Monday, July 11, 2016

The 12 Worst Pieces of Advice I've Ever Received

Fellow teachers can be sources of inspiration, fresh ideas, and old tricks that still work like a charm. They can also unwittingly impart upon a new teacher some really bad advice for the modern classroom. Many veteran teachers and college professors mean well when they share these little tidbits of knowledge, but these suggestions are often outdated, impractical, or even downright detrimental to the well-being of the teacher, the students, or both.

These twelve gems are actual pieces of advice I have received from college professors or colleagues over the past several years... and my suggestion for what to do instead, should you ever hear the same thing.

1. Don't smile until Christmas. This Machiavelli-inspired suggestion is based on the premise that teachers should start their year being very strict, because it is easier to lighten up as the year goes on rather than try to become stricter when things get out of control. While I absolutely agree with the theory here, Machiavelli also said, "Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved." This is where the problem arises for me. It is one thing to be firm and consistent with your rules; it is quite another to inspire fear, which is where I believe this piece of advice really comes from. Not smiling in the presence of your students will indeed inspire fear, and as we know from the wise Master Yoda (whom I just so happen to trust more than I trust Machiavelli)...


Sorry, Machiavelli, but I'm siding with Yoda here. Maybe inspiring fear will work for princes and politicians, but it doesn't work well in the long term for teachers.

So what do I do instead? Absolutely be firm and consistent with your students! Make your expectations clear, and the consequences evidence. But this can be done with kindness. You can even smile a little when you aren't being disciplinary.

2. Students will not respect you because you are too young. This is less a piece of advice and more of a self-esteem-destroying missile being launched into your fragile little first-year face. The theory here is that students don't respect their teachers until they look middle-aged. Thus, young teachers are doomed to a few years of badly behaved young punks who will walk all over them because they are too fresh-faced and sprightly.


So what do I do instead? You ignore this shit, come up with a rock solid classroom management plan, you follow through, and you pat yourself on the back for not listening to those old asshats who were giving you a hard time. This one is such bullshit, seriously.

3. Do not acknowledge your mistakes in front of your students. I had a college professor who actually said this during a lecture. He was giving us some of his hard-learned advice from his two years (you caught that right?) spent teaching before he started teaching other teachers how to teach. I'm paraphrasing here, but he essentially told us that acknowledging our mistakes in front of students would make us appear weak and incapable. He advised that, if you were to ever make a mistake in the classroom (from a minor infraction such as calling someone by the wrong name, to a major infraction like putting the wrong grade in the grade book), you should never own up to it. He advised ignoring the mistake entirely or, if it came down to it, lying to the students to save face.

So what do I do instead? You own your mistakes like a grown ass adult! If you mistook a student for another, you apologize and make a genuine effort to call them by the right name. If you make an error in the grade book, you talk to that student in person (and the parents too, if necessary) and apologize for the mistake, citing your fallible humanity as the source of the mistake. And if you make a whole-class mistake, you apologize to everyone and assure them that you will try to do better in the future. In my experience, students respond much better to a teacher who is human rather than a teacher who tries to be a god.

4. Respect should be earned, not given. I have met far too many teachers in my time who start their year off by treating their high school students like they are criminals as soon as they walk through the door. It hurts my heart when a teacher speaks badly about a group of students they barely know. And then you have those classes who have had a bad reputation since they were in kindergarten, so you are already completely dreading them before the first day of school starts. How terrible is that, to have a preconceived notion about what students will be like, when you haven't even given them a chance? That's called PREJUDICE and it is FROWNED UPON IN MOST CIVILIZED SOCIETIES. Wouldn't you feel disrespected if you were not given the proper chance to make a good impression?


So what should I do instead? Respect is defined as "a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements." I think respect should be given to a person right off the bat. We ask our students to respect their teachers before ever meeting them; shouldn't we be asking the same thing of ourselves? We owe it to our students to greet them on the first day with respect. We may not know about their abilities, qualities, or achievements yet, but shouldn't we admire their potential, rather than following these preconceived notions?

