What Teaching Taught Me

Those that have read some of my previous posts may recall that I spent two years teaching middle and high school Science. Those two years were my first two years out of college, so they were inherently educational years in terms of living as an independent adult. But it was more than just learning to pay bills and manage time. I was a teacher. 

Teaching is a unique opportunity that requires an uncanny amount of work and commitment, but also yields rewards unlike any thing I have experienced. I hope teachers and non-teachers alike can benefit from reading about my experiences and the lessons I learned.

Let's set the stage. I'm 22 and graduated college in May 2006. I began my teaching experience in August of that year. I had learned a lot about Science in college, so I felt I was prepared to enlighten the minds of the next generation and see little light bulbs glowing over their heads in the coming months. I was ignorantly optimistic, but I can't say I regret it. A little bit of blind optimism can go a long way in life. What I lacked, however, was experience with the "finer points" of educating youth, like designing and putting together bulletin boards, maintaining a constant barrage of wall decor to ensure the students were learning even if their eyes wandered around the room, and perhaps the most important thing--selling candy bars. Of these things I was painfully unaware; but I would learn.

As you might have gathered from the title, teaching taught me things. It taught me things about myself. It taught me things about relating to people. It taught me things about connecting with the minds of teenagers. And perhaps more important than all of this, it taught me a great deal about God and how He must feel as He is endlessly trying to teach us. So here we go.

#1 Be proactive. Engage. 

Okay, that was really generic, and it's a lesson that applies to more than just teaching. But as I stood in my classroom each day and eloquently revealed the mysteries of the universe to my students (or so I saw it), I realized that many times they just didn't care. Perhaps some of you have experienced this when you were trying to explain something to someone. You were excited about the topic, but they weren't; and you just could not understand why. I learned there is key to getting people interested in what you're interested in--they care about what you have to say when you show them you care about what they have to say.

As I said, this applies to more than just a teacher-student relationship. It spans the whole spectrum of interpersonal relationships. If you want someone to hear you, you should start by listening to them. Give some thought to each person you talk to. Consider their situation in life. Sympathize or empathize with what they are going through. After taking some thought, ask them pertinent questions. Nothing is more refreshing to me than a well-thought question asked by someone who has clearly taken time to care--whether the question is personal or factual. I found that some of the most important times of investing in my students were not in the classroom at all. It was at lunch, or after school waiting for their parents to pick them up. It was playing sports with them, or giving them advice between periods. After having every day, real life, casual conversations with my students for a few months, I noticed they were responding to me much better in the classroom. Perhaps some of you have heard the saying, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." I know, symmetrical quotes are almost as cliche as those that rhyme, but sometimes they're still worth considering.

#2 Be fair (equality).

As much as equality is preached in our society today, you would think that nobody would struggle with it anymore. But we all have our biases, our predispositions, and even prejudices. You might not be honest enough to admit it, but you have them. Trust me, you're human. The key to treating people fairly, I learned, is figuring out exactly what your tendencies are and then compensating for them. For instance, some teachers have a hard time treating the class clown fairly. They might tend to come down extra hard on that kid as a way of lashing out against their tyrannical reign of classroom pranks. But that's not fair, is it? That's not equality. Other teachers may have a hard time penalizing the "teacher's pet" when they mess up, because after all, "They're a good kid." But that's not fair. It's not equality. Equality means doing things that are sometimes uncomfortable and inconvenient; but it is unequivocally the most important aspect of teaching. Its application reaches far beyond the classroom though. Thinking parenting, supervising, etc. Any time you hold a position of authority, you better give some serious thought to equality.

Of course, I figured all this equality business out on my second day as a teacher, so I had no issues with it. And that was a lie. Just checking to see if you're paying attention (a bad habit teachers pick up). I messed up a lot, but I spent time assessing myself and my actions. Each day I came home from work I would ask myself if my decisions that day were justified or if I was being unfair. It's an emotional drain. The work of teaching is far less difficult than the mental and emotional stress of keeping it all together. In many ways, it's like parenting a room full of children for a day, only you have no genetic relationship to them so they can be (and usually are) COMPLETELY different from you.

