"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”- Albert Einstein
There have been times in my teaching career when I have been frustrated because my students don’t seem to be learning as much as I want them to learn or their test scores stay stubbornly where they are in spite of all of our hard work. At such times it can be tempting to blame my students or to think well, they just need to study more and harder. I have even been guilty of giving a greater volume of the same kind of homework to students. I refer you to the above quote, more of the same thing will probably not yield better results.
I have also seen many teachers who don’t like their students’ behavior, performance or outcomes but continue teaching the same curriculum with the same materials in the same style year after year. Why do we do this?
As a beginning teacher I was overwhelmed with work. It took me forever to plan lessons and create materials, I was nervous trying things out I had never done and insecure about giving students feedback on their work. It was exhausting! In those first few years I found activities that worked for me and I stuck with them. Having a “toolbox” of things that worked was a godsend and my workload gradually became more bearable as my lesson planning got more efficient, my nerves calmed down and my insecurities abated. This was fantastic but soon routines became habits and my teaching stagnated.
It might be tempting to stay in that rut but I have found that it is when I jump out of it and try something new, my teaching improves and more importantly, my students’ learning improves.
So, how do you get out of that rut?
Here are 6 ways:
1. Choose one thing you want to focus on changing for the semester.
If you have noticed that something is not working as well as you would like or you are just getting tired of approaching something in the same way, make it your goal in the following semester to try out new approaches to that one particular thing. You don’t have to throw away the whole curriculum, just that one part of it.
A few years ago, I noticed that my students were not retaining vocabulary as well as I would like them too so I decided to focus my creative energy on that. It took me several semesters and experimenting with a few different strategies to come up with one I was happy with but I really liked how well students were retaining and using the vocabulary in the end.
The next thing I focused on was pronunciation because my students kept complaining that they couldn’t understand the listenings because “the speaker was talking too fast.” I noticed that the speaker was not in fact speaking very fast but that the students were not able to distinguish between similar sounding words or understand connected speech. Next year I want to focus on inserting more games into learning.
2. Go observe as many teachers in different contexts as you possibly can.
I am always amazed that as teachers we are surrounded by such wonderful resources in our colleagues yet we rarely take the time out of our schedules to observe each other. The last program I taught for had 6 teachers and we were all supposed to be teaching using exactly the same materials yet when I went and watched my colleagues teach, we all had totally different approaches. I didn’t necessarily want to adopt all of those approaches myself but I always came away with new ideas.
3. Let your students choose the curriculum for the semester.
I love this option but it can be a lot of work. I was once given an adolescent issues class. The principal met with me and gave me the following instructions “you have to cover Sex Education but other than that, whatever the students feel is important.” In the months leading up to the course I planned out how I wanted to each Sex Ed. But the rest I had to leave until after the course had started. The students chose things like addiction and gangs, and mental health, three subjects I had limited knowledge of, so while we were doing the Sex Ed stuff I was busy reading and finding materials for the other units. The class was a success because the students were involved with choosing what they wanted to study and they were engaged. I learned a lot about addictions, gangs and mental health.
4. Take a class
This is my favorite of all the options listed here. I love nothing more than to learn more about teaching by being a student. The best thing of all is that you don’t have to take classes about English or Pedagogy, you can take classes on anything you want! I love photography so I took classes on how to use the darkroom. You might also take a math or science class, anything you are interested in.
5. Volunteer to teach something completely new.
This is a really fun one. Years ago when I was teaching an academic writing course at a university in Turkey, they asked if any of us would be willing to teach an elective history course. I jumped at the chance and decided to teach Latin American History by giving each student in the class a different country. Each week we would examine a different topic. The students were responsible for researching how that topic applied to their own particular country. I gave them a short lecture on the overall topic, sent them off to do their research and then they shared what they found out with each other the next class. It was so much fun for both my students and me. They each became an expert on one country while learning about the whole region. One of my students even said that she got so interested in Haiti (a country she had never heard of before) she was neglecting her other classes and making plans to visit someday.
6. Attend a teaching conference or convention.
I still remember my first conference; it was a Family Literacy conference in Louisville, Kentucky. I had just started teaching for a community college and they only had funds to send 2 teachers so they sent the two of us who had just been hired. I was surprised they would send me because I had no seniority but they explained that they wanted us to feel connected to the larger Family Literacy community. It was amazing! I had never been with so many working teachers before and everyone was sharing ideas and experiences. I was so inspired, the next year I presented a workshop on how to use student generated books to guide curriculum.
Some Final Thoughts
What are your favorite ways to shake up your teaching? Have you tried any of these ideas? What did you learn? Share your answers in the posts so we can all benefit from your experience.
You might also enjoy the ideas in these posts. Check them out!
Hi, I'm Kia.
Teaching is my passion, I have been teaching for over 20 years in 4 different continents. One of the things I have learned over the years is that I am never done learning about teaching. Both teaching and learning should be fun and inspiring.
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