Good Teachers Are Also Good Students

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

Accompanying video:

I have always loved mathematics, but I’ve not always been ‘good’ at maths. I got a grade A for GCSE Mathematics when I was 16 years old (a grade I worked really, really hard for) but I struggled with mathematics at ‘AS’ and ‘A’ – Level (the UK’s pre-university qualifications). 

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“An AMAZING Book!”

It just so happened that mathematics wasn’t a subject I needed as a prerequisite for my university course anyway. So, in a sense, I committed the cardinal sin of thinking that it ‘didn’t matter’. I was planning to study molecular biology at university, and my admissions tutors were mainly interested in my biology and chemistry grades.

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I achieved my goal of going to uni and doing my PGCE in order to become a fully qualified Science teacher in 2006. I was happy for several years, but my failure to complete my mathematics education at school kept gnawing at me like an annoying itch. I needed to do something about it. 

I decided to complete the Certificate in Mathematics course with the Open University in 2009, after three years of being a full-time science teacher. This course covered everything in my ‘A’-Level syllabus with some extra, university-level topics thrown in. It was challenging and offered me just what I needed: closure. As a distance-learning course, it also offered me the chance to study and work as a teacher at the same time. 

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As I started studying the course and handing in assignments (which had to be snail mailed to the UK  – I was living in Thailand at the time), I began to realise how much I had become disconnected from the student experience as a teacher. It had been around three years since I had ever studied anything seriously, and this mathematics course was teaching me how difficult it was to:

  • Meet deadlines
  • Seek help when in doubt
  • Have the self-discipline needed to study at a regular time-slot each day

These skills were, of course, things I had to do whilst completing my degree course and schooling earlier in life, but it had been a few years since I had been immersed in serious study like this. I was slowly losing empathy for my students: that was until this course gave me a wake-up call. 

Another big thing I took from this experience was just how stressful it can be to prepare for a difficult exam (and to complete it). I had to fly to the UK to take the end of course mathematics exam (a three hour beast), and along with the intense revision that came in the few days running up to the exam I had the misfortune of not sleeping so well the night before the big day. And then, once sat down and actually completing the paper, three hours felt like it went by in an instant.

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I guess I’m trying to make a number of points in this trip down Memory Lane – namely that by immersing ourselves in the ‘student experience’ we can, as teachers:

  • Regain, or enhance, our true understanding of just how many hurdles await our students on their race to the exam finish-line.
  • Learn new skills and concepts that can be applied to our roles as classroom managers, leaders and ‘purveyors’ of specialist knowledge.
  • Build self-discipline, and pass on the lessons learned to our students in our roles as mentors, homeroom teachers, form tutors and coaches.

One final point to stress is that, whilst we can study almost any subject we want via online platforms like EdX and Coursera these days, it’s also important that we take the time to thoroughly reflect on a regular basis. Keeping a journal of things we’ve done well, and things we messed up, can be a great way to have a written record to read over when we want to celebrate successes and remind ourselves of lessons we have learned on our journeys as educators. This video I made a few years ago goes into this in more detail:

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What Should Teachers do with their Time-Off?

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback).

Accompanying video:

One of the massive perks about being a schoolteacher is that we get loads and loads of holidays. In fact, in my particular case, I’m only actually in school for around 180 days per year. That’s a lot of free time to deal with. 

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So, with this in mind, I find myself asking a rather controversial question: Are we using this free time productively?  

I’ve been lambasted quite viciously in the past for expressing my views on this particular issue. My views haven’t changed, however, so if you’re one of those snowflakes who gets easily triggered, easily offended or who has a nervous breakdown when someone has a different opinion than you, then you might want to stop reading now.

The laziness of it all?

With all of this free time in-hand, I often wonder why more teachers aren’t starting their own businesses, writing books, setting up podcasts, starting up blogs, doing online marketing or anything to better themselves or improve their quality of life. 

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What would Elon Musk, one of the world’s most successful businessmen, do with 185 free days each year? Perhaps this quote from an interview he did (video embedded below) will shed some light on things:

Interviewer:

Did you ever consider retiring?

Elon:

No, not really. I did take a bit of time off. I did reasonably well from Paypal. I was the largest shareholder in the company and we were acquired for about a billion and a half in stock and then the stock doubled. So yeah, I did reasonably well, but the idea of lying on a beach as my main thing, just sounds like the worst – it sounds horrible to me. I would go bonkers. I would have to be on serious drugs. I’d be super-duper bored. I like high intensity – I mean, I like going to the beach for a short period of time, but not much longer than a few days or something like that.

So we can conclude that this formidable titan: some would say an example of what we should all aspire to become, would use 185 days productively. He’d take some short-bursts of time-off, but mostly he’d be working on new projects and new ideas, or furthering current ones. 

An ancient Chinese proverb that keeps me striving and moving ‘forward’ when I have free time is this:

An inch of time is an inch of gold, but an inch of time cannot be purchased for an inch of gold.

Mediocrity breeds more mediocrity?

One core philosophy that I think all teachers agree with is that with enough hard work and effort, our students can become anything they want to become (notwithstanding significant physical and psychological hindrances). 

Surely then, as teachers, we also need to be at the top our game if we are to truly live that message: that a human really can become anything with enough effort. 

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Why then do so many teachers fall short of this principle? So many of us are one-timers: we got a university degree, trained to be a teacher and that was it. Zero significant achievements since then. 

And yet, we expect our students to be excellent. We expect them to make excellent progress. We expect them to use their free time productively. We expect them to aspire, push themselves, have goals and achieve big. 

Maybe it’s about time that we modeled that process. Only then can we really know what excellence is.

As for me, I’m not perfect but I’m no hypocrite either. This Christmas vacation, for which I get three weeks off school, will be divided between a number of tasks. I’ll take a short holiday for a few days, but the rest will be spent becoming a Google Certified Educator, completing a Certificate in Data Science from Berkeley and a number of additional tasks linked to this blog, my books, a new business and things to get me ready for my classes in January (including a rigorous gym schedule). 

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If we’re not advancing personally, then how can we encourage our students to advance?

I’ll post an update at the end of my Christmas vacation, to let you know how I’ve managed. After all, if I’m going to preach the ‘be useful and be productive’ mantra to you, my readers, then I absolutely need to lead by example and practice what I preach. 

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We welcome you to join the Richard James Rogers online community! Join us on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates, giveaways of Richard’s books, special offers, upcoming events and news. 

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