Don't forget humility. There will be times when a teacher (or any leader) is wrong--like, dead wrong! You need to be honest with yourself and your class. Swallow your pride, admit you were wrong, and if necessary, ask the student(s) to forgive you. It's okay to be wrong, unless of course you're a narcissist. Be humble, admit mistakes and fix them.

#3 Be consistent

Maybe you've spent time with teenagers. Maybe you are one right now. Either way, you would know that teenagers are extra keen at identifying (and joking about) inconsistencies in adults. They might not be so good at it if there wasn't so much material to work with! It's like I always tell people I'm insulting: "If you don't like being insulted, quit making it so easy." Adults get ripped to pieces by their adolescent counterparts because the kids are right--sometimes. And sometimes they're just playing head games with you to distract you from the fact that there's a quiz in ten minutes, or they forgot to do their homework, or they were totally taken by surprise that TODAY is the day of the test even though it's been on the whiteboard for 17 days. I'm not bitter, really. But it's funny.

Consistency also requires self-assessment. You know when you're having a bad day. So be an adult and get a grip on it. You have no right to take it out on your class! Did you get a speeding ticket last night? Now you're goal in life is to make everyone as miserable as you by enforcing the rules like Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory? Not cool. Not cool at all. Be consistent. It's something kids (and adults) crave. They want their teachers to be pillars. Regardless of what they say or do, the students want their teachers to be unwavering every day, because so much of their life is inconsistent. Do you remember being a teenager? It's not an easy time.

Lastly, consistency does not (should not) equal boring. Don't become a log in life, and then justify your fear of change by saying you are "consistent". No, you're boring. I like variety and change and fresh new things. Keep the core things consistent--honesty, fairness, high standards, quality material, professional appearance, etc. But change up the rest. Use color. Randomize your animations in PowerPoint. Wear a different pair of shoes once in awhile. Don't talk like Ben Stein. Smile. Wave your arms in the air. Keep 'em on their toes. Consistency is not boring.

#4 Be patient.

Learning is a slow process, and it should never stop. It can be easy as a teacher to get antsy with the student that is not as quick as the rest of the class. You want to move on to the next section, but they don't have it nailed down yet. I am not a neuroscientist, but I've dabbled in the literature. From what I can gather, neural development and the process of learning is still one of the most poorly understand aspects of human survival. It's not trivial for a brain to gather, organize, categorize, and comprehend information, and then synthesize concepts, ideas, and conclusions from that information. Each of these steps requires actual physical events in the biochemistry of our brains. Cells have to migrate and form synapses and transmit signals and every person has a distinct molecular, cellular, and physiological architecture. So don't expect that everything is going to happen all perfectly according to your Outlook calendar or your lesson plans!

Aside from the almost unfathomable diversity of learning patterns, there is another thing to consider about your students--school is only one part of their life. They have friends. They have a family (hopefully). They have hobbies and vacations and emotions. As a teacher, if you're stupid enough to think that school is the number one priority in your student's life, well, I already called you stupid. School is important, don't get me wrong. It's more important than who's BFF was all LOL and OMG last night at the party, but there are other things happening in life besides academics. Get over it. It's hard because teachers are typically overachievers that love learning and excel at organization and academic reasoning. So it's a bit of a buzz kill for them when the rest of people see academics as not the supreme goal of humanity.

#5 Multi-task

Like most professionals, teachers learn that time is their most valuable asset. It cannot be recovered once spent, and we have a finite amount. So figure out how to squeeze usefulness out of it. Wait, hold on. I'm not about to go on about efficiency and eliminating all fun from your schedule. Don't immediately skip to the next paragraph! I have the same philosophy about time as I do about money--squeeze every bit out if it for the things you must do and use the remainder for fun and relaxation. As a teacher, this can mean a lot of things. Maybe you'll have to grade quizzes while you monitor study hall. You might proofread papers while you watch a school basketball game. While your kids are taking a test, instead of playing on Pinterest or Facebook, maybe plan next month's bulletin boards. 

This might make some of you angry, but sometimes I laugh when I hear people go on and on about how they work 50 or 60 hours a week as a salary employee. Here's why. I see some of these same people wandering around during the day drinking coffee and chatting in the hallway. They "work" on YouTube all afternoon and then start getting serious about work around 2:30 PM. And now they have to "stay late" because they're just "so busy". All I'm saying is, it's not about how many hours you work, it's about how much you get done. So get it done.

