I was recently listening to an interview with Amy Morin in which she described some of the 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do. As I was listening, I found myself grabbing a pen and the paper bag my lunch came in. It was the only paper I could find while scrambling through my bag on the train. She didn't go through all of the 13 things but I scribbled down as many notes as I could because it struck me that what she was saying about people in general was totally relevant to teachers in particular. When I got back home I looked her up and found the rest of the 13 things.
1. They Don't Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves
When I was getting my degree, I did my student teaching in a public high school. I loved my mentor teacher, she was lively and full of creative ideas. That one classroom was like an oasis for me in the school because whenever I set foot in the teachers’ lounge, I was hit by a barrage of complaints. According to the teachers eating lunch or taking a break, students were disrespectful, there was always too much work and basically they hated their jobs. As a beginning teacher, this was demoralizing and I always had to shake off the feeling of doom and gloom when I left. No problems were being solved in that lounge, it was just a place teachers went to feel sorry for themselves collectively.
Teaching is not an easy job and there is plenty to bemoan, but approaching a problem in a “poor me” way does nothing to alleviate the situation; it just makes everyone feel bad. A much stronger approach would be to examine a problem with the idea that it is not something that is being done to you but rather something that exists that needs to be addressed and worked on. What strategies do other teachers use to combat that problem? How could I learn more about the root causes of the problem in order to better understand what is happening and how can I affect the situation?
Another way to think about teaching is to be grateful. Check out this post about why teaching is the best job in the world.
2. They Don't Give Away Their Power
Teachers are working with many different groups of people, all of whom have a stake in controlling what is happening: students, parents, administrators, other teachers etc. It is easy to let all of these other groups make you feel powerless as a teacher but you are not! Ultimately, you are the one who makes the day to day, minute to minute decisions in your classroom. You decide how you want your classroom to be in all of the important, vital ways.
I love to have complete autonomy in my classroom in that I love to decide exactly what to teach and how to teach it. Unfortunately I do not always have that luxury. Right now, for example, my administration has decided that my value as a teacher is judged on how well my students do on the TOEFL exam. Not only that, the TOEFL exam my students are taking consists entirely of multiple choice questions. Basically I am teaching to one specific test. I could just throw my hands in the air and say well, that’s it, I have no control over what I am teaching and let it go at that, but that would not be being true to my convictions as a teacher. Within my mandate to increase my students’ test scores, I have all the control in the world. I plan my lessons and design the activities I ask my students to do, according to things that I hold important about teaching, namely learning should inspire a love of learning, students should have autonomy and take ownership of their own learning and the classroom should be student centered.
Don’t give your power away to the students. I am a huge advocate for student autonomy but that does not mean I let my students take complete control of the classroom. I want them to take control of their learning but I have control of the classroom. It is my job to make sure that my classroom is a safe place for all of my students, that the focus stays on learning and is not derailed, and that everyone has a voice.
Don’t give your power away to the parents. Years ago, as a relatively new teacher, a student in one of my classes failed because she had exceeded her absences and was unable to complete her homework at a level that would qualify her to take the next course. I was teaching a basic academic writing course and skills learned there would be applied to the research writing course that came next. Without the basic writing skills, it would be next to impossible to do the work required for research writing. This student's mother called me and requested that I change her grade because the family would really like for her to pass. At that point I was younger than the mother and it was difficult to say no, but I reminded myself that I had trained for this job, I was qualified and I had the power to say no. I politely explained to her that while her daughter showed a lot of potential, she had not done the work or gained the skills she needed so she would need to reenroll for the class the next semester. The mother was not happy but she accepted that I had her daughter’s best interest at heart and wanted her to be able to write well.
Don’t give it away to the administration. I have had the good fortune to work with some great administrators who were teachers before they became administrators most of the time. They have understood the challenges teachers face and have generally been very supportive. They have a lot of things to think about other than what is best for my individual groups of students though. It is my job to make sure that I am always an advocate for my students and I stay true to myself as a teacher. For me that means tailoring my classes to my students and not blindly following a curriculum that administrators hand me.
3. They Don't Shy Away From Change
According to Amy Morin “There are five stages of change, Morin writes: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance." Following through with each of the five steps is crucial. Making changes can be frightening, but shying away from them prevents growth. "The longer you wait, the harder it gets," she says. "Other people will outgrow you."
I often see teachers doing the same thing year after year even thought they know that on many levels what they are doing is not working. It is easier to keep doing things the way they have always been done than to take a risk and change things.
