Friday, January 27, 2012

What makes a good teacher?

When I look back at my school days, there are a few teachers that definitely stand out vividly in my memory as either amazing or horrible. So, based on my experience as a child, I thought I'd make a list of the things I loved about the good ones and the things I hated about the evil ones. And then I'll have a list of things to keep in mind while I become a teacher, so that I (hopefully) become a good one.

Good Teachers...

1. Treat you like a human being, but don't try to be your friend. They maintain that distance that marks them as a figure of authority without trying to be your buddy. However, they're definitely there to be a shoulder for you to cry on, or to give you advice when everything seems to be falling apart.

2. Make efficient use of class time. They don't ramble on and on about their personal lives, or let the class get away with fooling around for the whole lesson so that the work isn't covered. They use the time allocated to them for the lesson, no more, but sometimes less (if everyone is cooperating and quick to get the hang of the content) without making unreasonable demands that you line up ten minutes before the lesson begins, and so on. In fact, not being unreasonable is another thing good teachers do.

3. Keep their political, religious or cultural beliefs private, not letting it influence their treatment of the students. An anecdotal example of this going wrong is something that happened to some friends of mine who, as everyone does in high school, began to explore their gender identity and sexuality. When this did not conform to the conservative beliefs of some of the teachers at the Christian, all-girl school we went to, these girls were singled out, humiliated, and treated like criminals. Other girls who were lucky not to get "caught" became even more afraid of "coming out". I think it's hard enough realising that you're gay, bi or trans in high school without the adults, the ones who are supposed to be your support system, your source of advice and guides through the difficult time that is your teens, being so caught up in their own beliefs that they fail to provide you with that support.

4. Encourage students without playing favourites. When there's a particularly bright, funny, or attractive kid in the class, it's easy for the teacher to give them all their attention. I think that is to the detriment of the other students, who may feel that they shouldn't even bother. It can also be detrimental to the "favourite" as the rest of the class might resent them, and may exclude them socially.

5. Are passionate about the subject they teach, and creative & involved in the teaching of it. I had some teachers who devised elaborate games and projects for us that made the learning experience fun and engaging, while other teachers simply read from a text book, in a monotonous voice, that revealed that they would rather be anywhere but in that classroom on a hot Friday afternoon with a bunch of snarky teenagers. The teacher with posters of theatrical productions of the books we were studying, whose face lit up with excitement as she told us about the upcoming trip she'd organised to see the set Shakespeare play being performed, and the one who started an after-school scrabble club, taught me far more than the teacher who handed out worksheets with the same exercises every week (with different content), or used only the questions set in the textbook without engaging in discussion in class, or handed out maths problems and spent the rest of the lesson gazing out of the window while we struggled through them.

bored teacher = bored students

6. Have a professional (but friendly) attitude to teaching. I had one teacher who always wore a suit, shook our hands and treated us like adults (even though we were a rowdy class of twelve-year-olds) and yet he still cracked a few jokes now and then to lighten the atmosphere. On the other hand, one of my history teachers was quite high up in the local SPCA organisation, and her classroom was frequently filled with kittens, bunnies, puppies and other creatures. Sometimes those creatures urinated on our schoolbags. On a test day she would do "revision" which consisted of her reading out the questions in the test and then giving us the answers. Then she would hand out the tests and we would take it... Finally, I have this really vivid memory of her proving that despite her rather rotund belly, she could quite easily touch her toes. It was a good thing I was interested in history and the textbook was interesting, because otherwise I don't think I would have learned very much. And then there's the story about the English teacher who started dating one of his students... but that's an obvious ethical no-no.

7. Are individuals and use their individuality to make their teaching style interesting and unique. I'm sure everyone has stories about the weird teachers they have. Like the only male teacher in the school, who wore his hair in a ponytail and pretended to flirt with the other teachers, and came up with crazy examples to demonstrate a theorem. Or the recent divorcee who started an extra-curricular class to teach the young girls how to be strong, independent women. Or the art teacher of Spanish descent who once shouted "OlĂ©" in the middle of a lesson on Goya. The computer science lecturer who used the "Llama Llama Duck" song in a test on spreadsheets. Something about the teacher being memorable made the things they taught memorable too. I'd rather be weird than be boring.

This might be taking it a bit too far.

8. Recognise that students don't all learn the same way. Some students learn better through hearing, speaking, reading, writing, creating projects or developing complex analogies that implement the theories. A good teacher will accommodate these, rather than force the children to stick to only one learning style.

9. Have high standards, but mark fairly. My favourite English teacher, incidentally, was the one who was notorious for giving low marks. But this was a good thing, I think. It meant that we had to try harder to impress her, that she didn't underestimate us, and that we pushed ourselves to be better. She also gave detailed, constructive comments so that we could see what we needed to fix. Compare this to the teacher who marks from a rubric, giving a "Well done" for anything above 60% and that's all.

