How My Teachers Taught Me to Teach

When I was student teaching, my supervisor said something that startled me.

“What forms how you work with students—more than the education courses you’ve taken and more than your student teaching—are the classrooms of your childhood.

And then I started thinking. Ever since first grade, I had watched teachers. I’ll do that when I teach, I’d tell myself. I’ll bring out the mettle in students like Miss Bordeaux, and show I care, like Mr. Pollard. I’ll set water on fire, like Mr. Jenkins and scatter mind puzzles around the edges of the room like Mrs. Parsons. I’ll start class with math riddles, like Mr. Parker, and give students words to live by, like Mr. Wooten. I want to teach like Mr. Deaton so that when the bell rings, students can’t believe class is already over.

But other times I’d think, when I’m a teacher, I won’t do that. Mrs. Russ, in third grade, dismissed each student every day one of two ways: with a swat (if we were bad) or a piece of candy (if we were good). Though I couldn’t articulate my thoughts about this, I could tell it was wrong. And as a teacher, I have tried to be different from Mrs. Russ—to recognize the complexity of student behavior.

This watching of teachers continued in college. One morning, headed for an exam, I stopped in confusion in the driveway. Our car was missing, stolen, we discovered. So I took a city bus to class, arriving ten minutes late.

“Yeah, sure!” said Dr. Cline, and refused to let me start the exam.

And with those words, Dr. Cline set in me a proclivity toward believing students.

“You have an educational biography,” my student teaching supervisor had told me. “Unlike most professionals, you’ve already spent well over a decade in the setting of your new work.”

So take advantage of this, he had urged me. Think about the teachers you admired and the teachers who frustrated you. Learn from them.

Now that I’m old and retired, some of my former students are teaching. I hope some of them sometimes say, I’ll do what Mrs. Swartz did. And I’m sure they also think, well, I sure won’t do it that way!

Yo-Yoing Through Middle School

A middle school kid can come in two versions. Take Chris, for example, from my first year of teaching. I was never sure which version of Chris would show up for class on any given day. Would he be a young adult? Or a little kid? Chris wore his emotional age on his face each day, and I could measure it with a five-second look.

Some days, it was all about Chris—what he thought, what he felt, and what he wanted to do. On those days he’d stomp right over the needs of other kids to get his own met.

But the next day, the grown-up version of Chris would come to class. This Chris would keep his emotions from escalating, control his impulses, and care about what others needed.

It was like I taught two students in one body. These differences in Chris discombobulated me, and I wasn’t sure how to respond to him. But gradually I learned to keep my balance with Chris and other yo-yo kids. Here are some concepts that helped me.

  • Expect that painful steps backward will follow forward leaps in emotional growth. For middle school kids, emotional growth is rarely linear. Valleys follow peaks. If you expect linear growth, you will be disappointed. Middle school kids sit, after all, on the precipice of childhood and adulthood.
  • Use a retractable leash. With retractable leashes, dogs can roam much further than on a standard leash. But their owners have the option to lock a leash to a shorter length when necessary. Middle school kids need freedom to explore further afield, but they also need the safety of a short leash when their decisions begin to affect their long-term well being.
  • Spotlight the grown-up moments. When students hit the bottom, remind them about the times they helped someone or made an astute comment in class or stood up for justice or showed restraint. Catch them at the high point and then send them messages: This is who you are. That’s a Chris-like thing to do. I see how you are contributing.
  • Sympathize with setbacks. “You know, just the other day I lost my temper,” I liked to say to a guilty student. “And I felt rotten about it. But I’m going to try again to control my temper.” This gave students courage to try again. It gave them hope that growing up was within their realm.

Adolescence is tough—a time of social anxiety, physical change, and growing awareness that life is hard. It’s no wonder that some kids cope by fluctuating their emotional ages. Teachers of these students need deftness and agility. But the spinning and the zinging are fun when you catch the rhythm.

Who Cares?

Teaching students what they don’t want to know is no fun. You can recognize the signs: eyes rolling or glazed or actually closed, heads propped on a hand or down on the desk, feet tapping, fingers drumming, and bodies shuffling.

To change this scene is a challenge. How can teachers transform a class into note-taking, question-asking, forward-leaning students?

One way is to take a lesson from screen writers. They’ve got it down to the minute, these creators of film and television episodes and video games. They understand how to hook the brain, how to carry it along with rising tension, how to make us care and cry and laugh, and how to leave us satisfied at the end of a story. They use a set of tools gleaned from neuroscience, and they spend years getting it right.

The precision of screenwriters is impossible for a teacher with classes coming up hour after hour, day after day, week after week, term after term. But I’ve found that using a simple theatrical model often wakes students up. My impulse is not to do it this way.

