The following excerpts from How to Teach Adults will show you how this book explains everything you need to start teaching adults, along with tips that even veteran teachers can use. If you like what you read, please download the free PDF or order a paper copy of the book today!
From the Introduction
Why I wrote this book.
And why you should read it.
You’ve had bad teachers before. You had the teacher who lectured in a monotone the entire class. You had the teacher whose answers to your questions confused instead of clarified. You had teachers who wasted your time with busywork, who tested you on things never covered in class, who gave you grades that bore no relationship to what you put into the course or got out of it.
Maybe you’ve been that teacher. Maybe you gave a workshop that put your colleagues to sleep. Maybe you taught a course that left you frustrated at the end of each class period. Maybe, right now, you’re going through the motions of being a teacher, making your students happy but not teaching them half as much as they ought to be learning. Maybe your fear of failure is keeping you away from teaching in the first place.
Teaching adults is hard. When I started, I didn’t think you needed any special skills to do it. Then, one day about a month into my first semester, every one of my students went home during the break. An hour in a classroom by myself gave me a lot of time to think about how there was more to this “teaching adults” thing than I had anticipated.
In my attempts to improve my teaching practice, I’ve learned that there are few books about how to teach adults, and all of them have their niche: Teaching college students, teaching writing, teaching tennis… I have yet to find a book simply about teaching adults. So I spent three years writing my own.
This book is a distillation of everything I know about the subject. It’s the product of reflecting on a decade of my own teaching practice. It’s also the result of conferences, professional development workshops and collaborations with other teachers. It even has the best tips and insights from all those specialized teaching books I read. I believe that How to Teach Adults is the first, best book for anyone who cares about the subject. It’s a concentrated reference you’ll hopefully make use of your entire career.
If you give workshops, this book will help you prepare and present them better. If you’re thinking about making a career in adult education, this book will convince you that it’s the best job in the world. If you’re a beginning teacher in search of some guidance, this book will give you concrete advice you can use to build your career for the long haul. And if you’re a veteran instructor looking for something you can use tomorrow, go directly to Chapter 6: Tips for Running Class and Chapter 7: How to Present Information. You can read this book from beginning to end or skip around to get exactly what you need.
How to Teach Adults was written for athletic coaches, yoga instructors, spiritual leaders and drill sergeants, in addition to the math professors and English as a Second Language instructors we usually think of as adult educators. Whoever you are, I want to help you become the person you want to be. That’s what adult education is all about.
Teaching grownups is more fun than teaching kids.
I’ll get no love from K-12 teachers for saying this.
Besides the inspiration, there’s one big reason to choose teaching adults over kids: Adults are more fun. You have few discipline problems because, generally, no one is making them come to class. Adults make better conversation, bring more life experience, and ultimately have more to give to each other and to you.
My students have told me where you can buy a fake Social Security card in Oakland and what life is like in a refugee camp in Thailand. They’ve told me about underground clubs and high school race riots. My adults students have taught me more about my city and the rest of the world than I could have learned in a hundred lifetimes.
Story: I was teaching my class about the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike when one of my students, an older, handsome Cuban immigrant of African descent, told us about labor protests in Japanese factories after World War II. Rather than strike, workers actually sped up the production line. This generated a surplus of finished goods that was costly to warehouse and embarrassing for plant managers to explain to their superiors. Being of Japanese descent myself, I appreciated how intensely Japanese this mode of protests was. The student mentioned that he studied this in Moscow, where he trained to be an air force radar technician in the Cuban military.
To recap, a Cuban veteran taught a room full of immigrants in America the Japanese labor history that he learned in Russia. In what K-12 class would this have happened?
From Chapter 1: Foundations of Teaching
Being an expert doesn’t make you a good teacher.
Struggling with a subject helps you teach it.
Just being good at something doesn’t qualify you to teach it. A retired NFL quarterback who becomes a football coach may actually have more trouble understanding his players’ difficulties, because he’s been great his whole life. How can you explain how to throw a football correctly if you’ve never done it wrong?
An instructor who has struggled with what they teach may start out more insecure, but their struggle has made them a better teacher. Take ESL teachers who aren’t native English speakers. Without exception, they are better able to explain the rules of grammar because they had to painstakingly learn them all, instead of unconsciously acquiring English grammar as children. Many English language learners are more inspired by non-native speaker teachers than they ever could be by some sucker who just knows English by dint of being born in the US.
If you’re reading this book because you want to teach something you weren’t naturally good at, be reassured. On the other hand, if you want to teach something at which you are gifted, know that, in some ways, your struggle is just beginning.
Note: Struggling with your field of study deepens your compassion for your students.
