesson feeling energised and enthused, wanting to pursue the subject in their own time.
Your job is a strange one: you have to attract and hold attention long enough for you to be able to direct it onto the fundamentals of a subject, and then step away, like a magician at the end of his act, revealing the final effect. In teaching, this final effect isn’t a master illusion pulled off to puzzle and intrigue an audience, but a connection between the student and the subject which is sustained without your input.
True inspiration doesn’t come from you, but from the subject itself - you are merely the instrument through which others come to connect with whatever it is you’re teaching.
7. Staying above the group
All of this can be lost in a matter of seconds if you permit the group or someone in it to pull you into a game that they have instigated. Their purpose might be to distract you or to make a fool of you, to undermine you in some way. That’s one reason why getting in quick with effective humour is a good approach - not many people like undermining someone who makes them laugh.
But recognising nuances also helps to spot these usually feeble attempts almost before they occur; and a quick wit helps to turn around any of these mildly threatening episodes, leaving you as the admired and respected source of a good laugh, rather than the victim of an ambush.
Keep your temper at all times and gain more respect with your students.
8. Praising small actions
A rule of thumb which can be used in almost any teaching situation is to reward anything positive.
That means anything from a completed piece of work to a slightly improved element of behaviour. The more you reward work, the more work students will do; the more you reward good behaviour, the better behaviour you’ll have.This is easier with younger children who like stickers and stars - with teenagers, who tend to be more cynical about such things, rewards need to be more imaginative and more in tune with their needs. But the principle still applies.
This does not mean rewarding anything and everything for the sake of it. As the teacher, you decide what sort of results you want both in terms of work and behaviour, and then you consistently and fairly reward any movement in that direction.
You will get whatever you reward, like magic.
This is a fundamental which underlies all of the above, from comedy to observing nuances to rewards. You must develop the ability to listen.
Listening is almost a lost art. Many people think they are listening to another when that person is speaking, but in reality they are just waiting - waiting to have their turn, to make their point. True listening means setting aside your own agenda and paying real and valuable attention to the other person. The difference is like the difference between day and night: instead of a stream of words which you are waiting to interrupt, another’s conversation becomes a thing in itself, intriguing and revealing even when it is halting and uncertain.
If you want to see real magic at work, listen properly and politely to what a teenager has to say. Not only will you be amazed, but the person to whom you are listening will gain confidence in what they are saying, see through any weaknesses in their own argument, and gain respect for you.
Listening has to be sincere and well-mannered. But it is also the closest thing we have to enchantment in a teacher’s arsenal.
All of the above cannot be applied rotely or according to some system. You have to be present yourself, thinking on your feet, observing and listening, ready to change gear. My first few weeks as a teacher were nerve-wracking as I ‘found my feet’ and learned how to do the above. In many ways it was like learning how to drive a car - at first the trainee driver is convinced that there are a hundred things upon which he or she must put attention, all of them potential hazards. Gradually though, just as with driving, certain things become automatic and one learns how much attention to put on what. Before too long, one is ‘driving’ the class towards goals that have been set, while feeling confident enough to go off the beaten track once in a while, for the sake of education.
Practice the above and become not only a popular teacher but one who inspires students to take up your subject beyond the classroom and to contribute to it - at which point your real job as a teacher is done.