5. Making an example of a student will keep the others in check. Ahh, the Embarrassment Method. Let's stand a kid up, put him in the stockades, and throw eggs at him while we shame him for forgetting his book in his locker. The idea with this one is that, by embarrassing the hell out of one kid for a minor infraction, we can stop all the other kids from making that same mistake. Machiavelli talked about this too. “With a few exemplary executions, [the Prince] will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies. These harm the whole people, while those executions he ordered offend only the individual.”


So what should I do instead? Again, I would like to make a case for compassion. Humiliation is a cruel form of punishment, and it is not disciplinary in nature, only punitive. Surely you can recall a time that you were extremely embarrassed about something... do you want to be responsible for imparting that feeling on another human being? I'm of the opinion that humiliating a person is a step in the direction of bullying. If you have a behavior problem you need to deal with, talk with the student one-on-one, in a private conversation. The message will likely come through clearer than it would through burning ears and tear-filled eyes.

6. If you don't know the answer, make something up. I know a teacher who is literally terrified of students asking her a question, because she fears not knowing the answer. So what's a teacher to do when confronted with a question that you maybe should know the answer to, but you just don't? Make something up, obvs. Gotta save face, y'know?


So what should I do instead? This one ties into #3. Just own that shit, for three really important reasons. 1) It makes you more approachable when you seem like a regular flawed human being. 2) In this day and age where knowledge is readily available with a simple "Hey Siri," your ass if going to get busted by some cheeky student if you make shit up, and then what? And 3) this is what they call A TEACHABLE MOMENT!!! This is where you say, "Wow, that is a really good question, and I don't know what the answer is. Let's do some research together and figure this out!" What a great opportunity to teach kids about research and credible sources of information and intrinsic motivation (learning just for the sake of learning).

7. Come down hard on all behavior problems. I knew a teacher who wrote a student an office referral for tossing a paper wad into the trash can. On the first offense. No warning. Boom. Office referral. I know another teacher who literally said, "I wish I could have a Chokey like in Matilda. That would keep everyone in line." #yikes The belief here is that if you put the smack down on even the tiniest infraction, your classroom will operate very smoothly because everyone will be way too terrified of your wrath to even think about doing something they shouldn't.

So what should I do instead? Yet again I argue for compassion. I also argue for fairness, and discipline that teaches and isn't just punitive in nature. If a student draws all over the desktop, they need to stay after and clean the desktop (and maybe the others while they are there). A student says an unkind thing about someone? A letter of apology is in order. I'm not saying that you should never send students to the office; serious infractions (and not paper wads) are worth a trip to the office, absolutely. But pick your battles, and pick wisely. And isn't the goal of discipline to teach a student the right way to do something when they do wrong? Even disciplinary action can be a teachable moment.

8. A silent classroom is where true learning takes place. Lots of teachers make a case for a silent classroom, arguing that a silent class is an attentive class. I think it's easy for the modern teacher to see that this is not necessarily the case. A class may be noisy because they are highly engaged in conversation as they process learning; a silent class may be a class that is asleep, even with their eyes open.


So what should I do instead? Recognize that there is a time, a place, and a benefit to both the silent classroom and the noisy classroom. I would never let my students talk during a test; silence is necessary in a testing environment so all students can be 100% on task. Likewise, I know that my students often process information better when they are given the opportunity to think out loud. A lot can be learned from a lively debate, a Q&A session, a JigSaw, and other "chatty" activities.

9. Busy work reduces discipline problems in the classroom. Idle hands are the devil's workshop, right? Let's keep those kids busy busy so they simply don't have time to make trouble. I have observed several flaws in this theory. 1) Busy work has no value. It is an assignment that takes up a lot of time but does not bestow anything of educational value on a student. It is a waste of precious time. 2) Students can sniff out busy work and are often reluctant to do it, and may in fact become more problematic if they are given something boring or tedious to do. Boredom does not breed good behavior. 3) Students who are slower at completing their work are getting even more work piled on them. You may give a busy work assignment assuming that it will keep the class busy until the bell, but they won't have to take it home. And then there's Jimmy, who works hard but he's just slower, so Jimmy now has your meaningless busy work to complete on top of whatever else his teachers have given him.