Try to see from the student’s perspective.
Understand how students don’t understand.
My first assumption about teaching was that it meant transmitting information to students. I was an expert in the English language and my job was to upload that expertise to my class. It was a few years before I could articulate how that wasn’t the case. I gradually realized that my job was to maximize learning, which is what goes on within the student. My focus switched from pouring information out of myself to creating situations that facilitated students building their own knowledge.
In order to maximize learning, you must be able to see from the student’s perspective. Your job is to understand every one of your students so that you can create activities that maximize each student’s ability to learn what you have to teach them.
The best use of my own English language expertise wasn’t to simply explain vocabulary and grammar. I needed to gauge students’ ability at any given task, anticipate mistakes they were likely to make and create activities to maximize their ability to learn new material. For example, if I was teaching the word “too,” it wasn’t enough to explain the textbook definition of “an excess of, used before quantity words like ‘much’ or ‘many.’” I needed to know that students often use “too” interchangeably with “so,” which explains why a Muslim student once told me, “There are too many Muslims in America!”
The power to imagine is one of your most important teaching skills: Imagining how a student will engage your activities, your assignments, and your subject as a whole. You create a mental model of how students engage your subject. When students make mistakes, don’t just correct them. Examine those mistakes to figure out the (flawed) mental model they’re using. In so doing, you will improve your understanding of the student’s perspective, which will do wonders for your teaching.
Go beyond academics and imagine the entire student experience. Students have to negotiate their classes, the school bureaucracy, their interactions with other students as well as their work and family lives. It puts your latest homework assignment in perspective. Imagine how to use what’s going in their lives to make them care about your class.
Note: The “student’s” perspective in the title isn’t a typo. My intention is to try to see things the way each individual student does, and to tailor my class to each student’s needs.
From Chapter 2: How to Get Started Teaching
How to get your first teaching job.
You only have to get your first job once.
There are three things to line up before getting your first teaching job: Credentials, experience, and connections. “Credentials” is self-explanatory. Get the lowest-level certification needed for your teaching job. This will let you see if you like teaching before committing to more schooling.
Then get some experience. At a minimum do some tutoring, but see if you can assist a teacher in a classroom. The more hours you have with students, the better. (Substitute teaching counts, too.)
That leads us to connections. As with other kinds of employment, once you meet the minimum requirements for your job, the most important factor is personal connections. See if those teachers you assisted know anyone who’s hiring. When you see a teaching position advertised that looks like a good fit, see if anyone in your social network is connected to the school. It only takes one friend, or friend-of-a-friend, to set you apart from all the other candidates.
How to Prepare for Your Interviews
Stories to prepare: Have a meaningful story to tell about each of the following, including what they taught you about teaching adults.
- Your educational background
- Your teaching experience (If you have none, play up any tutoring or teacher assisting.)
- Your teaching philosophy (write this out ahead of time)
- Your plan to engage students of different backgrounds: Age, ability, culture, etc.
Documents to bring: Bring one paper copy for everyone at the interview, including yourself.
- Your resume or CV
- A sample syllabus
- A sample lesson plan (see Chapter 4: How to Lesson Plan)
- A list of questions for your employers
Questions to ask: If you don’t ask good questions, you won’t get hired. Print your questions out, bring them to the interview and take notes on any answers you get. It shows you’re paying attention, will help you prepare for your follow-up interview, and help you write thank you cards to each of your interviewers.
- The school: Its mission, history and future
- The students: Their needs, interests, backgrounds, and goals
- Other teachers: Opportunities for collaboration and peer development
- The administration: How teachers are supported and evaluated
- Your responsibilities: Tracking attendance, being on committees, etc.
- Your future: Opportunities for professional development, more classes, curriculum development, promotion to full time, etc.
Hint: Start by Googling your name. That’s what prospective employers will do. If a photo gallery of your performance in the Kegstand Olympics appears in the first 10 results, you will want to change some Facebook privacy settings before submitting applications. (Your students will Google you, too.)
From Chapter 3: How to Design Your Course
What question will you start with?
If you don’t start with a question, you’ll definitely end with one: “Who cares?”
The best learning comes from the search for answers to the questions we care about. Consider then how much time teachers spend giving students answers to questions they haven’t even asked yet.
Begin your course – in preparation and in the classroom – with one or two big questions your students will answer by the end of their time with you. These are often related to universal themes, such as success, power and health – as well as failure, dependence and death. Be able to articulate these questions in plain language your students can understand.
