In the push to improve schooling, I think we often lose sight of the fundamentals of having a kind, safe, respectful atmosphere in which to learn.
I have devoted my research career to trying to understand and influence teachers’ beliefs about students and learning. Time and time again in my research I have seen deeply rooted misunderstandings subvert well-intentioned efforts to improve the classroom learning environment.
Consider these examples from my 20+ years of observing public schools:
- A math teacher, known for being creative and focused on problem-solving, solves the problems for her students to keep “order” in the classroom. This same teacher believes it’s fine when students fail her algebra class because grades should fall on the “bell curve.” The misconceptions here are that an orderly classroom equals learning and that a description of ability in the general population (the bell curve) should be applied to classroom instruction. Instead, classes ought to be focused on content mastery (100 percent success) rather than innate ability distribution (50 percent of students below the average score).
- A school renowned for its student-centered approach has a few teachers who shame and control students, yelling at them when they step out of line, calling them names when they are unruly.
- A school that’s considered progressive that doesn’t know what to do with its low socioeconomic students who find their way to that school, so they end up on behavior plans or stuck in the hall playing with staples in the bulletin board rather than inside the classroom learning.
- An “A” school that makes students sit the entire lunch period in silence rather than talking with friends because the teachers do not know how to handle the noise level in the cafeteria.
The common denominator in these scenarios is one of control and power. As a parent and an educator, I, too, struggle with these issues with my own students and my own children. How much should we control kids, and how much should we allow them to have a voice in their learning?
As I reflect on these issues, I have started to formulate my “10 Commandments of Teaching” that I think should be the starting ground for good instruction.
To be clear, I’m not blaming teachers here. Teacher professional development is woefully inadequate and underfunded in most schools, and mentoring programs are rare or superficial. Plus, teaching is an onerous, heavily regulated, poorly compensated profession that adds greatly to teacher stress and leads to high teacher turnover and lack of qualified candidates for hire.
These draft “commandments” are my attempt to set a minimum level of professionalism in the classroom. And I think they are suitable for all levels of instruction, from preschool through graduate education. I welcome thoughts, additions, or revisions as I continue to try to sort out how to help students have positive learning experiences in their lives.
10 Commandments of Teaching
- Learn everything you can about your students. Work with their personalities and interests to help them capitalize on their strengths and shore up their weak areas.
- Give students reasonable choices about their learning and how the classroom operates.
- Be prepared for class but be flexible to capitalize on teachable moments.
- Have activities with multiple entry points for those at different skill levels.
- Avoid the shallows; go deep rather than wide.
- Give students extended time to work on meaningful assignments.
- Find ways to highlight the good in each of your students. Encourage them to develop their best selves.
- Treat your students with dignity, kindness and respect, even if they don’t treat you that way.
- Keep your personal life out of the classroom.
- Most of all, remember that you hold so much power over your students: Wield it wisely. Wield it kindly. Wield it to bring out the best in them.
And, teachers, thank you for taking on an often thankless job in a world that needs you desperately.
Michele Gregoire Gill is program coordinator of the University of Central Florida’s education doctorate in curriculum and instruction and is a professor of educational psychology in the Department of Learning Sciences and Educational Research. She can be reached at Michele.Gill@ucf.edu.
The UCF Forum is a weekly series of opinion columns presented by UCF Communications & Marketing. A new column is posted each Wednesday at http://today.ucf.edu and then broadcast between 7:50 and 8 a.m. Sunday on WUCF-FM (89.9). The columns are the opinions of the writers, who serve on the UCF Forum panel of faculty members, staffers and students for a year.