“MOMMY, show me how! I want to do it!” cries a little five-year-old. What is she asking of her mother? Be my teacher.
No matter what your situation in life, you are often required to be a teacher. Every time you give directions from a road map, show a new employee how to operate a machine, explain to a child how to tie his shoes—you teach.
Yes, everyone is a teacher, and we should be interested in improving our ability as teachers.
Obviously there are many different kinds and levels of teaching. But why do we enjoy having some people explain things more than we enjoy others? What makes some people good teachers?
When asked these questions, a pupil replied: “A good teacher really knows the subject or skill. He is also practical in his approach, telling me why it is important to learn a certain thing. As a result I see where I can use the information or skill in my life.” A student brought up another aspect: “A good teacher takes a personal interest in you. You are not just a number to him.”
The Teacher-Learner Relationship
Students are people; they need to feel that a personal interest is being shown in them. As H. C. Rose in The Instructor and His Job states: “Students respond very quickly to genuine interest.”
Yes, good teaching starts with our general attitude toward people. Do we really care enough for others to explain matters to them patiently? If so, we will be willing to take time, not only with the person, but also beforehand to organize our thinking to be of the most assistance and guidance. We will be friendly and make the learner know that we welcome his questions and comments.
As a practical example, suppose we are asked to instruct a new employee in the operation of a machine. What can we do to create a good relationship? If we give him a scowl for interrupting our work and immediately barrage him with words, how will there be an atmosphere conducive to learning? How much better to show a personal interest and assure him that we will be happy to explain the operation to him.
Parents, especially, must remember that a child desperately wants to please, to feel successful and appreciated. If he is made to feel stupid, or rejected, because he does not learn something as quickly as the parent feels he should, his desire to learn may be impaired for the future.
Can we not see why some who may not have as much technical skill in teaching as others do are still better teachers? They show a real interest in the learner and the subject. The pupil responds by wanting to learn.
A great aid to keeping a good teacher-learner relationship is animation or being lively. Excitement is communicable and, unfortunately, so is boredom. Because they let their feeling for the subject show, some instructors get their students really excited about learning. ‘But I’m just not that way,’ some may say. It is true that we vary in how we show our feelings, but we all feel and can find ways to show it.
Often some fresh research on the subject will rekindle our excitement and then, in turn, we can excite our learner. Personally reviewing why our enthusiasm is important for the learner will help. Also, we need to get our mind off ourselves and immerse ourselves in our subject in order to achieve the desired relationship with those whom we are trying to help.
But there are times when this relationship exists, the student wants to learn, and yet both may be disappointed with the results. What is missing? Perhaps certain teaching skills. Consider a few of the more valuable ones.
An experienced teacher said: “The teacher must not only know the material he wants to teach, but also know it in its most simple and yet accurate form. If it is complicated to the teacher, he cannot teach.” What is needed is simplicity.
Sometimes the teacher knows his subject so well that he forgets how complicated it can seem to someone who does not. If that is true in your case, what can you do to simplify your explanation?
First, watch your vocabulary. It is easy to forget that terms, especially technical terms that may be familiar to you, can be confusing to others. Even when you are not discussing something technical, care is needed. Suppose you are teaching your young daughter to bake a cake. You need to make sure that your little one knows the difference between such words as “beat,” “stir” and “fold.” So, in addition to favoring short words and short sentences, be sure to explain any word that may represent the unknown to your pupil.
Secondly, avoid verbiage. Do not flood the learner with words. Talking is not the same as teaching. Simplicity often requires that you slow down and select your words carefully.
Thirdly, approach the subject logically or in a step-by-step fashion. Build on what your student already knows. It is often helpful to make a list of what you want to teach. Break it down, noting what each operation or point will involve, and then figure out which one the learner must know first. Now, what can you successfully teach next, and so on? Remember that only a few steps can usually be absorbed at any one time.
Another factor that makes for simplicity is repetition. If you select a few main points and employ repetition, the results are often heartwarming.
