Monday, April 21, 2014

Classroom Nightmares

A new season of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares is under way and this season I'm struck by how many problems these chefs and owners share with people in other professions, namely academics. Therefore a list, not meant to embarrass or admonish teachers, but to jolt them out of their complacency by outing the most common foibles in the profession.

1. Welcome to the Junkyard

Classrooms become warehouses for all of the junk teachers don't want to throw away: old furniture, microwaves, bookends, sets of old books, posters, globes, you name it–and always in dilapidated condition. Never mind old tests, piles of papers, and answer keys all jammed into folders and plastic organizers. Finally don't forget antiquated text books jamming the shelves. It all has to go. You don't want to eat surrounded by someone's junk, so don't presume your students want to learn surrounded by yours.

2. Purge and Clean

Yes, the custodians clean the building, but keeping the classroom clean and orderly is the equivalent of managing front of house at a restaurant. The room has to look kept and academic. The walls shouldn't be festooned with tape and decrepit posters, cork boards shouldn't be covered in staples, and your own desk shouldn't be covered with a decade of academic detritus. Some teachers like to post student work on the walls, a practice which suits only visual arts. Otherwise please realize the absurd fact that you're stapling tests to the wall, and desist. 

3. Nova et Mira

When was the last time you made something new? I don't mean slapping the test from the publisher onto the copy machine, I mean composing a new test. How about new lecture notes, worksheets, or quizzes? You're definitely not photocopying the same old originals again and again, right? 

It's not possible to remake everything all the time, but judiciously reuse, retype, and re-imagine old work. You're not the same teacher who made that material and the students it helped are long gone. Try something new, or at least update something. The more organized you are, the easier the task of revision.

4. Study Your Peers

Teachers abhor being observed and are perhaps the least competitive of professionals, whereas in every other field everyone clamors to observe and improve upon their betters. Chefs learn others' recipes, lawyers study each others' briefs, and everyone in technology viciously dogs each other.

There's always a bigger fish, someone from whom you can learn even if he teaches in a different discipline, and there's always something you personally can improve upon. If you think you've perfected something, you're stagnating. 

5. Poll for Feedback

Students are your pupils and parents are your patrons, so it might be a good idea if you ask whether they're getting what they want. Teachers feel accused and insulted when questioned, and no doubt many students and parents will try to game your system for points and prestige, but you have to address to their expectations to some degree. On the one hand the student has to meet the demands of the curriculum, of which the faculty is custodian and expert, and on the other hand the students and parents only chose your class or school because they thought it was worthwhile, so why would you want to disappoint them? You can have standards without refusing to accommodate students with different goals, expectations, and interests.

6. Advertise

Every job is a sales position, but teachers too often expect everyone to see the value of their classes and bow down before them without any explanation or demonstration. Kids need to see that your discipline is an important part of your life, and they can tell when their teacher only cares from 9-to-5, or rather 8-to-3. When they sense that, and if they correct, you lose credibility. 

7. Presentation

You have to make the discipline look important, and you should never let your students see the disciple looking shabby. What message do you receive when you walk into a restaurant and menus are filthy, the signs are full of typos, and the specials inserts are crinkled photocopies? It looks like nobody cares. 

8. Learn Something, Again

Teachers have the ingenious knack for convincing themselves they are smart, brilliant even. Well, we have all the answers in front of us and we do the same thing over and over again, year after year. There are constant updates in every field, and academia is no exception. More importantly, though, trying to learn something new, especially if its outside your discipline, gives you a little humility and reminds you how tough it can be for students.

9. Old Laurels

Remember that award you got 10 years ago? Well no one cares about it. The question is whether you are helping people now. On the same note, don't use the same method of evaluating your work. It's easy to get satisfied because you passed a given benchmark, whether it's a test passage rate or what, but after you pass that mark, keep striving. Help students learn something new, more thoroughly, or just differently. Do research or creative work, or anything to expand their understanding of the discipline. 

10. Efficiency

Teachers are notorious paper-wasters, running off reams of articles, worksheets, tests, and quizzes. Enter, the internet, where you can put things for others to see. Also, I print assessments on as few pages as possible. Tests which are laid out well and efficiently arranged are easier to grade, as well as more economical. 

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