Six truths I wish I had been told when I started teaching

Here are six truths I have learned over the past eighteen years as a teacher. These are things I wish someone had sat me down and told me about when I started.

But then again, I may not have understood. These are truths about teaching that you learn by going to work every day and living a teacher’s life:

Truth #1: What we teach matters

When I first started teaching, we would teach our students to learn vocabulary by repeating new words in a given context. For example:

  • There are three pieces of chalk in the classroom.
  • There are two maps in the classroom.
  • There is one teacher in the classroom.
  • There are no bad students in the classroom.

That was boring eighteen years ago. Not only did it get more boring to teach over time, it also became less relevant for the students’ lives. Fifteen years later, the textbooks still contained the same darned examples, and by then not one piece of chalk could be found anywhere, in any of our classrooms.

Because I taught college students, I learned to change the examples. They still followed the same basic structure, but taught my 18 to 25 year old students words that they might actually use in their travels abroad:

  • There are three pickpockets in the subway station.
  • There are two drug dealers in the subway station.
  • There is one passenger in the subway station.
  • There are no police officers in the subway station.

This is the same example structurally. The location remains constant. The verbs change from plural to singular when appropriate. The nouns, however, were vocabulary words that resonated with my students. The examples also reflected a cultural reality of travelling in a large, European city… except that there may never be only one passenger on a subway station platform.  But the poetic license created an example that captured my students’ imagination. They imagined that they were that one passenger in the subway station, alone in a potentially dangerous situation, as they were travelling in a new place. They went from being disengaged to intensely interested. Best of all, they learned the content.

 Truth #2: What we teach does not matter

No matter how engaging our examples, I have learned that our students will not remember most of what we teach them. They will forget the vocabulary. They will forget the structures. They will forget the majority of the content.

This used to stress me out. Then I reflected on my own experience as a student and realized that most of what I had learned in school, I had not retained. And I turned out OK.

The content provides a means for students to make their own meaning, to allow their mental synapses to learn to work in new ways, to stretch their thinking and to show them they can learn more than they ever dreamed possible. It is important not to teach hatred, bigotry or facts that are just plain wrong. Apart from that, I’m not convinced that it really matters what we teach. They’ll forget most of it anyway.

Truth #3: Some students just need a hug

Sometimes a teacher’s job means reaching out to a student and letting them know it is going to be O.K. They are going to get through this… and much more than this. They are stronger than they think.

Sometimes, that lesson is more important than any content contained within the covers of a textbook.

 Truth #4: Some students just need a kick in the rear end

Sometimes being a teacher means giving some very tough love, not taking the crap that a student may lay down and letting them know that there are boundaries and rules that you expect them to follow. Collaboration be darned. This is your classroom and they are there to learn. A good, swift (metaphorical) kick in the pants is what some students need to kickstart their motivation.

Truth #5: It is important to treat students equally

We do not delay the start of class because Johnny is late. If class starts at 9:00 a.m., then it is disrespectful to those who made an effort to be there on time if we delay the start. The rules apply to all students equally.

The real world has rules that people need to follow. If you break the rules, there are consequences. If you speed when you drive, the consequence may be that a police officer writes you a ticket. That’s just the way life is.

Laws impose rules on members of society. Schools and teachers can impose rules on students. It is part of the job. Teachers can prepare students for the real world by teaching them that certain rules apply to everyone. Period.

Truth #6: It is important to treat students equitably

You can treat all students exactly the same or you can treat students in a manner that is appropriate for their situation. That is treating them equitably, not equally.

This involves some wise judgement on the part of the teacher who makes the decision about what constitutes “equitable” treatment. That also reflects the real world. The police officer who stops the speeder may, at the officer’s own discretion, decide not to give the driver a ticket but instead choose to get back in the police car, turn on their lights and siren and escort the offending car to the hospital so the driver can get his wife, who is in labour, to the delivery room. In such a case, the police officer may choose not to write a ticket due to the circumstances.

If I have a student who is an absolute superstar, I will ask more of that student. It is my job to keep my students engaged and challenged. If some students need more challenge, I will give them what they need to stay interested and motivated. Not all students are created equal. My teaching needs to be flexible enough to accept that, and wise enough to know what to do about it.

Using the power of discretion wisely and sensibly is part of the job. Sometimes, treating students equitably is more important than treating them equally.

A paradox is a statement that “seems self-contradictory or absurd, but in reality expresses a possible truth”. Teaching is a complex profession that is full of paradoxes. Being a teacher requires us to think in complex ways, accept that much of what we do requires us to be rigid and follow rules set out for us by an administration or system that is much larger than us… and at the same time, to be flexible and choose our own actions wisely, based on a given situation at a given moment in time. That requires a great deal more skill than teaching from a book.


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


One Response to Six truths I wish I had been told when I started teaching

  1. I like this post–using paradoxes is a good way to get at some of the complexities in the art of teaching. Thanks for this.

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