Saturday, March 19, 2011

Five Mistakes Teachers Make

What is the difference between an effective teacher and an ineffective teacher? This topic is up for national debate, but unfortunately, the hammer comes down on the wrong side of the teacher more often than not. Teachers are not perfect. In our climb from newbie to effective teacher we might make some mistakes along the way. Most teachers figure out what works and what doesn't work through trial and error, but some teachers continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.

I Taught it. They Should Have Got It.

My first year of teaching still haunts me. I remember feeling perplexed when my students made horrible grades on worksheets assigned to go with the social studies or science book. We read the material out loud and discussed it. The answers were written directly in the chapter, and they are in order! How could they possibly fail? I taught the material. They should have got it.

Effective teachers recognize when things go wrong, and they take responsibility. Sometimes we need to rewind and consider other ways to present material. We also need to realize that some methods are simply ineffective. They don't work. Effective teachers are reflective. They think about what worked and what didn't work, and they take steps to change and improve their teaching in order to engage learners.

Reflective questions: Why did my students fail the worksheet that goes with the chapter? What can I do to make sure they know how to access and comprehend the information? Kids need to learn how to read the textbooks. They need to understand the structure of the text (how it's organized) before they tackle it. We must first teach students how to find the information they need before we can expect them to do it own their own.

My Assignments Cover the Curriculum.

The curriculum is cram packed, and in our effort to "get it all in", it's easy to forget that we are teaching children. Passing out another worksheet or giving an assignment doesn't equal teaching. Teaching is not assigning. Assignments should reflect practice for objectives taught and / or assessment.

Sometimes we need a grade. We give an assignment that reflects an objective in the curriculum, and in the process we get a grade. But in all honesty, we didn't teach the objective. We gave an assignment. Realizing this is a hard pill to swallow, especially when our students do poorly on the assignment.

Reflection questions: What is the key information and understandings my students need to know? How can I effectively teach the objective?  Compacting and differentiation is the key to covering the curriculum effectively. We must recognize the most important things in the curriculum students need to know, and use assessment to drive instruction. Is it necessary to teach something if all of the students have already mastered it? What if some have mastered the objective, but others have not? How can we teach to reach students where they are at, in order to move them forward? Effective teachers consider these questions and make individualized instructional decisions on a daily basis.

They Should Know This Already.

My students are in fourth grade. I know they taught this skill last year. They should know this already. Students are not coming to middle school with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful. What are those teachers doing in elementary school? It must be nice to be able to spend your day cutting and pasting and playing!

Does this sound familiar? It's called the blame game. The above picture (especially the idea that elementary cuts and pastes and plays all day) is far from accurate. There are many, many reasons why a student might not know how to do something: they move around a lot, they were absent the day this was taught, they were not developmentally ready to learn the material, they have gaps in their learning, the skills require years of repeat in order to acquire them, and the list goes on. The moral to this tale: do not assume that students know how to do something.

I remember my senior year of high school. I had to write a research paper. My teacher assumed I knew how to write a research paper, after all, I was a senior. She assigned it. I failed miserably at it. Why? I didn't know how to research, how to restate information in my own words, or how to site my sources.  No one ever taught me. No one modeled, or demonstrated, or showed me examples. They just expected me to magically know how to do it.

Reflective questions: Did I teach my students how to do this, or did I assume they already know? Did I model, demonstrate, and show examples? No matter what subject or grade level you teach, you must model, demonstrate, and show examples. You must give students the opportunity to practice with guidance before releasing them to independence.

We Do Lots of Great Projects.

I love projects! They are fun and engaging, and require students to show a certain amount of independence. I can integrate my project across the curriculum, give students a myriad of choices, and display their results in the hallway for open house.

Imagine a fabulous social studies project that integrates reading and writing. Students work in cooperative groups, make choices, research, and create an exciting final product. The best part is that they read information for their project (reading : check) and write about their topic (writing : check). We've integrated, connected, and covered the curriculum in one swoop. Isn't it grand?

What's wrong with this picture? There is certainly nothing wrong with a project that requires students to apply knowledge and skills they've been taught. Effective teachers realize that projects can easily turn into another form of the assignment without teaching. Another difficult pill to swallow is to realize that we must spend time teaching the skills and strategies in reading, writing, and math before asking students to apply them in a social studies or science project. The foundation must be built first.

Reflective questions: Have my students mastered the skills needed in order to complete the project? Did I teach my students how to write before asking them to write? Did I teach my students how to read and access information while researching a topic for a project? Projects have their place, just make sure the project's foundation is on solid ground.

I Don't Expect Much.

I'm embarrassed to say that my first class of students didn't perform so hot on the state test. The worse part is that I didn't even realize that their poor performance was bad. I began my teaching career in a school of low expectations. We had plenty of excuses and reasons for our student's failure, but of course, it couldn't be our fault, after all, we cared about the children and worked hard.

Fortunately I was quick to learn that our expectations play a huge roll in our student's success. I remember a colleague, the teacher with a white bun, who taught me two powerful lessons: (1) teach to the top, and (2) never teach the same way.

This wonderful lady used to say teach to the top and the rest will follow. In other words, set high expectations and believe in your student's ability to succeed. Now let me say one thing: high expectations alone doesn't make success, but low expectations get you nowhere. I have a sneaky suspicion that failing schools lack expectations.

Why did she say to never teach the same way? Every school, every class, every student comes with baggage -both good and bad. Our students have schema. But their schema is never, ever the same. We have to change our teaching methods to meet the needs of our students. Students rarely need the same thing. A successful lesson this year might not work next year. We must base our instruction on continuos assessment and evaluation.

Reflective questions: Do I have low expectations of some or all of my students? Do I teach to the top? Do I drive my instruction based on assessment? Do I differentiate to meet individual needs? Teach to the top and never teach the same way.

Effective teachers recognize when they make mistakes, and work to correct their errors in judgement. They do not make excuses, but instead, search for a better way to reach their students. Effective teachers continue to grow and learn professionally based on analysis and reflection of their own teaching. They know their students well and differentiate to meet their individual needs. Effective teachers model, demonstrate, and show examples. They set high expectations and believe in their student's ability to achieve appropriate goals.

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1 comment:

  1. While reading your article, Five Mistakes Teachers Make, I could picture my first year of teaching. There were many times I found myself in the same place. I also found the questions for reflecting on great to really think in depth about my teaching. Thank you for posting such a great article. melissagiggee"at"hotmail"dot"com

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