10 Things I Learned as an Urban High School Teacher

Written by on May 14, 2009 in Learning Tips - 5 Comments

walking-legsBefore I began writing full time, I spent a couple years teaching in a rather rough urban area. To illustrate: one of the campus cops also worked a nearby street as a part of an undercover prostitution sting. Students were regularly subjected to lock-downs, security checks, fights, and administrative drama. The majority of teachers worked hard but were under a tremendous amount of stress.

It wasn’t an easy job, but I came away with memorable experiences and some insight about the nature of learning and the education system as a whole. Here’s what I discovered:Alien: Covenant movie download

1. Failure must be a choice. When I began teaching, I wanted to tell my students that failure was not an option. The problem is that, for anyone capable of independent thought, failure must be an option. When you tell a thinking person that they cannot fail, you’re saying, “I will try to control you and force you to succeed by my definition. If you still don’t meet those standards, I’ll lower the bar until you do.” An effective teacher wants her students to make it. But, ultimately, people must choose success on their own.

2. Learning rarely occurs in the absence of respect. In all my time spent observing other teachers, I noticed that respect is the key to creating a workable mentor/mentee relationship. People don’t need to like someone to learn from them. But, without mutual respect, knowledge can rarely be transferred.

3. Compulsion breeds chaos. Compulsory education is the biggest problem with the way high schools are run. If learning was a choice, most students would decide to continue their schooling. Instead of attending against their will and lowering the quality of lessons for everyone else, people who did not want to go to school would find employment or vocational training. Don’t think we really “force” students to attend? Think again. In the area where I worked, parents of habitually absent students were called and told they had to attend a mandatory meeting. They were threatened with fines and visits from the police if their son / daughter didn’t continue going to school. Forcing capable teenagers to learn by sitting at a desk and meeting our arbitrary requirements for eight hours a day is just crazy.

4. Reading is the foundation for learning. When I met my first class of ninth graders, many admitted that they had never read a complete book before. Ten years of schooling and not a single book…Yikes! Many had read segments, or been read to by teachers, or pretended to read for assignments, but these tasks really don’t make the cut. Most deep, independent learning occurs through reading. If I want to know how I should vote on a particular initiative, I study the works of critics and proponents. If I want to understand how life is for the women of Afghanistan, I check out a stack of volumes from the library. Although it was such a simple thing, I still feel that my greatest accomplishment as a teacher was helping teens begin reading on their own. I hauled in a lot of books from my home, passed out library card applications, and spent an unfortunate amount on weekly expeditions to Barnes and Noble. When, near the end of the year, I caught a self-proclaimed non-reader stealing a book from the classroom shelves I had to stop myself from smiling.

5. Teachers must show students how to think, not what to think. The purpose of teaching any subject is not to encourage the regurgitation of information, but to help students think properly on their own. As an English teacher, my job was to help students think correctly about literature and writing. Telling students facts about the subject is ineffective – they can get those from Google.

In the case of English, the study of one book should help students think correctly about all books they come in contact with. An effective teacher will use the theme of one book as a way to demonstrate how students can recognize the theme of any book in their independent reading. Once students know how to think about a subject (English, math, science, etc.), they can easily learn on their own.

6. Authentic experiences breed authentic effort. Imagine telling an author that his first manuscript will be thrown away, simply used as an exercise for the real books he may write in the future. It’s true that many first manuscripts are unfit for publication. However, this first attempt tends to create genuine effort and has resulted in some of the best works we have today. People should learn from authentic experiences whenever possible. Writing a fake, unsent letter to an editor is silly. Teenagers are capable of doing valuable work. We should let them.

7. A teacher who does not direct has no purpose. Group work is the most ridiculous practice in modern education. Imagine if you were subjected to this type of experience in the workplace: You are put into a group with several people who were not chosen for their ability, desire to be in the group, or any particular purpose. You are to complete an assignment your peers may or may not care about. Mostly they just want to talk about their weekends. If you complain to your employer about having to take on the brunt of the work, you’re told to “learn how to work together.” No one can be fired.

The purpose of a teacher or mentor is to direct students, showing them how to approach the subject and find the resources they need. Unfortunately, time is often wasted by group exercises, worksheets, and “behavior management”.

8. Low expectations create resentment. As a teacher, my lowest point came after I created a unit of coursework that was significantly below my students’ abilities. Observers may have mistaken the resulting frustration, missed due dates, and trips to the principal’s office as a sign that the students were confused about the material. In reality, it was the only way they knew how to say, “Hey, you’ve underestimated us. This is boring!” Students are capable of a lot. Sometimes people stop learning because they feel stuck in a system that doesn’t believe they can accomplish much.

9. Without deep knowledge and passion, a teacher cannot guide. Everyone has heard the old saying “people who can’t do, teach.” Many teachers are talented, knowledgeable people who want to share their learning with others. Others are well-intentioned, but simply don’t know enough about their chosen subject to be effective instructors. There’s no point in trying to direct others if you do not thoroughly understand the topic at hand. I was guilty of this during my first month teaching. After getting the curriculum at the last minute, I tried to teach a book that I’d never read. Big mistake. If you have nothing insightful to share, you may as well be quiet and let people learn on their own.

10. The story is essential – to both the teacher and the learner. The stories we tell ourselves make a big difference in the way we learn and share our knowledge. People who pick up poor messages early on (i.e. “You’re bad at math” or “You’re a slow learner”) often adopt these thoughts as the plot to their own lives. In truth, the average person is capable of accomplishing amazing thing. When people create a story that acknowledges their potential, they open themselves up to the possibility of success.

See Also:

4 Ways to Recognize a True Teacher

5 Comments on "10 Things I Learned as an Urban High School Teacher"

  1. Vahagn Grigoryan May 15, 2009 at 9:57 am · Reply

    Thank you for the wonderful lesson

  2. Simply Mother May 15, 2009 at 4:23 pm · Reply

    I loved this. Wouldn’t it be great if more people who administered the public education system believed any of it?

  3. Courtney Allison May 15, 2009 at 8:20 pm · Reply

    Thank you for a well written and eye openning article.

    It is nice to read work that honors education as well as the learning process.

    I am currently starting a website that will be a interactive tool for teachers. This will allow them to get their kids virtually involved with reading assignments.

    If you would be interested in joining an online focus group that will take place this summer, or if you would like to receive more information about this upcomming website then please e-mail me at Courtney.Allison@thereadeffect.com.

  4. Anon June 1, 2009 at 10:12 pm · Reply

    All excellent insights!

  5. usha J October 23, 2010 at 11:25 am · Reply

    This is an excellent article and very insightful. I particularly liked point number 7 and the difference in a teacher who teaches ‘how-to’ rather than ‘what-to’. Rare to find such teachers.

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