So what should I do instead? If you're going to assign something, make it count. Make sure you can identify the educational merit of the assignment. Or, even better, ask the students to identify the educational merit of the assignment. If they can't put into words why the assignment is valuable, you have a problem.

10. Students are not trustworthy. Those pesky teenagers... you can't trust 'em as far as you could throw 'em. You're going to let them listen to music while they work? They'll never get the work done! You're going to let them choose a book for independent reading? They are not going to read a book, ever! You're going to leave them alone with an engaging activity while you dash out of the room to go pee? The room will be on fire before you get your pants down!

Okay, I'm being facetious of course, but seriously, let's talk about this for a second. In my six years of teaching, I have discovered that, for the most part, students are trustworthy. Now, would I trust them with open flames and no supervision? No, I wouldn't. Can I trust them to have their phones out so they can listen to music while they write? Yes, I can. We need to give our students the benefit of the doubt. Oftentimes, if we trust them with a little responsibility and we quit micromanaging them so badly, something we teachers hate when it happens to us, then the students can really step up.

So what do I do instead? Start small if you have trust issues. Give students three options for an assignment, and have them choose one and complete it. Let students who have mastered the skill you are teaching teach their peers. Again, if you are firm and consistent with your expectations, you are creating a safe and supportive environment in which important qualities like trustworthiness and responsibility can flourish.

11. You're not being paid to like the kids; you're being paid to deliver the content. The belief here is that we're not there to be the students' friend; we are there to teach them grammar or physics or American history or the Pythagorean theorem. But in the words of Rita Pierson in her 2013 TED Talk, "You know, kids don't learn from people they don't like." Merriam-Webster Online gives the simple definition of "friend" as "a person who you like and enjoy being with; a person who helps or supports someone or something." So, if Rita is right (and I suspect that she is) then part of our job is, in fact, to be a friend to the students. Now, I would never suggest that you become Facebook friends with your students, or go to their parties, or spend time with them outside of a school setting or function, because there is absolutely a professional boundary that must be kept. But you can be a friend to your students in a professional sense - by liking them, and by attempting to be likable in return.

So what do I do instead? Watch Rita's TED Talk to understand the value of building relationships with students, and then get to work.

12. These kids are all the same. They are all disrespectful/entitled/rude/dramatic/lazy/*insert negative descriptor here*. The implied advice here is, "Don't worry about them too much." There's a girl in class in tears? Eh, teenage girls are all the same; they cry over anything. Don't worry about her. She'll get over it. That boy hasn't turned in a piece of homework or been prepared for class in weeks? Teenage boys are lazy, of course he's not going to do the work. Don't worry about him. He'll eventually get his head out of his ass. Of course, what you didn't bother to consider was that the girl was in tears because she's being bullied every day in gym class, or her grandma died and she just got the text message, or her mom has cancer. When you don't worry about your kids, you don't bother to find out that the boy isn't doing his homework because he can't read, or because his parents make him work like a dog when he gets home and he never has time to do the work, or because a bunch of idiots took a piss all over his book bag and he was too embarrassed to bring his backpack and urine-soaked stuff back to school. (By the way, all of these have happened to my students at one time or another over the last six years.)

So what do I do instead? Treat your students on an individual basis. Offer them grace, and kindness, and help. Write her a pass to go the bathroom when she is in tears to regain her composure, and then touch base with her after class to make sure she is okay. Ask him why he isn't getting his work done on time or why he's never prepared for class, and then help him come up with a game plan for success. Don't let a student fail because "these kids are all the same." They most certainly are not all the same, and sometimes you will be the only person in that kid's whole day who will see them as an individual.

What pieces of bad advice have you received as a teacher? What good advice do you have to offer new teachers?

With love,