You can start with a question that you don’t know the answer to. For example, in an architecture class, identify a need in your city and design a project to address it. This will guarantee a high level of student engagement, because students won’t be able to get away with just regurgitating your own ideas back to you. However, this can be intimidating for new teachers, and tends to work best with higher-level students.
Note: In academia this is known as a “line of inquiry” or a “guiding question.” These are core questions that students will not only engage throughout your course but will also be of value to them throughout their lives.
Plan your course objectives.
These are the core concepts your students should walk away with.
It’s been said that bad classes are based on activities, that mediocre classes are based on materials, and that good classes are based on objectives. Your course objectives are what students should be able to do by the end of your class. The extent to which they meet those objectives is the primary basis by which you evaluate your students’ success at the end of the term – and your own.
Objectives should be specific and measurable. “Students will know intermediate grammar” is not a good objective. A more detailed objective, such as “Students will be able to correctly use the simple past, past continuous and present perfect in an academic essay” is much better.
Your objectives are the landmarks by which you guide the class. They determine which activities you choose, where you focus discussion, how you prioritize what to correct and what you put on your final exam.
Below are some typical of bad objectives.
- The Coverage Objective: “Students will go over the causes and effects of the Civil War.” This says how much stuff they will cover, not what they will learn.
- The Activity Objective: “Students will watch a documentary and discuss it with a partner.” This says what they will do, not what they will learn.
- The Involvement Objective: “Students will enthusiastically sing an English language song together.” This says how they will do an activity, again, not what they’ll learn.
Note: Industry commonly refers to “SMART goals,” which are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. This is just a different way to describe good objectives.
From Chapter 4: How to Lesson Plan
The first day of class is the most important.
Establish yourself as teacher and sell the class.
The first day is when most students decide whether to keep or drop a class. Perversely, it’s also the day Murphy’s Law comes out in full force. Being prepared for the first day will go a long way toward making your class successful.
I recommend dressing and acting more formally on the first day of class. This helps establish you as the teacher, especially if you don’t match students’ preconceived notions: You’re young, small, the “wrong” gender for subject, etc. As the term progresses it’s easy to go from more formal to less formal; it’s difficult to go the other way around.
Besides taking roll and going over your syllabus, there are a few things you should always do on the first day. First, give students a chance to meet each other. Without time to find out who their peers are and how they fit in, they’ll be too distracted to learn anything. This is usually accomplished with an icebreaker: A structured activity where students find out about one another.
Second, make it clear that while you’re on your students’ side, their learning is their responsibility. I include an activity where students discuss how they maximize – and minimize – their learning.
Third, especially for more novice learners (adults in a GED class, first-time yoga students) or for classes students traditionally have anxiety about (math, science, public speaking), acknowledge the fear and/or skepticism that students may have and make it clear that your job is to help them.
Finally, sell the class. Introduce or elicit the questions students will explore in your course. Show them how exciting the topic is – probably through a short lecture or demonstration followed by a group work activity, so students can engage the material and keep the energy level high. A lot of students shop for classes on the first day. Do your best to make sure they choose yours.
Pre-First Day Checklist
Do the following before your class begins to help ensure a smooth first day.
- Check the commute to class at the time you’ll be commuting
- Check the parking situation (car or bike!)
- Check the room location
- Look at the room setup (Fixed or moveable chairs? Big or small tables?)
- Check room resources (Whiteboard? Whiteboard markers?)
- Locate the nearest bathroom and water fountains (Do they work?)
First Day Checklist
(In chronological order)
- Dress extra professional
- Show up 30 minutes early
- Set up the room
- Lay out your materials in the order you’ll need them (markers, name tags, syllabuses…)
- Write your name and the course name and # on the board
- Welcome each student as they come in
- Take roll/Get students’ names
- Have students do an icebreaker
- Introduce yourself
- Sell the class with an engaging lecture and/or activity
- Go over the entire syllabus (this may be done the second day of class)
- Answer any questions about the class
- Give the student survey & needs assessment (see below) and any other paperwork
- Assign any homework
- Answer any last questions
- Confirm the next class day, date and time
- End class and stay after to answer any additional (or personal) questions
Note: Handling the first day is especially challenging in open enrollment classes (like yoga, karate, drop-in ESL classes) – where the most important day is each individual student’s first day. Have a few set talking points and questions for new students, before and after class if possible. If nothing else, recognize them for coming to your class and see if they have any questions before they leave.
Start with a survey and an entry assessment.
The survey tells you who your students are; the entry assessment, where they’re starting from.
Give students a survey to complete and return to you by the end of the first class. It should ask students about themselves and any factors that may affect their learning: Legal name, the name they prefer to go by in class, contact info, educational history, past classroom/professional experience in the field, personal interests, scheduling conflicts, learning disabilities, physical limits, etc.
