First Step - Lifting the lid on myths

28th August 2009 at 01:00
Most teachers have developed theories about what works in the classroom. Some are true, but others should be taken lightly.

Don't smile `till Christmas and start off being hard on the kids, you can always soften up later - myths or reality? When you start your first job there'll be plenty of people to give you advice, but what should you listen to and what should you ignore?

Myth 1 - Don't smile `till Christmas

First impressions are important. You have to build a rapport with your classes and pupils like their teacher to be friendly. What you say is only 10 per cent of your total communication. Your body language and facial expressions comprise the majority of how you communicate with your classes. Being friendly and welcoming is a positive move. You could spend the first three months scowling at your classes, but it won't make them respect you more.

Myth 2 - Good teachers are born, not made

Some people have a natural teaching ability, they seem to be able to do the right thing instinctively. The science and art of teaching is one that can be taught and even the naturals need to understand why what they do is effective and build on their skills.

All teachers need to engage with continuing professional development and this starts in your induction year. Within the first few weeks you need to have a discussion with whoever is in charge of newly qualified teachers and decide on what you need, based on your career entry and development profile. Identify areas that you feel less confident with and ask for training, help, or opportunities to work with experienced staff who are experts in your chosen area, such as special educational needs. Gaining qualified teacher status is a bit like passing your driving test. Now you need some "road" experience in new situations.

Myth 3 - Teachers should know the answers

It takes about five years on average for a teacher to feel fully confident that their subject knowledge matches what they are required to teach. Even then, pupils can always surprise you with a question that you hadn't thought about. There is no shame in admitting to pupils that you don't know the answer to a question. You could turn a good question into a useful teaching point or research homework for the pupils. One idea would be to set yourself homework from pupil questions, showing that you have to work hard as well as them.

Myth 4 - The only way to find out what your pupils really know is by testing them

We have developed a culture of "if it moves, test it; if it doesn't, test it `till it does". Testing has a place in teaching but what's most important is teaching.

Assessing pupils can be done summatively (tests and exams) or formatively - using a range of measures from talking to pupils to looking at their written work and giving helpful comments.

Try to avoid just giving pupils regular tests. Assess your pupils as you teach using assessment for learning techniques. It's a far better way of identifying what your pupils know, understand and can do. Testing takes time and if you test too frequently it will reduce the time available for teaching.

Myth 5 - Pick on a pupil and give them a good dressing down. The others won't give you any trouble after that

Apart from the fact that this would be unprofessional, pupils have no respect for teachers who pick on them for no reason. Such teachers rule by fear rather than by respect. Some pupils may also see this as a challenge - can they get the better of you? Have a firm disciplinary approach but make sure that it's fair and that you insist on the same standards of behaviour from the best pupil in the class to the worst.

Myth 6 - All lessons should be fun

Don't confuse fun with engaging. Fun lessons make children happy, but it shouldn't come at the price of learning. Now and again, a fun lesson is fine, but engaging lessons are just as enjoyable. Engaging means interesting, with a motivation for pupils to succeed and finish the task or find out more. Making lessons relevant to pupils is good, so find out something about the interests of the children you teach and think of ways of incorporating these into lessons. Also provide lessons that are rooted in real-life contexts, this will help the pupils understand the relevance of what they do.

Pupils also need to know that sometimes you need to work at tasks, even if you don't find them fun. Very few real life jobs are all fun and games and no hard work.

Education should prepare pupils for life and that means sometimes having to do things that are not fun, but need to be done

James Williams is a lecturer in education at the University of Sussex.

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