This doesn't help you improve, it just makes you cry.

10. Aren't afraid to try new things, but don't let their experimentation get in the way of learning instead of facilitating it. In my last few years in Primary School, the school as a whole started to experiment with a new method of teaching called the Primary Years Program. As far as I remember, it was mostly self-teaching and mind-mapping. We ended up with massive, heavy files full of endless mindmaps, and while it was interesting and taught me a lot about the content, it was incredibly time-consuming and felt unneccessary. I think this goes back to number 8 - I preferred a more formal teaching environment, and it seemed like spending a week self-studying about something that could have been taught in a day was silly.

Teacher is clever - she's figured out a teaching method that lets her stay in bed...

Aaand that's all I can think of for now. Rachel Stanley has compiled a similar list, The 7 Habits of a Highly Successful Teacher. Can you think of any more?

Which phase? Eeny meeny miny mo.

At my university, you can do your PGCE in one of three phases - Senior, Intermediate and Foundation. What do these mean and what do they entail? Well, that's given in the brochure online, but I'll copy and paste the basic outline here for convenience's sake. Oh, wait - the online stuff does not include information about the Foundation Phase (lower primary and kindergarten), so I'll just talk about the upper two here. I'm focusing on English, because it's what I'm studying and if I dealt with all the subjects, I'd be here forever. Also, this is just how it's done at my university. Don't take it as law if you're studying somewhere else.

Senior Phase:
This qualifies you for teaching high school and is split into GET and FET:

GET - Teaching grade 7 to 9, and you teach English home language and English first additional language. You need to have Linguistics 1 OR English 1.

FET - Teaching grades 10 to 12, you teach English home language and English first additional language. You need to have English 2 OR Linguistics 2.

Intermediate Phase:
This qualifies you for teaching in Primary school, particularly Grades 4-6. Because you'd be the home room teacher, you need to cover a broader scope of subjects than the Senior Phase.

The 2 main courses are Language and Mathematics. In addition students will register for Life Orientation, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, Technology, Economic and Management Sciences and Arts and Culture.

So, which is right for you? Or for me?

Well, I have done English to third year, and Linguistics to second, so I can freely choose between either of these. When it comes down to it, my decision needs to be based on my personality type and what I want to get out of it. I've been looking at some lesson plans and resources, and I must say that doing the Intermediate Phase sounds like a lot more fun. You get to play. You can make fun worksheets with cartoons. You can start the class with a sing-along. That sounds like a hell of a lot of fun to me.

Then again, a high school class can teach you things too, and you can have interesting debates with them, and you won't be as exhausted from running around after them all day. They probably also have fewer germs.

But am I any good with small children? Do I have the patience to deal with them? Can I deal with an emergency like "Billy stabbed Jane in the eye with a pencil" or "Ravi just pooed in his pants"? Do I have the patience for teenagers with their raging hormones and resultant attitude issues, eating disorders, rebelliousness and apathy?

Can I teach at all? It's terrifying.

Well, my reason for choosing Senior Phase is that I want to be able to engage more with my class in Korea, as I think that by that time they should have learned enough English for me to have a basic conversation with them. I don't know if I want to be a teacher forever, but maybe once I'm done in Korea I'll do another year, this time getting a PGCE in Intermediate phase. It can't hurt to have qualifications across the board, and because there is such a demand for good teachers all over the world, there are plenty of bursaries available. So, we'll see what happens with that.

Information Frustration

I've been on holiday for two months now, and during that time I've gotten my results for my BA undergrad finals (not too shabby) and obtained an Advanced Open Water SCUBA diving qualification. 
Behold, the Kathfish.

Woot. But that whole time, the lack of information from the Education department worried me. 

Even simple things like finding the term dates so that I could book my end of year flights was a mission, involving an email that got passed from person to person, up Kilimanjaro and back down again, round the corner to pick up some fish and chips and then off to Granny's house... until finally someone sent me a list. I then stuck the dates up in the Facebook group so that the other people could see them too. No one else was going to do it. 

This last one was the cherry on the cake... You see, the department sent out a letter saying "If you don't respond to this letter by the end of December, we'll give your spot in the course to someone else." It also, conveniently, contained the course dates they'd told me about in November. They sent this letter on December 20th. By international post. Mine didn't arrive at all - I heard about it (and was then forwarded a scanned version of it) from my friend and future classmate (the lovely author of Teacher Squeaks) and then I ran around the house screaming, dashing my head against the wall and ripping fistfuls of hair from my spinning head (which was on fire). 

No, not really.