The entry assessment is a series of questions or tasks based on your course objectives. It lets you see how close your students are to meeting those objectives already. Make it clear to your students that their performance on it won’t be graded, collect them at the end of class, look at them when you get home and don’t give them back. These help you understand where the class is coming from and let your start adjusting the class for these specific students – not the hypothetical ones you or your textbook designed the course around.
For my writing class, every student writes a sample paragraph on the first day. This shows me where they are based on their grammar, paragraph structure and use of academic language. It’s helpful in no small part because I consistently overestimate my students’ starting ability.
Finally, the entry assessment identifies students who are way below level – not just based on where I think they should be, but compared to their peers as well. I communicate privately with these students to let them know the class is probably too difficult for them, and recommend an alternative class for which they are better suited.
Note: If you test the same things with your entry assessment as you do with your final, it’s also a benchmark test.
From Chapter 5: Grading & Assessments
Assessments are hard, fraught, and crucial.
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” -Google
There are two kinds of assessments. Formative assessments are surveys which let students evaluate the class format: Your lectures, activities, assignments, etc. (FORMative assessments, if you will) Summative assessments measure what students have learned. The classic summative assessment is a test, but verbally asking students questions in class is a summative assessment as well.
You design summative assessments around your course, and vice versa. You write them based on what you want students to be able to do by the end of the class. Conversely, what you teach on a day-to-day basis is informed by students’ performance on your assessments.
Summative assessments are ethically fraught. Do we test students on the skills needed to be a CEO? An assembly-line worker? An academic? And what kind of assessment should we use: A paper test that’s easy to grade but doesn’t reflect real world demands, or a portfolio project (e.g. where students write a mission statement and a business plan) that’s more realistic but takes many classes to explain and is a pain in the ass to grade?
An assessment is a two-way conversation. The teacher tells each student how they’re doing in the course. In return, the class collectively tells the instructor how well they’re teaching. If a bunch of students make the same mistake, that tells you something. If a bunch of students make a bunch of different mistakes, that tells you something, too. Evaluate your students’ assessments quickly, but don’t return them before you’ve reflected on what they told you.
The five principles of assessment.
These “five principles” aren’t administrators in your school district.
Testing is an enormously complicated field. Fortunately, you can break down assessment theory into five basic principles.
The Five Core Principles of Summative Assessment
Evaluate your assessments based on these principles.
1. Practicality – How quick and easy is it to create, administer and grade the test? Practicality includes coming up with tests that don’t take longer to take than the class is long and don’t have so many different possible answers that they’re impossible to grade.
2. Reliability – Can the test be graded objectively, or are the questions hopelessly subjective? Will two different teachers give the same student two different scores? That’s poor inter-rater reliability. Will the same teacher give two students at the same level different scores if they’re tired, grumpy or don’t like one of the students? That’s poor intra-rater reliability. (See “Write rubrics” below for help with reliability.)
3. Validity – Does the test actually measure the knowledge or skill it’s supposed to? (more on validity bel0w)
4. Authenticity – Does the test assess students’ ability to perform in real-world situations, or are the test questions and situations contrived? We shouldn’t give tests so inauthentic they don’t reflect real world demands. But if tests tasks are too authentic they’ll probably require students to use many different skills at the same time, which makes it hard to figure out what exactly students don’t know when they get something wrong.
5. Washback – Does the test make it possible for the teacher and student to improve student learning based on its results? A test that requires students to show every step of their process – like showing all their math work, or designing every piece of a carpentry project before assembling the project itself – provide more washback at the expense of authenticity. You, the teacher, get to see exactly where students went wrong, but students probably won’t spell out every single step while doing these tasks out in the real world. And it feels unfair when a student builds their carpentry project correctly but gets marked down for not designing all their pieces ahead of time.
As you can see, the five principles exist in tension with one another. If you test just one skill, you make the assessment more valid but less authentic. Spending lots of time writing rubrics improves reliability but reduces practicality. And so on.
There’s no such thing as a perfect test. But if you apply these five principles your assessments will be better than most.
Note: Don’t assume that assessments from textbooks – or your department, or your peers – necessarily meet these five principles!
Validity is the most important part of a test.
Test what you teach.
Of the five core principles of summative assessment, the one violated most often is validity. This is unfortunate, because validity is also the most important. After all, the main reason you give a test is to see if students have learned what you taught them.
I see this in ESL classes all the time. Let’s say a teacher wants to test students’ listening comprehension. They have students listen to a short audio passage and write answers to questions written out on a paper test. Now take a moment to identify what’s wrong here.