What do we mean by repetition? Is it having a certain phrase that we say again and again? That method might cause the learner to memorize the phrase as a slogan, but not learn the idea behind it. Far better that we choose different words—then the ideas stick. A teacher of long experience encourages: “Learn to say the same thing two or three different ways. This tends to stop the student from memorizing words only, but gets the main point across.”
You can improve at simplifying by analyzing your approach. Constantly ask yourself: ‘Was there a better way to explain that? How could it have been made more clear, more simple?’
Two other areas to scrutinize are the use of illustrations and the use of questions.
Use of Illustrations
An illustration is a story with a point to it, or it might be a demonstration, step by step, of how to do something. Visual aids, such as a blackboard, can be very useful. ‘Word pictures’ can also be used.
But some may say, ‘I’m just not a storyteller and never will be.’ Actually, we all use illustrations frequently. When we say “slow as a turtle” or “free as a bird,” we are explaining by example—illustrating.
One may feel inadequate in using longer illustrations, but often shorter ones can be used with great effect.
There are many benefits to the short illustration. It is simple and so usually is more understandable. The lengthy illustration, unless extremely well done, tends to get complicated. The learner may get so involved in figuring out the illustration that he forgets the lesson.
On the other hand, a simple illustration can really aid teaching. Educator N. L. Bossing explains why: “The ability to think abstractly [thinking not supported by examples] is one of the most difficult of human accomplishments.” The learner needs examples to grasp your point fully.
Illustrations also help to bring the teaching into the realm of real life. After teaching your son certain principles about driving a car, give him an example of the kind of problem that can come up in traffic. This will impress upon him that the principles just taught are important in real-life situations. An appropriate illustration does not take you away from your subject. It makes it more important, more real. That is good teaching!
How does a person think of good illustrations? You do not need to think up “stories”; simply think of “examples” of your point. Do not be afraid of using imagination. For example, suppose you are trying to teach your children how the planets move in relation to one another. What can be done to make it “real”? Why, the sugar bowl can become the sun; a cup, the earth, and the saltshaker, the moon! Move them around one another, and the words you have used will take on meaning to your child.
If you make it a habit to look for examples, you will soon find that what you say often makes a lasting impression.
Use of Questions
When properly used, the question is an outstanding tool. Basically, questions ask for facts (Who? What? When? Where?) or they ask for conclusions or opinions (How? and, Why?).
Short, concise questions are the best. They usually involve one main idea.
If you really want to know what your student is thinking, you may need to watch the tone of your voice. For example, a parent might ask his teenage son how he views the smoking of marijuana. By the way the father says the word “marijuana” the son could learn that his father does not approve of it. What then? He might give his father the expected answer. But if the question is asked without emotion, the boy is more likely to reply as to how he really feels about it. Questions seldom result in good teaching if they are put in a harsh or demanding manner. Do not forget the teacher-learner relationship.
It is also good to remember that if you are asking someone to think, it is important to be patient. If you ask a question, but then quickly give the answer yourself, you will never really know whether the other person could have answered. Pause after the question; watch the expression on his face, and then if you see that he does not comprehend, rephrase the question.
Questions can be used to stimulate interest, test understanding, or both. Often questions that stimulate interest are rhetorical, that is, the answer is obvious or no verbal answer is required—such as, ‘We all want to be happy, don’t we?’
Questions to test understanding are the most difficult. They are frequently used in reviewing main points or checking student comprehension. Such questions must be worded carefully to avoid discouraging your student. If you ask him to reason on something and he comes to the wrong conclusion, he may feel slow, embarrassed or disappointed in himself. If you can tell from his facial expression that he is not following you, it might be better to re-explain without questioning or tactfully inquire if he would like more explanation. Your pupil will be grateful.
Really, showing consideration, interest and patience in our everyday life has a good effect upon us, not only when teaching, but all the time. We become persons who can communicate more effectively with others. We are more easily understood because we are more understandable.
The question is not really, Should you think about becoming a teacher? You are one. The question is, Will you make the effort to be a good one?
The rewards of being a good teacher are great. For when we teach we share with another person. We give part of ourselves to help someone else. It is an enriching experience that can make life more interesting and more worth while.
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