Left to my natural way of thinking, I tend to unfold a lesson in sequential, logical steps, to build on information, to start out telling students what they should know instead of taking time helping them to want to know. So I need to consciously turn my lesson planning to a more dramatic approach. This works most naturally for social studies and literature and science, but it can also be applied in math. Here, for example, is the model I use with second-grade gifted students who were learning algebraic equations.

  • Set Up: Hook the interest (lead in with a story or a question)

I told the old story of Cinderella. Then I asked students to think about the step-mother from the perspective of Cinderella.

“She wasn’t fair,” the students said. And we talked about fairness.

  • Conflict: Reveal the tension

“Today in math,” I said, “you’ll have a chance to be fair. That’s what equations really are—solving the mystery of x in a fair way.”

Then I showed them an equation: 3(-x) + x – (-x) = 10 + x

“You control the world of this equation,” I told them. “And you’ve got a mystery to solve—what is x? As the ruler of this world, you can do anything you want—as long as you are fair.”

  • Resolution: Resolve the dilemma (through points drawn from content)

And then I gave them some tools, tools they wanted by this point:

  • Choose one side to be the x side and one side to be the number side.
  • Then just be fair, step by step—
    • If you take an x from one side, you take an x from the other side.
    • If you add an x to one side, you add an x to the other side.
    • If you divide on one side, you divide the same way on the other side.
  • Reprise: Review key elements

“Your equations will keep getting harder,” I told them. “But the principles will stay exactly the same—isolate the x and be fair while you do it.”

I could have started this lesson with the principles of algebraic equations. But the Cinderella story with the concept of fairness caught their emotional interest. Second graders care, after all, about fairness.

Four Hundred Kids and Me

Before-school duty scared me. That’s when I was in the gym with hundreds of kids while they waited for homeroom. The first five minutes of the duty seemed manageable, but the buses kept coming, disgorging another seventy students each. Kids streamed into the gym, teasing and jabbing and thundering their ways up into the bleachers. Every single one of them, I thought, must have had Mountain Dew and cookies for breakfast.

I’d stand there watching. They’d group with their kind in the bleachers—geeks with algebra books open and notebooks out, athletes in team jerseys, skaters with dark clothes and streaked bangs, band kids with their instrument cases piled in front of them. And sprinkled among all these groups, loners tried to look as if they fit in.

As the minutes passed, they’d get louder, even when they didn’t mean to. Someone in one group would raise a voice to make a point. And the next group would turn up their volume in order to be heard. Then so would the group beside them. And all the voices multipled as they bounced around the hard surfaces of the gym.

I’d try not to look at my watch. But when I’d finally give in, sure I was half way through my thirty minutes, I’d find only ten minutes had passed.

As the bleachers crowded, the tension would rise. Someone stepped on someone’s book bag. Two kids who fought in the cafeteria yesterday accidentally sat too near each other. An argument broke out in the in the middle of the bleachers, and near the top a lunch drink spilled. On the eighth-grade hall side a group of kids were waving me to come over. They had a problem.

No wonder I had trouble sleeping the night before this monthly duty.

But gradually I discovered a few tactics that took the edge off before-school duty:

Set a tone. A smile helped. I high-fived and fist-bumped and said good-morning and, if I knew them, called out their names. How I started with students, what I did the second they first saw me impacted the next thirty minutes.

Keep an eye on the overall. Don’t wade into the bleachers. I learned this the hard way. In the bleachers my back was always turned toward some students. This provided the right opportunity to throw a banana or a punch or escape out the door. Instead, I stood far enough away from the bleachers so I could see everyone from one end of the bleachers to the other.

Co-opt students into service. If I could get the right students working for me, I found, my job became easier.

“You see that guy standing at the top of the bleachers under the school flag?” I’d say to the nearest loud mouth. Go tell him to sit down and then point to me.”

I’d watch as the loud mouth stomped up the bleacher stairs and yelled, “Sit down!”

When the startled kid looked my way, I’d send him a friendly wave and watched as he sat.

“You need more help,” the loud mouth would say when he returned triumphant, “just let me know!”

Intervene early. It’s easier to prevent trouble than to stop it. So I learned to listen for strident voices and watch for posturing stances.

“Go get that kid,” I’d tell one of my bouncers.”

This pulled students out of situations before they escalated out of control.

I never learned to like before-school duty in the gym. But these strategies helped.

Falling and Failing

Kids need to fall. This is how they learn to tumble and roll without tightening up and then to get back up again. Falling is a skill. Gymnasts and stunt professionals know they will fall, so they take lessons in falling. And physical therapists teach senior citizens how to fall.

Kids who are taught to fear falling can become stiff and awkward in their movements. They don’t learn how to shift their bodies or protect themselves when they fall. This makes them even more unsafe. But kids who learn to fall with skill get hurt less.