The problem is that the teacher is now testing students on their listening, reading and writing skills. To be valid the teacher must make sure the reading and writing required to complete the task correctly is easy for students at this level, to ensure any wrong answers are due to problems with comprehending the listening passage, not with reading the questions or writing the answers. (Better still, the answers should be multiple choice, to eliminate writing as a possible source of error. This comes at the expense of authenticity but is probably worth it.
Most teachers quickly learn to make their tests practical. Rubrics makes test pretty reliable, too. Reflecting on tests and talking to students about their performance will help you achieve washback. I personally believe that teachers spend too much time worrying about authenticity and not enough on validity. Focus on validity to ensure you’re testing what you’re teaching.
A grade doesn’t measure how much you like your students.
“F” stands for “Feedback.”
You will inevitably have students you don’t care for who get a better final grade than you think they deserve. And there will always, always be a student you love who doesn’t pass the course. That’s a sign of success. It means your grades aren’t a measure of how much you like your students.
The more you separate grades from feelings, the better. This will keep you from penalizing students just because you don’t like them – and you may dislike them for reasons that have nothing to do with their learning. For example, I had a classmate in college who would ask reactionary questions during class and then write thoughtful essays for his homework. His process was obnoxious but his learning was real. Students who annoy you shouldn’t be punished for it.
By the same token, you shouldn’t give students a better grade simply because you like them. It’s a dangerous rabbit hole to go down. If your rubrics are fair, they’ll get the grades they deserve. The more objective your grades, the less guilty you’ll feel when you inevitably don’t pass those students you love.
In fact, when you pass failing students, you’re letting yourself off the hook. If students who work hard fail your class, the problem is likely your teaching. Instead of giving false charity – making yourself look generous while setting up your students for failure by sending them to a class for which you have not prepared them – evaluate your teaching and see what went wrong. By promoting students who haven’t earned it, you’re passing yourself when you probably failed.
From Chapter 6: How to Run Your Class
Start on time.
As they say in yoga, “Start on time to honor the practice, end on time to honor the student.”
Adult students are often late to class. You may be tempted to delay class, just a bit, until more students arrive. Big mistake. When you start late, you punish students who come on time and soon everyone will come late.
Having said that, I am loathe to discipline students for being tardy. Adult students are typically late for good reason: They have to work overtime, can’t find parking or (especially for women) need to take care of their family when someone gets sick. A better way to encourage promptness is to do something meaningful at the beginning of class that rewards those who come on time without unduly punishing latecomers.
In my ESL class, I asked on-time students what they did over the weekend to see which irregular verbs to review. (“I go to work Saturday.”) Other teachers did pronunciation exercises tailored to the specific (few) students present at the starting bell, because teaching pronunciation to many students who speak different languages is difficult.
You can’t make every student come on time. Doing something meaningful when the bell rings encourages students to come as early as they can.
Good questions are short and clear.
Same with instructions.
Questions are crucial to teaching. Here are some tips for coming up with good questions for classroom discussions, quick comprehension checks, or quizzes and tests.
How to Craft Good Questions
Here are some tips for crafting questions that maximize learning.
- Plan questions ahead of time and write them verbatim in your lesson plan. (These questions should be the basis of your quizzes and tests.)
- Alternately, begin by having students come up with questions they want to discuss.
- Make your question short and specific.
- Avoid words like “most,” “worst,” and “definitely,” which can intimidate students.
- Start with a broad question and then get more specific – or vice versa.
- Work up and down Bloom’s Taxonomy: Ask questions that test simple recall, comprehension, application, analysis. etc.
- If you improve your question or think of a better one, write it down and update your lesson plan that night.
How to Ask Questions
- Ask one question at a time.
- Repeat your question verbatim if students don’t understand it.
- If you need to change your question, start by making it more simple.
- Write your question on the board if you really want students to grapple with it.
- Finish by having students come up with their own comprehension questions.
Hint: Don’t make students read your mind. If you ask the same question a few different ways and no one can answer it, check that the question doesn’t have an amazingly specific answer students can’t be expected to produce. Better to give them the answer and move on than to keep asking the question in more leading ways until someone finally says what you want to hear.
Hint: “Short and specific” works for instructions, too. Don’t say, “I can’t hear you, you need to speak up for us to hear you.” Cup your hand to your ear and say, “Loud!” (With a smile, of course.)
Use nonverbal communication.
It’s perfect for interventions and encouragement.
