Don’t Be A ‘Mediocre’ Teacher

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati 

They stood at the front of the audience: seemingly ready to dazzle us all. They were all 18 years old and in the final term of high school. I was much younger then too – 26 years old and in my third year of teaching.

It was a Biology revision presentation. I’d invited my colleague to come along to watch (also a Biology teacher).

The presenters began their talk.

When it was over, I needed to take a paracetamol tablet. I was rather perplexed.

I let my colleague chirp in with some feedback first, thinking she would cover most of the points I wanted to raise.

“A great presentation. I loved the level of detail and research. Well done”

That was it?

studying with com

Now I found myself clenching my fist. I thought back to the late 90s when my dad received a ‘stress reliever’ doll one Christmas. It was basically a squishy, red, head-shaped rubbery thing in a pot that you could squeeze when you got a bit mad. It was joke gift of course: designed to cause a giggle or two; but I wished I had one right now.

With UKEdChat
“An AMAZING book!”

“Mr. Rogers. What are your thoughts?” Asks my colleague.

After a barrage of questions which the students responded to with nervous looks and blank stares, I decided to give my merciless, but honest, feedback:

“Whilst I agree with my colleague that your research skills were good, there are still a few issues I’d like to address.

I’ll start with the negatives, then share my thoughts on what, if anything, was positive. All of you were reading directly off the slides and not making eye-contact with the audience. We can all read, so your method of presentation was not only boring but it was also patronizing. There was too much text on each slide. The material had not been properly referenced and the images you did use, though few, were of very low quality. You also superficially skimmed the surface of the topic, and didn’t even touch on issues such as splicing, introns and transposable elements.

On the positive side, you showed us all that you are very good at copying and pasting. You were also able to describe some of the concepts in some detail.

Please speak with me tomorrow morning during registration so that we can arrange a time to do this again”

Giving feedback

The ‘respect’ factor

Unfortunately, many of us in the teaching profession have been conditioned to dish out praise all day long for the most minuscule of things. A kid hands in a complete dog’s dinner of a homework and it’s “Well done for handing this in on time. Meeting deadlines is important”. 

I could go on with the spectrum of ‘non-confrontational’, politically correct garbage that I was conditioned to spew for another 1000 words, but I think that would be tedious.

I used to be one of those ‘praise everything’ teachers. Guess what I found out:

  • Praise only works when it is sincere
  • Praise only works when it recognises significant, meaningful achievements that have taken some work to accomplish
  • Praise is extra effective when preceded (NOT followed by) points for improvement

And guess what else I’ve found out – students respect us more when we are honest. They respect us when we tell them that they need to improve. They respect us when we are vigilant.

Explaining

Lots of research supports these findings. Here are two good examples:

  • A 2016 summary by Vanderbilt University found that praise works well when it is behavior-specific, and that a ratio of 4 praise statements to one reprimand works well for improving performance (if 4 praise statements are available for the work being assessed). Here are some examples of language changes we can make to turn praise into a kind of ‘disguised reprimand’ or ‘behavior enforcer”:
BSP Vanderbilt
Behavior Specific Praise. Courtesy of Vanderbilt University, 2016. See the publication entitled ‘Behavior Specific Praise in the Classroom’. Tennessee Behavior Supports Project.

Whilst this table is useful, I think it’s important to remember that reprimands must be specific and direct. “We don’t take other people’s property, because that causes suffering to another person. When you’re older, you can also get into big trouble with the police for that. You’ll need to write a letter of apology to Simon for what you did.”

  • A 2015 blog post by Brian Gatens at the University of Portland made the point that when teachers show honesty and compassion, they build trust with their students. Compassion doesn’t mean making kids feel good all the time – it means letting them know when they’ve under-performed, and caring enough to do something about it! It also involves celebrating and recognising significant progress, performance and attainment.

‘Mediocre’ Versus ‘Vigilant’

Here are some statements I’ve come up with which sum up the ‘Mediocre’ teacher, versus the ‘Vigilant’ teacher. I don’t mean to offend anyone here – I was once the Mediocre Teacher. I share my findings as a means of self-reflection for all of us. I still get a bit ‘mediocre’ at times, but at least I’m aware of how to spot that now:

  • Mediocre teachers record attainment and progress. Vigilant teachers record attainment and progress, quickly identify under-performance and then intervene to improve that.
  • Mediocre teachers praise the smallest of things. Vigilant teachers reserve their praise for significant, meaningful displays of effort, attainment and progress.
  • Mediocre teachers sometimes bring up points for improvement with their students. Vigilant teachers leave ‘no stone unturned’, and relentlessly monitor their students’ weaknesses and do the best they can to improve those.
  • Mediocre teachers don’t feel the need to be a ‘role-model’ for their students. Vigilant teachers understand that their words, actions and subliminal cues will act as points of reference for their students for many years to come.
  • Mediocre teachers mark their students work. Vigilant teachers provide feedback that’s meaningful and specific. 

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Should We Set Homework for the Summer Vacation?

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati 

It won’t be long until our students (and us) will enjoy a long summer vacation. Sand, sea, sleep-ins and more time with the family. Sounds great!

sit n talk

In the UK, schools will close around mid-late July and reopen in early September. In America the summer holiday is much longer. Take New York, for example: Schools there will have their last day on June 26th, with students returning on September 5th. 

