At a recent convention, a fellow teacher approached me after my talk and commented on how I seemed so passionate and energized about teaching—even after six years in an inner-city public school classroom. He was perplexed and amazed. I thought about this exchange for some time and concluded that I was indeed still fascinated by my career, perhaps more than when I began. With this realization I also began to wonder about what I had done, or not done, that had allowed me to escape the noose that far too many new teachers become caught. Why had I not burnt out? The following “ten steps” emerged from a few days pondering and I truly believe these things have, in large part, led to continued passion in my teaching practice. Although dosed with humour, I do seriously recommend each step be followed through. Try it!
- Make your classroom comfortable, inviting and resourceful. Use special lighting, have candy and toys and children’s books too! Bring things from home and encourage students to do the same. Think elementary classroom—even when you’re in high school! Make the space your own—unique—and a place where people, especially you, want to be!
- Avoid negative discussion about other students or other faculty members. Many teachers are fond of “x-ing” off student names on other teacher’s class lists… you know, that annual business in the staffroom in September. Avoid this. Make your own judgments about your students and colleagues and try to do so with the open mind that one would appreciate and expect in a role model—a teacher.
- Take breaks. Relax. This is not a race, folks! If everyone would just slow down, the system would have to follow suit. Stress kills. Increase the meaning and authenticity behind your classroom practice to get more bang for your buck. Make class discussions count, require work to be of quality and ease up on the quantity. Students will engage more when work is more manageable and meaningful and everyone’s stress levels will lower as a result.
- Talk WITH your students. Let them talk WITH each other. Build connections with community and people from outside the school—tear down the classroom walls! In my classroom, students sit facing one another (not unlike parliament) and I am merely one of thirty people in a big conversation. Think of your teaching as one big ongoing dialogue of interconnected ideas aimed at achieving a common goal—making our world a better place.
- Go to class unprepared once in a while. Feed off of the moment, the energy, the weather or the phases of the moon! Anyone can instruct. Anyone can read and perform from a lesson plan. Good teaching is about learning from life—teaching from and about what is real, current and intersecting with our lives. Stay involved in the profession outside of the classroom.
- Keep up-to-date with professional developments and be positive about them. Keep learning! Far too many people forget to model what they teach. If we are inspiring others to be curious, to be intellectually motivated and to appreciate and acquire a life-long love of learning, why would we be any different? Take a university class in the summer, an online course on weekends, attend a conference in Hawaii or read a professional journal on the subway. Nothing inspires others like passion. If you’re passionate about teaching and learning, your students will be too. If you can’t be bothered to do anything but go home and watch American Idol why should you expect anything else of your students? Seriously, think about this one.
- Define your principles and DO NOT compromise. Believe in something and show others that it is worth defending. There must be something within us all—we cannot merely purchase our entire existence, our beliefs, our passions, desires, hopes, morals and dreams. This, above all, may be the most important lesson a teacher can hope to impart—to be who you truly are and accept others for who they are also.
- Be different and allow it to show. Allow students to be different and appreciate and celebrate these differences. Be real, be human! And, accept those human shortcomings in student behaviour as part of their “being human” and see students as more than imperfect reflections of anti-democratic school regulations.
- Throw away your preps, handouts and overheads. Be forced to stay fresh. This point is simple. If you don’t laminate your daybook you won’t be tempted to repeat your teaching routine over and over and over. When you know what you’re going to say, when you know what you’re going to teach, when you know how the students are going to react and, when you know how long (exactly) it will all take, your teaching becomes automated, stale and predictable. You will become a lesson plan and not a teacher and you will lose interest in your career.
- Stay home once in a while. Go biking, walking, to the gym or out for lunch with a friend. The ultimate test of your teaching success will be the day students realize they would rather have you in the classroom than a substitute. So, expect and look forward to a welcome back party each and every time!
“If you’re not learning, you’re not teaching.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Sweet teaches high school English in Montreal. He is the founder of LearningforaCause.org and Poet Laureate for the Monarchist Society of America. Michael is serving a three-year term with the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s September 2009 issue.