Nonverbal communication is amazing for quick interventions, because you can quickly communicate with an off-track student without distracting everyone else. I’ve used non-verbal communication successfully with students having side conversations (by making eye contact with them while continuing to lecture to the class) or who aren’t doing the reading (by tapping my fingers on their desk while I walk around the room). This keeps students from feeling picked on while maintaining control of the class. To quote from Teach Like a Champion, “You want the intervention to be fast and invisible.” Sun Tzu would be proud.
Non-verbal encouragement works, too. When students ask a question, turn your whole body toward them, make eye contact and smile. This shows you value students’ input and models how you want students to treat one another.
Hint: Make sure your verbal and non-verbal communication are in harmony. When you ask a student a question, face them with your whole body to signal that you’re paying attention to their answer. When you verbally encourage students to engage an activity, make your body language open and energetic.
You will get bored first.
Look for Mr. Miyagi moments.
The beginning of a course often feels boring to teachers. Our natural inclination is to rush to the good stuff at the end. But if you don’t set the foundation at the beginning of the course, your students won’t be able to make sense of your overall course objectives.
Notice when you feel bored. Are your students bored, too? If so, are they still learning? Are you upset because students aren’t learning – or because you’re not the fascinating center of attention?
If you get bored a lot, it’s probably because you’ve mastered the mechanics of teaching, something that used to take all your focus. Congratulations! Now you get to focus instead on how students engage with what you present them. This takes more energy than teaching on autopilot and feeling bored, but it’s some of the best learning you’ll do.
Finally, if your students are getting bored a lot, show how the boring stuff is meaningful. In The Karate Kid, Daniel-san was PO’ed that he was spending all his time doing manual labor for Mr. Miyagi. At the height of his frustration, his sensei showed him how the same motion used for waxing a car could block an opponent’s attack. Daniel suddenly realized that all the time he thought he was wasting on custodial work was powerful training for his upcoming karate tournament. (Which he won.)
Daniel’s sensei turned a potential breaking point into a breakthrough. If you pay attention, you’ll find Mr. Miyagi moments everywhere. Guiding just one student through it can inspire an entire class.
You will bias for the highest.
Half your students are below average.
As a teacher, you will naturally believe that your best students represent the average progress of all your students. This happens because you want students to do well and because you want to believe that you’re a good teacher.
One way we teachers trick ourselves is by explaining away students’ wrong answers and focusing on correct ones – usually from more advanced students. To borrow from Teach Like a Champion, you ask the class “What was the ‘restoration’ in the ‘Meiji Restoration’?” One students says a restoration of the military, a second says a restoration of Japanese power and a third, strong student, says a restoration of the emperor to the throne – the correct answer. You might form a narrative that the class was collectively remembering what they had learned. But really, all you know is that two out of three students you called on got it wrong.
You hear disproportionately more from better students and disproportionately less from struggling ones, who generally keep a low profile. Make sure you listen to all your students – not just the ones who volunteer the right answers.
Note: This is like President Bush and WMDs in Iraq – when you arbitrarily pick and choose from a lot of different data, you’ll always confirm what you already believe. When you find yourself unexpectedly progressing to advanced material, take a moment to make sure everyone really gets it.
From Chapter 7: How to Present Information
Don’t correct every mistake.
Knowing what to correct and when is the heart of teaching.
The number one thing students ask for is to have all their errors corrected. But no one really wants that. If you show someone who thought they were doing okay that they’re making a myriad of mistakes they will go into their alarm zone, stop learning and shut down.
Over-correction causes under-learning. Under-correction keeps students in their comfort zone. This is where your subject matter and teaching expertise are most crucial: To know the hierarchy in which students need to learn new ideas and skills in order to improve.
For example, a jujitsu sensei might see an intermediate student throw awkwardly and make a sloppy pin. But since generating power from the hips is the most important intermediate level skill (to keep the student from straining their back), the sensei would likely compliment the student on their throw and make one or two small suggestions to start ironing out the kinks. The sensei knows you can’t correct subtle errors before the foundation is set.
On the other hand, a black belt (senior student) might give the intermediate student a laundry list of corrections, which will screw up their throwing form before it has settled. That black belt might be an excellent practitioner. They might even be able to beat up their own sensei! But they don’t yet know how to use their expertise to help newer students build their own knowledge.
Correcting mistakes is the easy part. Knowing what not to correct is perhaps the greatest challenge in teaching.
From Chapter 8: How to Develop Your Teacher Persona
Own the room.
Or the room will own you.
Part of being in control of your class (in the service of maximizing learning) is showing that you’re in control of its physical space. The most obvious way to do this is to not get boxed in behind your desk at the head of the room.
To own the room, walk around the front of the room while lecturing, and walk around the whole room while students are doing individual or group work. This is a simple but effective way of establishing yourself as the teacher. It’ll also help you catch student errors and prevent side chatter.