Falling into an easy roll, though, goes against instinct. We fight the fall, trying to catch ourselves with an arm or knee or foot. But bones are hard and unforgiving, and when they take the impact they break.

According to physical therapists you should aim for the meat when you fall, not the bone. Round your body, they say, pulling your arms in across your chest and bend your knees. Spread the force of impact across your body. And, counterintuitively, relax as you fall.

Teachers, it seems, could learn from physical therapists. We spend our time teaching students not to fail. But we give them little help on how to fail, when we know they will. At some point in their lives they will fail a test or a class, not make the cut for a job interview, or find devastation in a relationship.

Some students feel failure so much that it warps their relationships, clouds their thinking, and hinders their emotional growth.

“I wish she would just get a B,” one desperate father said to me about his daughter. “She can’t sleep at night, won’t do anything fun on the week end, and worries, worries, worries.”

Granted, I had students who could have used a dose of this obsession. But, for some students, the fear of failure is debilitating.

What if we told these students to expect to fall, that failing is part of life? What if we helped them know how to spread the impact of a failure—to gather support systems around them? What if we were vulnerable enough to talk about our own failures and how we survived them and how we got back up again? What if we intentionally taught them to tuck and roll?

How and How Not to Be a Good Teacher

I had lots of good teachers on my way to becoming one. My sixth-grade teacher Miss Bordeaux, for example, introduced me to academic rigor. Miss Bordeaux wore starched white blouses and dark skirts and ordered her world and ours. She played soft classical music, she told us, when she first woke up each morning. Then just before she left for school, she switched to marching music. She continued this beat at school, stepping us through our days.

Most kids didn’t like the way Miss Bordeaux went ballistic if you said ain’t, or if you came to school with dirty nails or if you didn’t sit up straight. They especially didn’t like how she made us write papers, long ones, and then filled them with red edits. But I loved to read her markings. She sculpted the junk from what I wrote, leaving it spare and beautiful. Sometimes I noticed her watching me as I read those red marks, nodding her head. In Miss Bordeaux’s room, the air felt fresh, like someone had opened a window. She brought out my mettle. And when I become a teacher, I remember thinking, I want to be like Miss Bordeaux.

But I also learned about teaching from Mr. Mitchell. He reminded me of a chipmunk—short and squat with puffed out cheeks and a thick neck. Even the suit he wore every day looked like a chipmunk—tawny brown, streaked with chalk dust, and flecked from chemical stains. Mr. Mitchell brought no excitement to his class, so students created it by setting off stink bombs during labs and dropping calcium metal into a pen to make it explode like a firecracker.

Mr. Mitchell lectured in a monotone and in circles. Questions threw Mr. Mitchell into confusion. He contradicted himself and repeated himself and tried to find answers in the book. Most of us gave up, especially after we understood his four-day pattern.

On day one, Mr. Mitchell would announce a test and conduct a review no one understood. The second day we’d all take the test. On the third day, Mr. Mitchell would turn back our graded tests, which we’d all failed, and then harangue us for our stupidity and indolence. He’d give us all the right answers for the test and announce a retest for the next day.

We’d drill each other.

“Number 13?” one student would ask.

“Single replacement reaction,” another would answer. But neither knew the question for the answer.

Not that it mattered. When we took the exact test on the fourth day of the cycle, we all earned A’s, and without even reading the questions.

Mr. Mitchell showed me exactly how not to be a teacher.



Another Look

I like optical illusions. How, I wonder, can the blink of my eye change what was a rabbit into a duck? After all, the lines haven’t change. But, in some way I don’t understand, my perception changes.

About halfway through my career, I started thinking about students as optical illusions. If how I saw them wasn’t working, I’d try looking from another angle, changing the tilt of my head to get a new view.

Take, for example, the seventh-period class I had one year. Maybe it was because I had already taught all day. Maybe it was because the students had used up their goodness in their other classes. Whatever the reason, this class sapped more of my energy than all the other periods combined.

Even starting class was an ordeal. They’d pile into my room riled from a tussle in the hallway or a pen someone stole or a cell phone a teacher confiscated in the last class or a likely fight after school. Every lesson took twice the explaining for half the result. And the noise level, even when they tried to be quiet, exhausted me.

Blink, I’d tell myself, then open your eyes and see a different way. When I did this, when I looked more closely, I noticed what I hadn’t seen before. Aaron, who goaded the others, was also afraid to go home at night and, besides, he often chose Jeff, who didn’t smell so good, for a partner. Alan, who said he hated school, had also given up competing with his twin brother in the gifted program and around the edges of his papers he drew striking pictures. Kira, who couldn’t write one good sentence, also came to school hungry, and she often made insightful comments in class.

There is always more than one way to look at things. And how I viewed students, I found, was a choice. If I looked at them with a softened gaze, in a way that worked best for them, they turned toward me and toward learning.