From sir with love: What I have learned from my students
Over the last 25 years, I have taught at seven schools in seven countries – from Canada to India, Singapore to Germany. I’ve learnt a lot about what it takes to be a great teacher and run a great school – most of all from my students.
Here are five things my students taught me.
1. Textbooks are less than half the story
What are you going to teach me that I can’t learn from a book? What a question! This was asked by Maya, a 16-year-old girl from California, who walked up to me on my first day working at Pearson United World College and introduced herself as one of my physics students.
Over the next two years, I stopped using a textbook entirely, unless I was sharing readings from literature or journals about the applications of the physics we were studying. Textbooks are a wonderful resource, but they are not a teacher.
2. A classroom needs to be a team
There is no point starting a class full of 16-year-olds on Newton’s laws if they don’t trust each other enough to share a doubt. For the first few weeks with a new class I’m not interested in teaching physics or any subject content at all; I’m interested in learning what the students’ interests, needs and preferences are. After that I can begin to build trust between everyone so that we can all make mistakes in front of each other and learn from them. This will not happen if judgment, certainty and blame come ahead of curiosity, collaboration and compassion.
Creating a team out of your students and teaching them how to learn together is the key to their success, and it took me teaching at two schools to recognise that.
3. Silence is the opposite of golden
It didn’t take long to learn that there were plenty of kids in the room who were smarter than me. This is one of the reasons why most learning in a classroom occurs between the children. Children don’t learn by having a teacher at the front of the room talking at them; if a teacher is talking for 90 per cent of the lesson, then you can be sure that the children are only thinking for 10 per cent of it. These percentages need to switch because it is only when students are engaged in thinking that they will learn. Quiet classrooms are a picture of obedience, not a picture of learning.
4. Subjects don’t matter, skills do
In 25 years of teaching, I have had perhaps 20 of my students go on to study physics, perhaps another 75 or so study engineering. I have seen a lot of teachers teach like theirs is the only subject that counts, but at the end of the day I know that most of my students are not going to study science. Once a teacher understands this, she or he needs to be able to see what is really important for the students to learn.
As a science teacher, I want them to learn the skills of thinking; questioning, hypothesising, experimenting, data collection, analysis, synthesis, data presentation, pattern recognition and evaluation. The subject content becomes the medium through which these skills are developed.
5. Teachers teach even when they’re not teaching
Students notice everything! You don’t have to sit through many end of year 12th Class revues to realise that the students spot everything that is going on in school; every relationship, every disappointment, every professional jealousy and certainly every gait, tick, catchphrase and accent. This leads to some very funny observations of (usually) their favourite teachers, but it also leads to the realisation that you have taught them so much more that what was on your lesson plan. While watching you go about your business as a teacher, they have learned how to treat and respond to others, how to share and communicate, how to handle their parents and other teachers and how to respond when things don’t go perfectly.
This is how important it is to have the right people teaching, because teachers are some of the most significant adult influencers in the lives of children. As well as teaching physics, my job is teaching each student to be a better person for everyone on their team in the future.
(Author bio: Matthew Raggett is the headmaster of The Doon School and the author of How your Child can Win in Life: The Doon School’s Headmaster on Raising Kids who Love to Learn)
From HT Brunch, May 26, 2019
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