And if a student leaves their backpack in the aisle, don’t hesitate to (politely) ask them to move it. In addition to letting you walk through the class without breaking your neck, this is a subtle way to show that you’re in charge.
When you get upset, check your expectations.
These are some of your best learning opportunities.
Moments of intense frustration or keen disappointment are common in teaching. Don’t despair! It’s probably due to getting emotionally invested in something going your way, rather than focusing on maximizing learning.
In the moment, recognize your frustration or disappointment for what it is, find its source and approach it with curiosity instead of judgment. Strong emotions are closely tied to powerful learning. Moments of teacher pain can be some of your best learning opportunities if you treat them as such.
Regardless of how frustrated you are, it’s probably not as bad as you think it is. Your students might not even notice what you think is a terrible failure.
Story: I spent the beginning of my career in Oakland’s Chinatown. I remember one class where my students were mispronouncing “dollar.” After a few repetitions and increasing frustration on my part, I had two epiphanies: One, they weren’t going to get past “dohr-rar” today, and two, that wasn’t so bad. A native speaker could still understand what they meant.
After my realization, we switched to a different activity and went on to have an amazing class. (I later found out accent is one of the last things people learn – and among the least important.) The problem wasn’t my students’ pronunciation but my own hang-ups about Asian accents.
From Chapter 9: Growing as a Teacher
Learning to reflect will make you your own best teacher.
Reflection is the most important part of teaching yourself.
The ability to learn from one’s own experience is among the most important skills anyone can develop. Reflecting on your teaching practice makes every class you teach a powerful learning opportunity. This is especially rich toward the beginning of your career, when novel and challenging things happen all the time.
I even find revision to be a kind of mini-reflection. When I revise my lesson plans and handouts immediately after using them in class I make all sorts of incremental improvements. Unlike answering the deeper questions that may change my whole teaching approach, these edits don’t make me a better teacher – but they certainly improve my teaching, by making those individual lessons and handouts easier for my (future) students to understand.
Sample Teacher Reflection Questions
Whether your process is writing in a journal, posting to your blog or talking things over with colleagues after work, below are some questions to help you get the most out of your reflection.
- How did this activity or class match my expectations? Why?
- What contributed to this activity’s success? The class’s success?
- What was sub-optimal? What went wrong? How could I improve it?
- What surprised me today?
- What have I learned from this experience that I can use in the future?
Hint: Don’t forget to reflect on success! Doing so cultivates more of it. Never take success for granted.
The worst teachers think they’re amazing.
How do you know that’s not you?
All teachers think they’re above average. There’s only a 50% chance that’s true for you, and it’s faint praise, anyway.
The fact is that most teachers aren’t very good. They may not be bad, but they’re not very good, either. This includes me. I think, at best, I’m a good teacher. But I believe I’m on the path to becoming very good.
As far as I can tell, only a few teachers are truly bad. But all of them think that they’re amazing. That’s probably why they stop critically evaluating themselves; they don’t even know that they need to improve. Bad teachers also find ways to blame everything on their students. If their students all did lousy on a test, it’s because they didn’t study hard enough, or they’re all lazy, or stupid. (Never mind that the teacher is the one thing they all have in common.) If one student in their class does well it proves they’re a good teacher. (Even though there are always a few students who excel in everything they do.)
Being convinced that you’re amazing means you’re probably secretly terrible. If you can’t accept the likelihood that you’re not yet a great teacher, you’re unlikely to ever become one.
It’s hard to improve.
Do it anyway.
It’s difficult for adult education teachers to improve. It’s rare that students or administrators tell us what we need to work on, and more rarely still do we have the time or resources to do so. And even if we do improve, it seems we’re just as likely to get fired as we were before.
But we still need to improve. In my experience, most teachers – most people – do one or two things well and everything else passably at best. If you’re a beginning teacher, you’re probably not even at that level yet.
There are many opportunities to become better teachers, from reflecting on your practice to going to grad school. No matter what method you use, when you learn something new, integrate it ASAP. Present to your peers, post to your blog and then change your practice accordingly. This will cement your new learning.
The challenge of improving is yet another reason to be active in the labor movement. It’s only through collective organizing that we’ll get the full time positions and job stability we need to be able to focus on our own professional development. To put it another way, it’s hard to be professionals when we’re treated like temps.
Opportunities for Improvement
The following professional development opportunities are available to every teacher.
