How to be a great teacher: by the pupils

What do students want teachers to stop doing? 'Humiliating them' in front of the class, finds this teacher and author

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Last week, I shared the wise words of some of my students in my article "How to thrive at secondary school"after they gave advice to their peers on surviving and succeeding as a teenager. This week, I asked pupils to think about what advice they would give teachers to make sure they get the best out of young people. 

One pupil's response, in particular, really struck a chord with me. She wishes to be known as Sage (not her real name), and she's based at a South London comprehensive. While she's reluctant to describe herself as "intelligent", her style of writing and her insight belie this.

She talks about contagious joy, respect being mutual and each student’s needs being unique. I will admit that the random name generator is part of my regular toolkit in the classroom, so I’m less convinced by the idea that we shouldn’t single students out – but as it's a theme that has come up repeatedly in students’ responses, it’s food for thought.

Perhaps we should look to find ways of checking up on understanding whilst avoiding making them feel that they’re "on the spot". After all, teachers who "make us feel stupid" are the least popular of all... 

Over to Sage.

"I believe I can honestly speak for my entire year group when I say that when teachers seek advice, they should take it straight from the horse’s mouth.

"Horses are wild, stubborn animals but can also support people throughout their challenging journeys with just the right amount of trust. And that trust has to go both ways. The horse trusts you enough to carry your weight for miles straight, and you trust the horse not to topple you over and humiliate you in front of a huge crowd! 

'Teacher positivity is contagious'

"If we transform the crowd image to that of a small classroom, the same rules apply.

"As a simple solution, rest assured that the number of ‘moody’ teenagers is severely outnumbered by the jovial bunch! If you realise this – and show that you do – not only will the atmosphere in the lesson change entirely, but soon enough it’ll become contagious. The classroom will become a plague of positivity, infecting anyone that steps foot in it.

"How can you achieve this? Well, whilst a joyful mood is contagious, so is a negative one. Students are truly like animals. They can sense what you’re feeling. If you’re dreading every miserable minute in your cramped classroom with broken air conditioning, that’s understandable. So are your students! Just don’t let it show. You’ll find that how you present your attitude will be mirrored throughout your class. Keep up that facade for about three hours a day and you’re on a road to success. Shockingly, believe me when I say that soon enough it won’t even be a facade any more."

Another Year 11 student wrote the following:

“Don’t randomly pick on students – it will only make them less comfortable. Choose only the ones who are confident with answering and who have their hand up.”

This, I think, is an excellent point. When a student briefly zones out in a lesson, what will forcing them to answer a question they didn’t even hear do other than humiliate them in front of the class? Don’t discourage children from learning at their own pace because you’ll find that the same pupils will not put their hands up and offer their input in further lessons, whether that be out of spite or resentment.

I know how tempting it is to “prove” to yourself that you caught someone not paying attention. It’s when that snarky tone of voice comes out of hiding in the form of a “wake up!”, or, if you really want to make them on edge, an “I’ll come back to you”, only to never do so.

To list some more simple advice:

  • Create more opportunities for teamwork and classwork, and slowly ease into individual work. Don’t be rash and quickly switch from one to the other every other lesson.
  • Work with all students individually as best as you can and try to appeal to their unique learning pace and level of work. Take into consideration what the best method of learning is for each student and be open-minded towards them. Even if that means separating the silent readers from the loud, opinionated discussions.
  • A confidence boost works wonders. Assure students, not only as a teacher but as a person, that they have amazing potential and can achieve endless things if they put their minds to it.
  • Lastly, make more things optional. Consider this: if a weekend session is optional and five or 10 students don’t turn up, ask them – in school time – why they didn't. Use their answers as advice, and make the changes they need. 

Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching

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