What I really did was send a very polite, professional email to them saying "I have not received this letter but would like to confirm my spot in the course. Please could all future correspondence be via email." And that was that. Sure enough, a couple of days ago they sent out an email informing us that the unreasonable deadline had been extended, and that those of us who had contacted them could rest easy.

Phew. I must say, having to beg for information is a bit of a change from the lovely English department, which sends out letters saying "We see you did rather well on your exams. Well done! Here, have a cookie." 

Well, at least we get free tea and coffee in the mornings. If only I drank either of those. 

And so it begins. Are you sitting comfortably?

Well, it's 2012 and that means that this is the epic year of doing a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education, as well as applying for a post in South Korea. I'm also going to do grown up things like buying some clothes that are not jeans and t-shirts so that I don't have to teach naked, and getting a driver's license.

This is inappropriate teacher-wear.

Today someone asked me why I'm bothering to spend a year working on a PGCE instead of quickly doing the TEFL and heading to South Korea with the August intake. Now, don't get me wrong - it was sorely tempting. However, it turns out that if I do a PGCE then the TEFL course is less than half price (because the practical side is covered in the PGCE course). It comes to roughly R5000. What's more, it gives me more time to get my life in order, including selling off all my books, getting in shape (so that I'm not That Fat Foreign Teacher), time to sort out any last minute emergencies, and a little more time with my dear local "family" who I might never see (in person) again. Hooray for Facebook and Skype, by the way.

I also felt that if I actually had some real experience teaching it would better prepare me for Korea, particularly as I'm planning to do my teaching practicals at a township school. These schools are poorly funded, lack the resources of private schools and the students are usually second-language English speakers. I've been told that if I can teach there, I can teach anywhere. Not to knock these schools, of course. Just because they're in a township rather than a posh suburb, and the kids aren't dropped off in 4X4s by their moms, but are more likely to walk to school, often long distances, this doesn't mean that these schools are not good schools or that the students don't want to learn. From what I've been told by former PGCE students, these schools are so desperate for teachers that they warmly embrace you and do their best to support you as you learn to teach. What's more, because of the politics and history of this complex and interesting country, a lot of these kids are the first in their families to reach this level of education. If they didn't want to be in school, they wouldn't be there. Maybe I have an idealised image of them, but I would definitely rather teach kids who are using their education to get themselves out of a difficult living situation than bored, spoiled kids who (so I've heard) like to deliberately mess with student teachers. That said, I should probably come back to this entry in 6 months when I know what these schools are actually like, and see if my theories and assumptions were even partially right.

Students from South African townships have achieved some pretty amazing things

Finally, having a PGCE and teaching experience under my belt gets me even more money in Korea. I will be honest - I am definitely interested in the a means to an end. The end being travel, adventure, and epically good karma. Teaching English, for me, is a fantastic way for me to pay off my student loan, and travel, and "discover" new cultures and places by being fully immersed in them rather than through the eyes of a guide book or museum display case. In this economic climate it seems like the best way to build up some sort of basic nest egg for my grown-up life. And that's probably why it's become such a popular choice for those of us with degrees that don't get the bursaries offered by organisations such as Golden Key; those of us who are the butt of many burger-flipping and pizza-delivery jokes, and who receive blank stares and "What are you planning to do with a degree in philosophy?" at dinner parties. These come from the same sort of attitude that people reveal when they say "Those who know do, and those who don't, teach." God, it makes me angry when people forget what an influence their teachers had on them. That physics teacher who made them give a damn about gravity. That maths teacher without whom they could not have understood the graphs they're forced to analyse in Economics 101. That English teacher who suggested that book about the doctor who saved all those lives, inspiring them to do the same. Yep, we teachers are actually a cunning group. We are the ones who program the brains of your children. We are the ones who gently nudge them towards greatness, however subtly...


...Just sayin'.

I'm itching to start this whole PGCE adventure thing. Wonderful Adventure Now Teaching - WANT. Doesn't quite have the same ring as that cheeky Eat You Kimchi segment, does it? Oh well.

In the meantime, I'm working my way through a great ebook called "The PGCE Survival Guide" and it's full of great tips about everything related to PGCE, from which mug you should use in the staffroom to what (not) to wear to class, and how to deal with the "I can't do this" moment. I've also made a Facebook group for our class, and so far it looks like a truly rad group of people. We're heading off to the mountains, to a little place called Hobbiton-on-Hogsback, and I'm really looking forward to it. Yep, we're heading to the Shire.

The Shire.

I'm also trying to be super organised, with a schedule that factors in some me time as well as lecture time and "free" time that can be filled with work or play, depending on my stress level at the time. Of course, it can't be written in stone until we see our timetables.

But the slow trickle of info from the Education department at my university is another topic for another post, and I think this one is long enough for now.