Some teachers and parents would say that young people need this summer vacation to rest, have fun and basically enjoy being a kid. Others would say it’s too long to be away from school work entirely, and some learning should still be taking place.

with-ukedchat
“An AMAZING book!”

I say that it all depends on the age and needs of the individual students. 

Start planning now!

During this article I hope to convince you that the summer vacation can be used to our advantage. Effective teachers have used the summer vacation for decades to act as a ‘buffer’ – a chance for slower students to catch up; for able, gifted and talented students to be pushed even more; and generally for getting a little more material covered so that the new academic year can start a little bit ahead. 

talk n walk

However, in order for me and you to effectively make use of the summer vacation (so that our students benefit), we must start planning now!

Case #1: The exam-preparation class

Let’s say that you’re taking a group of students through a two-year course (such as the IB Diploma, IGCSEs or ‘A’ – Levels). 

In an ideal scenario, those two years would be broken up as follows:

Year 1: Cover as much content as possible (at least 60% of the syllabus). Complete all coursework if the timetable permits.

Year 2: Finish off any remaining content. Allow as much time as possible for revision and past-paper practice.  

I believe that a good way to get our kids to be ahead of the game before Year 2 is to set them a significant piece of summer homework that is achievable, but not too onerous. 

I’ve found the following tasks to be effective (sometimes I combine them both together):

  • Provide a booklet of notes and questions covering a topic that the students haven’t studied yet. When they get back to school after the summer, collect the booklets in. Check those booklets to make sure they are completed. Peer assess them and provide a one-week condensed summary of the topic in your lessons. Keep a record of who has and hasn’t scored well on the content, and intervene where necessary (e.g. with some after-school classes).
  • Give students a test on a topic they learned over the summer. Provide notes for the students to revise from. Analyse the grades and help out any students who haven’t performed well.

When both of these techniques are combined together powerful and deep learning can take place over the summer. This can give our students a head-start in Year 2, giving them more time to do revision and past-papers. 

card games

Case #2: Able, Gifted and Talented Students

These are students who we really want to push and encourage.

The summer vacation is a long-time to be away from formal education, and we don’t want these students to lose momentum or interest.

I’ve found that project work is particularly useful for these types of students. I usually set work based on the following procedure:

  • Find out what the student is really interested in. What does she have a passion for? (For example: hip hop dancing)
  • Think of ways that you can link your subject area to the student’s area of interest (For example: A project about vector mathematics as a model for the movement of a hip hop dancer during a routine)
  • Discuss the project with the student. Make sure it’s relevant and deep. Ask the student to come up with ways to process the information and present the final output. Perhaps a stop-motion animation will work well. Maybe the student prefers to do a performance. Maybe a project portfolio will work well.
  • Offer some kind of significant reward and recognition for the effort. Discuss the benefits (e.g. how this project will improve subject knowledge in a particular area). Speak with senior management about any material rewards that can be given (e.g. book tokens, medals, certificates or a trophy).
  • Follow through and keep our promises: We must make sure that we honour our promises to these students. If we’ve promised a medal, then we must damn well make sure that the kid gets a medal. If we’ve set the work, then we must fulfill our professional duty by giving feedback. 

PC activity with mouse pen

Case #3: Students who are falling behind

I’ve reached a stage in my career now where I just cannot allow poor performance to go unnoticed or unchallenged. It just bugs me too much.

For kids who haven’t been performing well, a good sit-down and chat with the students and their parents is an absolute essential before the summer, in my honest opinion.

Let’s say that you’ve had a biology student for one year and she just didn’t understand cells, human body systems and plant reproduction. Let’s say that this student failed all three tests for these topics.

If this student has not been given the opportunity to re-sit tests in these topics throughout the academic year, then it is our duty, I believe, to ensure that this material is covered over the summer. The student will have more time and, provided that the parents are aware and involved too, this should result in regular, productive revision and an increase in subject knowledge.

out-of-control

I’ve found the following techniques to work well for students who are falling behind:

  • Analyse the assessment data for the whole academic year. Identify the area or areas in which the student is performing poorly.
  • Look through all of the student’s work that you have to-hand. Is there any particular method or output that the student is really good at (e.g. website creation, drawing diagrams, making infographics, etc)?
  • Meet with the student and his/her parents. Discuss a way forward over the summer that involves the student completing meaningful work on the topics of weakness through an output that appeals to the student’s preferred learning style.
  • Check that the quantity of work is neither too much, nor too little
  • Decide on a way to assess the work

When planned properly, our summer holidays can become times when our under-performing students really turn their lives around and gain a renewed sense of purpose and confidence. 

Conclusion

Schools not ‘out for summer’ (sorry).

The summer vacation offers a powerful way for us all to push our students forward, allow our students to cover extra material and address weaknesses for those students who are struggling. 

This all involves some planning, though. 

I don’t know about you, but when my students break up for the summer in one month’s time, I’ll be ready. I’ll have had my conversations with parents, kids and SLT and my students will know exactly what to do in the months approaching the new academic year.

We owe them that. 

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