There are so many new and innovative ways to approach teaching and learning, why not take a risk and try one of them out. Just a few different learning models are
I have tried all of these in my classrooms successfully but there are other methods out there I have’t tried so it is time for me to get changing and try something new.
Another change not to shy away from is teaching new courses or even teaching new levels and at different schools. I started my teaching career at a language school in Japan before going on to teach at a University in Turkey, a community college in Tucson, a public high school in Brooklyn, and then universities in Turkey and Japan again. Each position has given me many new insights into teaching and has added to my skills. In Japan I learned how to give my students thinking time, I became comfortable with silence. In Turkey I leaned how to incorporate content into a writing course, in Tucson I learned how to teach muli-level courses, in Brooklyn I learned how to use Learning Menus, implement a Service Learning program and teach art, back here in Japan again, I have been learning how to incorporate much more technology into my teaching. By being open to change, I have continued to grow year after year.
4. They Don't Waste Energy on Things They Can't Control
There are so many things teachers can’t control but there are even more they can! I was once given 6 different classes to teach every day. That meant 6 different preps and 6 different text books that I had no part in choosing. It was crazy! I was a beginning teacher and it took me a long time to plan lessons at that point. At the end of each day I was exhausted and I simply didn’t have time to create 6 different lesson plans for the next day. Clearly there was a lot I couldn’t control in this situation. I really wanted to be a good teacher and develop my skills though so I chose one class (the one that had the worst text book) and I devoted myself to making that class the best I could. I looked at the language the text wanted me to teach and I created new, more interesting materials. I focused on expanding my materials development skills in just that one class and that gave me a sense of control. When, after a few months, one of my students transferred from that class to one of my other classes, she wanted to know why that class was so much better than the other ones. She could see that even under such controlled circumstances, it was the things that I could control in a classroom that made all the difference.
Things you can’t control:
A set curriculum – I love nothing more than when the school I am teaching in says “Teach whatever you want, you have complete control!” Sometimes that happens and I happily go to my first class and work diligently to get to know my students, what they need, what they are interested in and what level they are so I can make a course that best fits their needs. Most of the time however this does not happen. Most of the time I am either handed a set of course objectives or I am handed a text book or curriculum to teach. Usually if they hand me a book I ask if I am required to teach from it. You would be surprised how often the answer is no, in which case I put it on the shelf and proceed to create a course that fits my students. If the answer is yes however, I still have a lot of options. I can still create a wonderful course.
The level of your students when they arrive to your class – Meet every student where they are and help them reach the next level whatever that is. Sometimes you get a huge variety levels in one class. I remember once I taught a class in which some of the students were totally illiterate in their native language and had not learned any English at all yet, while others were almost fluent and just wanted to work on polishing their writing and grammar skills. This was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn how to differentiate my classroom and ultimately it made me a better teacher.
Class sizes – Big classes can be tough, but so can really small classes. Every size of class has it’s challenges and we can’t control what those challenges are. We can control how we teach those classes though. At the moment I am teaching one class of 20 students and one class of 4 students. In the past I have taught classes of up to 50 students. I am supposed to teach them the exact same content but because of the number of students in the classes, I have to adjust some of the activities. I love all of my classes for what they have to offer. Big classes generally have a lot of energy. I can organize games and students get to talk to lots of different people every day. Small classes can still play games but they are different. The energy level is generally lower but the focus is often more intense. I have to work harder to get big classes to say in the target language and students have to take more of a leadership role in those big classes to keep things running smoothly. As a teacher, what I can control is how I manage the class sizes I am given.
How Politicians View You and Your Students – Because teachers have a direct affect on so many people’s lives and they are often paid by the government (tax payers), everyone has an opinion about teachers and teaching. This can be positive, and it is wonderful when it is, but it can also be incredibly critical and even disrespectful. You can’t control that, but you can control how you relate to your students and their families. By creating a community in your classroom and developing relationships not only with your students, but also with their families you are affecting how they view you and that is important.
Depending on where you teach, your students may be a part of a minority group. Opinions about minority groups vary greatly and have direct and sometimes devastating effects on peoples’ lives. You can not change that but you can make sure your students know their rights and know how to fight for them. You can be an advocate for your students and you can raise awareness for their issues.
For a great read, check out Amy Morin's book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do!
Check out these posts for more ways to think about teaching and how to do it effectively while still being fun and creative.
Hi, I'm Kia.
I help ESL / EFL teachers create fun, effective courses that students love.