#6 Plan

I am not a planner. I'm a get-in-the-car-and-drive-and-figure-out-where-I'm-going-on-the-way type of person. I like adventure and spontaneity. Planning is a bit of a bore to me, but I've learned to accept it as a necessary evil in life. Oddly enough, what I once thought was only a rigorous method of torture has become quite a handy tool. I still make my plans tentatively and try to work in buffers for possible kinks in the plan, but at least I plan.

Some of this came by necessity because my school required me to have advanced lesson plans available on the schools website so the parents could track their child's courses. So I did it because I had to, and I can't say I liked it. But then I started getting organized about planning other things. I found out that planning can actually make life easier.

#7 Adapt and Improvise

This comes a little more naturally to my personality. I take life as it comes. I've learned to plan and be pro-active and all that business, but I enjoy a curve ball once in awhile. I don't enjoy real curve balls that look like they're going to hit you in the face and then dip into the strike zone and make you look like a moron; but I enjoy some swerving in life. And this is why (I think) I was good at teaching. I can handle interruptions. I like some odd questions once in awhile. Rabbit trails are fine for a minute or two. Sometimes I would take my class outside for a change of scenery (not very often!). Get outside of your box!

Adapting means being willing to use different methods. If it's not working, then quit it. Let go of your favorite little way and adapt your teaching to the audience you've been given. My teaching styles varied a lot between my 7th grade classroom and my 12th grade classroom! I had to adapt to the audience. Younger kids require more structure and order. Older kids should be able to handle a little more freedom--room for out-of-the-box thinking. The point is, it's not about you, it's about the students. Adapt or fail.

Improvising means being willing to work with what you have. Every school has a different level of funding and different access to learning tools. I was pretty fortunate to have a nice microscope and a flat screen TV in my room so I could put my lessons on PowerPoint. Not every teacher has that option; but use what you have. Learning is not contingent upon technology! Every student does NOT need a Microsoft $urface or an Apple $Pad. If that's not available, make something else work. Humans have been learning for millennia without HD screens, so don't whine if you don't have it. Don't blame your poor teaching skills on the lack of funding in your district! It's not about money. It's about you, Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. Teacher. So grab what you have available and inject some creativity into it. Bring it to life with your words and your explanations. If you've been engaging your students, treating them equally, being consistent, patient, and efficient, you'll start seeing results. Trust me.

Wrapping it up:

I only taught two years, but I'm pretty sure they were two of the most rewarding years of my life. I am a better person because of what I learned. These skills are applicable to many areas of life, professional or personal. I may decide to go back to teaching someday; but until then, I will be blogging, so come back and read it (and share it)!

Image credits:
Apple image from http://www.eht.k12.nj.us/~weidmanc/
Busy teacher image from http://kindredblood.wordpress.com/2012/02/14/busy-busy-busy-new-posts-coming-soon/busy-teacher/
Listening image from http://www.dianagabriel.com/blog/?tag=listening
Scale image from http://www.glogster.com/652742/6-pillars-of-character/g-6m47a5rtenmo6bh8bptica0
Dartboard image from http://www.blogut.ca/2011/09/23/are-you-consistent/
Brain MRI image from http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/apr/29/neuroscience-guide-vaughan-bell
Multi-tasking image from http://impruvism.com/multitasking-myth-podcast/
'What's the Plan' image from https://www.nqa-usa.com/blog/2013/12/11/why-we-conduct-pre-audit-planning/
Think inside the box image from http://www.fundraisinisfun.com/thinking-inside-the-box/


  1. Yes, being a teacher demands lots of qualities and to be multi-tasking is one of the most important. Glad, you have shared your teaching experience in details as well provide some really important tips that a teacher need to follow. These skills are not just about the teachers of the higher school level but the teachers of the Pre-schools, Nursery too need to possess the same skills to teach his little students. Pre-school Buford, GA. While reading your post, I'm sure all the teachers are also accepting the things about teaching experience that you have added here.

  2. Amazingly written blog that has transfixed its audience.
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