- Reflecting on your practice
- Recording and watching your own teaching
- Peer observation
- Reading journals and/or blogs in your field
- Self study and peer study groups
- Applying for research grants
- Mentoring (with a lead teacher or peer)
- Collaborating with a trusted administrator
- Continuing education classes
- Publishing in your field
- Attending conferences
- Presenting at conferences
- Getting an advanced certification
- Going to graduate school
Note: It’s even more difficult for part time teachers to improve. We’re less likely to be eligible for professional development funds, we have more demanding schedules because we teach at two (or more) schools, or must work an additional unrelated job to pay the bills. It would be dishonest to ignore these structural disadvantages. But we must find a way to improve despite them.
From Chapter 10: The Future of Education
We need to talk about education.
How and why to start doing so.
This essay is my attempt to identify and solve the biggest problem with education. In so doing I will talk about how teachers are a central part of both the problem and the solution.
I’ll start with a perspective born of my frustration as a teacher and a student. I’ll end by being as idealistic as I can. Those of us fighting for social justice are often too focused on what we are against; we fail to articulate what we want.
Our enemies know exactly what they want: To replace all public and non-profit schools with for-profit institutions; to replace a skilled, unionized workforce with minimally skilled, at-will employees; to limit educational choices for students until they can only study what makes them useful to business; and to maximize the payout of government and student money to investors and CEOs.
The debate over the future of education is the fight for the future itself. As everyday people we’re often afraid to take part in the debate. Indeed, experts tell us that unless we understand everything about education we’re not allowed to talk about it.
But that’s exactly what happened to our economy. Up until 2008, economists told us everything was fine while banks invented increasingly exotic financial instruments with which to rob us. The financial crash was worse than it should have been because everyday people were excluded from any conversation about the economy.
We all have a stake in the educational system. Experts or not, we all need to be part of this conversation. Let it begin here.
What is education?
The short answer.
My cynical definition of education is, “The formal system by which a society trains its population to be the kind of people it needs.” That’s it. Society shapes people to meet its needs any number of other ways, too: through mass media, its health care system, its legal code and so on. But education is characterized by how everyone is expected to formally undergo it for the purpose of re-creating society. In exchange, education offers individuals basically the only chance they have to become who they want to be.
In this way education is distinct from schooling, teaching, and learning. I define schooling as the institutional process individual students go through, like in elementary school or trade school; teaching as what happens in a classroom between the teacher and their class; and learning as what each individual student experiences.
I know how pedantic this sounds. Education obviously involves teachers teaching students. But that definition is inadequate for analyzing the role of education on a societal level. And frankly, I don’t think teachers question enough how we’re used by the educational system to perpetuate society’s inequalities.
Any self-respecting teacher would say that they are giving their students their best chance at living happy, wise and free. I tend to disagree. Let’s go.
What the crisis in education is not.
It’s not an inability to transmit information.
It’s common knowledge that there’s a crisis in education. The analysis goes like this.
1. International test scores show that American students lag behind those in China, Japan, Finland and so forth.
2. This is a crisis.
3. Therefore we must radically change the educational system.
I disagree with the first two points. (I’ll come back to the third one later.) The data show that middle-class American students rank fifth in the world in science and math; upper-class students rank third. There’s no crisis there. American schools are as good as any other when it comes to transmitting information to students whose basic needs are met. (As always, see the endnotes for citations.)
The test score crisis is a crisis of poverty. Even schools that claim to excel at helping poor students secretly fail. For example, the famed KIPP charter school chain brags about how 95% of their students, overwhelmingly at-risk, graduate from KIPP high schools and go to college. But we know that only 36% of them graduate from college. Compare that to a 69% graduation rate for middle class students, and a 75% rate for students whose families earn $70,000 a year or more.
KIPPs’ students struggle so much because they are poor. Poor students are less likely to have adequate nutrition, medical care, warm clothes or safe homes. They change schools more often due to getting evicted or foreclosed upon. They have to quit school early to earn money for their families. The consensus is that socio-economic status accounts for about 60% of student achievement. The students themselves account for another 20%. Teachers and schools – including facilities, administrators, etc. – account for the last 20% of achievement.
As long as there is poverty students will fail. The effects are so bad that KIPP actually brags about their 64% college failure rate. At no point does KIPP, or any other media-recognized education reformer, advocate for fighting poverty first. The only solutions given air time involve destroying teachers’ unions and giving more money to corporations – like the $468 million the state of Texas is giving to Pearson for a five-year assessment evaluation contract. It’s a familiar formula in American politics. Any time there’s a crisis, private businesses get billions in public money.
American schools are among the best in the world when it comes to educating middle class kids. So if the crisis in education isn’t our inability to transmit information, what is it?
Links for Chapter 10
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