The Core Dump

A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures

[By Nic Lindh on Saturday, 24 January 2009]

A crash course in teaching

If you teach, you should read this post.

So, you’re going to teach. Good for you. There’s no better way to really learn something than to teach it to others, and it can be a barrel of fun.

The drawback is that teaching is nerve-wracking. Especially if you haven’t done it before.

This post is a distillation of things I’ve learned about teaching over close to 20 years of teaching adults, college students, and children in various capacities and places—sometimes in schools, sometimes in universities, and sometimes in companies.

Let’s dig in.

The first thing to realize is that your success as a teacher will be judged on how well your students learn, but you can’t make people learn. You can only teach. Always bear in mind that it’s not what you teach, it’s what your students learn. All the boring classes you’ve sat through during your own schooling were probably at their core tainted by failure to understand that very simple principle.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty, let me take a small detour and explain how I was taught to teach. This was in the Swedish Army.

The army might seem a weird place for teaching, nevermind teaching people how to teach, but think about it. Since the core competency of an army is having people who are often not very bright, motivated, or well-rested handle deadly weapons in stressful situations good teaching and learning is essential.

In the armed forces, pedagogy is an extremely goal-oriented discipline. I’m not going to talk about the different learning styles of different people, interesting as it may be. This post is about the core skills of teaching.

Here, then, are the basics as I see them:

If you’re going to teach 10 pages, know 100 pages. If you don’t know the material, everything else is useless.

As the advertising industry says: “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; tell ’em; then tell ’em what you told ’em.” Start every lesson by going over what the lesson will be about. Do the lesson. Wrap up by discussing what the lesson was about. This works.

You must be passionate about your subject. Why would I learn something from you that you obviously don’t give a rat’s ass about yourself? If you find yourself teaching something you really don’t care all that much about, trick yourself into caring. You can’t fool your students but you can fool yourself.

As Cesar Millan of Dog Whisperer fame would say: “Dominant, not aggressive.” You’re in charge and you can’t let your students forget that. Once you lose the classroom, it will be incredibly difficult and demoralizing to earn it back. The way human psychology works, the very fact that some authority decided to put you up front in the classroom means that it’s yours. Don’t squander that advantage. This most certainly does not mean being a little Hitler or some other kind of authoritarian jerk; it just means owning up to your responsibility.

Keep things as lively as you can without being fake. This means moving around, varying the volume and pitch of your voice, and creating as much contrast as you can. A droning voice does nothing but people to sleep.

It’s difficult to determine in advance how much discipline to use. Err on the side of caution and start the course as hard-ass as you can. It’s easy to loosen up as time progresses, but difficult to tighten discipline. By loosening up as time progresses, you seem like a nicer person, but if you have to tighten the reigns, you look like a complete tool. It’s all about contrast.

You will hear excuses and sob stories about why homework wasn’t completed or why a student missed class. Oh, the sob stories! They don’t matter. Lay down the rules from the get-go and enforce them. Making exceptions is the path to becoming a complete pushover. Make no mistake, students can sense weakness a mile away. And that’s what it is when you start bending the rules: weakness. It may look like kindness, but it most emphatically is not. Plus, if the rules aren’t the same for everybody, you will empower the kind of people who like to break the rules. Don’t walk that path.

Preparation is key. When starting out, you will lose track of what you’re doing and find yourself staring at a sea of faces with no idea whatever what to do or say. This is obviously not a fun situation. So, you must have a lesson plan. As time goes on, the lesson plan will become less and less detailed, but at first, make it as detailed as possible. Obviously don’t write down every word you’re going to say, but you must be able to stay on track. If you’re nervous—and you should be—write down the first few minutes verbatim and memorize the words. Your notes will be a great comfort to you.

This might seem like a detail, but the whole is made up of details, and this one matters more than you might think: Do not clear your throat before talking. It makes you look timid and nervous.

A trick I learned from my 3rd grade teacher that I use to this day when students lose focus and start talking is to simply stop. Just stop talking, look at the offending students and wait calmly. Their fellow students will help modify the aberrant behavior.

Never ever guess. If you get a question you can’t answer, say that you don’t know but will find out. Then make sure to follow through. This will happen much more than you’d think as you start teaching, but after a while you’ll have most of the edge cases figured out.

And that’s it.

Now go ahead and have some fun.

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