Sunday, November 12, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #4: One Chance

One of the great delights of teaching is growing old with the craft. Every year you get wiser, you know the material in greater depth and with greater subtlety, and you perfect your style. Most of all, you learn to teach a greater variety of students. While not a given, some improvement is probable for even the weakest teachers. The flip-side to this rich opportunity is the temptation, in your ability to improve next year, to put off improving until next year. Or the year after, or the year after. Especially if you are making a career of teaching, you may feel that you have all the time in the world. So why work now? Yet as the horizon continues to recede, you will find yourself stale and listless. Old but not matured.

Worse is the crime against your students who, unlike you, do not have years and years to improve. In fact, they may only study the subject of your course once in their lives. You may be their only hope and opportunity of gaining this knowledge!

As a Latin teacher, I always that knew few if any of my students knew much about Latin coming into my class and few if any would ever read Latin again. Whatever I did with them was all they would know, and I wanted it to be good. My responsibility was twofold.

First, I resolved never to waste their time. Mainly this means two things: always show up and never show up unprepared. Regarding the first point, it's sad how many teachers are eager for any interruption to class time. Snow, sports, assemblies, late buses, some teachers welcome any intrusion. The pinnacle of this malaise is the jaded teacher--and who hasn't known a few--who is already counting down the days until June when it's only October.

Regarding the second point, once everyone is in class, make it count. Don't waste time–and teachers are notorious for this–by being inefficient when you do things like give back tests, hand out materials, put problems on the board, and so on.

This requires a great deal of organization and planning, but it doesn't mean you should be a task master. Neither you nor the students should be frantic trying to get too much done, but all should know what they need to do and be working on it at a pace appropriate to the class, material, calendar, and common sense adjustments to life. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, know when to ease up and when to push on. A good test of your success is whether you and they are proud of the day's work.

Second, don't disrespect the material. I appreciated the potential and history of the Latin language, the genius of its finest authors, and the importance of their writings, far to much ever to risk letting my students see them in a negative light. So no fumbles. Never let your work look shoddy or cheap. Don't cut corners or let things be out of date.

Don't ever give the impression that you don't care, because that impression will spread like poison through your class and even, possibly, through your career. Of course you must understand that students have many hardships and obligations, as do you, but during the class the material has to feel as if it were the most important thing in the world. Never give the impression–and disgruntled employees in all jobs are notorious for this–that you would rather be doing something else. If you would rather be somewhere else, they will too.

Some days will go bad, but you can make up for mistakes. Don't be obsessive and oppressed by the weight of your goals, rather let them urge you.

They only have one chance. Don't screw it up.

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