Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

Harnessing a Classroom

In Teaching on January 19, 2010 at 3:25 am

Dear Yenta,

This is my second year teaching college level classes. I was
nominated for Teacher of the Year my second semester, and have had
amazing reviews by my students my entire teaching career. When I was asked to teach a Creative Writing class this semester, I just about had a heart attack. I was so excited, so pumped, so eager to show and teach my students everything I knew…and then we had our first class meeting.

My class was a disaster. I gave them a writing prompt, which they all
kind of moaned at, and then when I tried to discuss what they were
interested in and wanted to focus on, only one student spoke to me.
The others stared with a blank look on their faces. By the end of
class, which I let out thirty minutes early, I was devastated. How do
I inspire my students? How do I get them to open up? How do I get them
to talk to me? This is my dream, and right now I want to crawl in a
dark hole and just give the class back to the teacher who had it
before me.

-Teach 911

What is angst, but bottled up self-expression?

Dear Teach 911,

Breathe deep, these issues are all solvable. Harness your passion for the class and the kids will love you in no time. Insecurity is a teacher’s worst enemy, it is completely contagious and your students will resent you for it.

On the first day of class you want to show your students that you are strong, you are fierce, and you are in charge. Egalitarian learning comes with time, and step one is showing that you have the nerve to be their authority figure. Teenagers, even old ones, despise a teacher who seems weak or destructable. They want to feel safe, which means you need to at least appear slightly immovable. You are their faux parental figure, so step up to the plate. No student wants a limp noodle teacher.

To combat your insecurities you need to show up with a serious and solid plan and a shit ton of confidence. You do not care what those rats think. Give them at least one month to judge you because they don’t know anything until they have seen you in action, which they have not.

Show up and make them write. If they moan, their moans are not about you, and if you have an actual concrete plan, their moans will not shake your confidence. You are just a sounding board for their angst-ridden projections.

One option: give them a prompt like “hair” and have them free write. Do not mention the last failed class, do not show your weakness. At all. You never heard them moan, you never left early. Never leave early again. Class time is precious and you can always come up with more writing, discussion or other types of learning exercises.

Have the word “hair” printed and ready on a sheet of paper when they show up, hand that out and make them work. Bring music if you want, to set the mood and calm your nerves and keep them from boredom or whining. Spruce up a dull crowd. This is YOUR classroom.

After this warm-up then have them perform and build some serious trust. That is the first thing you do after they write next time, you make them build trust. This sounds like an oxymoron, forcing trust, but you are the teacher, not the classmate. Never forget that. You are NOT A TEENAGER.

To build trust you discuss what respect and safety mean to the students. Call on them. Be fearless. Have them step up to the plate. When they don’t speak, wait in silence until they do. Silent treatment always yields words. Make a list of how respect looks and even, possibly, have every student sign the list as a pact for a safe classroom. Creativity requires a cradle. Once safe, people tend to express more freely. If they violate the code of respect established, you can ask them to write an assignment, mess with their grade, etc. Respect, you are SHOWING, is no joke.

After they write about hair and after you discuss the meaning of respect and how it will physically look in the classroom, based on their own rules, then you make them read out loud their free writes. MAKE THEM.

You are asking them to own up to their attitudes, to show their boldness only via writing and working. Make sure while they are reading aloud you begin to uphold the precepts of respect that you just established.

And from there you are on your own. The key to a solid class in the midst of fear and worry is PLANNING. With time, and structure, your students will become brilliant little gems.

Have a question? Write in anonymously to merissag[at]gmail[dot]com via

Teacher Troubles

In Teaching on December 7, 2009 at 8:22 pm

Dear Yenta,

I have always had a problem with guilt. Anytime I feel I let anyone
down or hurt someone in any way, I feel like a terrible person, and
that’s hard to deal with. Unfortunately, I’m also a PhD student and
instructor of freshman composition, and my job involves a lot of
grading. All of my colleagues tell me to spend 10-15 minutes, tops,
per paper while grading, but I struggle to take under 30 minutes per
paper. It’s killed me all semester long, and I know I can’t keep
doing this, but I feel like I would be cheating all my students if I
didn’t take that time. Do you have any advice on how I could
juggle this?

-Guilty Grader

Dear Guilty Grader,

I once took over five sections of English at a wild Catholic school when a teacher quit mid-schoolday. This job was torture, but also a quick education on the importance of standard shifts in grading. Like you, as a teacher I want to give my students what I think they deserve, which is time, attention and thoughtful response.

By the end of week one of this new job I found myself on a couch surrounded by over a thousand pieces of paper. I had assigned too many exercises and according to my previous grading policy, I had to comment on every single piece of paper. So, I started hyperventilating. That was the first of many corners I learned to cut.

Students benefit from comments, but moreso, they benefit from a sane teacher. If you think you can manage 30 minutes a paper, so be it. Don’t use what other teachers are doing as a litmus test for your own work. But if their 10 minute policy could save you some headache, then re-juggle your mindset and deliver. Your students will be better off having a well-rounded teacher than a book-size response to their Romeo and Juliet essay.

Cheating your students would be to rip your heart out of the job. Cheating your students would be to walk out on them mid-school day. Cutting your own previous high standards down to size to accommodate reality; this is just plain smart. In the meantime, remember that teaching is giving. Make sure, in the stress of grading, that you are being extra gentle with yourself. Doughnuts, baths, ice cream and movies are types of things that need to be doled out to you, in addition to final grades for the students.

Also, start training yourself. A “terrible person” would probably walk in and tell the students they are all retarded stupid freaks. A “terrible person” would give F’s for no reason, sleep with the hottest kid, and smack and kick the bad kids. At the end of each day take note of not having done these things to keep the concept of “terrible” in check. You sound more like a mensch.