The Footnotes


31 mistakes that teachers should avoid

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but what if you had someone to warn you of your mistake before you made it?

While hindsight is a wonderful thing, wouldn’t it be great if you had had someone to warn you of your mistake before you made it? Well, in efforts to learn from those who have come before us, here is a list of pot-holes and detours to avoid on the road to being an excellent teacher:

1. Promising something and not delivering: The fundamental trust that exists between the student and teacher can be easily destroyed when a teacher over promises and under delivers. If you promise to deliver grades or feedback by a certain time, do it. Or don’t promise by a certain time/date, instead just say, as soon as possible.

2. Always standing behind a desk when teaching: The best way to combat student intimidation and class room anxiety is by not separating myself from the students by spending all the class time up front and centre of the room, sitting at my desk, or from a point of height. For younger students, visible authority can be an intimidating wall that separates the from the learning environment. When they feel intimidated, they mentally isolate themselves. Teachers should stand in a way that demands authority and attention mostly when they need to introduce instructions or teach specifically memorable points. Otherwise, they should try to move about and around the room in order to establish eye contact and physical contact with the entire class.

3. Lacking knowledge and preparation. The so-called conventional wisdom of “those who can do and those who can teach” is not the case. Teaching is as much an art form as it is a technique. Effective teachers are able to display both and know that knowledge and only extensive lesson preparation create the foundation for both.

4. Talking too much: The class energy can be lost to a passive state when a teacher spends to much airtime explaining, before the ‘learning’ is to take place.  The more responsibility the students take to present, manipulate, debate, sum up, and draw conclusions about the information, the more they truly learn the material.

5. Relying too much on theory: All the current pedagogical advice and not taking into account your own instincts, knowledge of your actual students, and personality.

6. Talking to the board: This is not to be confused with talking to the bored, which is what tends to happen when we talk to the board. Many of us still use a white board, chalk board or a screen on which material is written or projected. Perhaps because of time constraints, we may turn our backs to the class to write or point to information–and simultaneously we talk about the issue at hand. What seems like a small movement from facing the class to turning our backs on them may have larger implications.

7. Using a student to demonstrate something negative and in so doing making him/her feel singled out and self conscious: The risk is that you’ll lose students’ attention for at least the rest of the class and possibly the remainder of your time together.  While it can be difficult when a student is being unruly, use them to exemplify something positive which relates to the lesson. That will elevate a student and engage her/him for the remainder of the course and will also encourage other students to be positive contributors as well.

8. Failing to develop credibility: I have instructors who are wonderfully qualified but enter the classroom telling students “I am new to this; we can learn together.” The students assume they are new to the teaching, not to the subject. Once you make this mistake, it is hard to win back the students.

9. Underestimating students. If you assume that your students are not capable of contributing real ideas to your discipline, you will project those low expectations onto the students. If you do not believe in your students’ intelligence, they will not believe in their intelligence. But if you expect students to contribute, if you ask hard questions believing that they can offer intelligent answers, they will deliver intelligent answers.

10. Respect your student’s essay or paragraph as an attempt at communication: After years of trampling over students’ messages on my way to correct the grammar or vehicle of communication, I now constantly remind myself to respond to the message first. This does not mean uttering a formula like, “The ideas are good” or “I like your subject, but….”. It means showing authentic interest in the message: “How is your sister now? I am impressed how you managed the situation. What a great message to share”

11. Taking it personally: The indeterminate “it” being everything that students dish out. “It” isn’t about us. Trust me, few of my students “want” to learn how to do a research paper or analyse a poem, and many are resentful that they have to take classes in areas that don’t seem to have an immediate impact on what they want to learn about. Some cheat. Some don’t attend class on a regular basis. Some whine and complain. Let them. My job remains the same—to help them learn the writing skills they will need to earn a degree and communicate on the job. If I get angry or over-react every time a student challenges something, I would never get anything done. We have to model professionalism.

12. Not showing enthusiasm: Enthusiasm is contagious and the ultimate technique for getting student’s attention evoking interest. If they feel pumped-up, they are likely to read the material and pay attention. Sometimes my students continue the discussion long after class time has ended. I judge my presentation by the amount of chatter as they file out of the room.

13. Not explaining terminology inherent to the education system: The words curriculum, syllabus, proficiently or even, needs work mean nothing to students  until they are explained, and can foster fear if they are not correctly introduced. Explaining terminology sets expectation, and transparency yields engagement.

14. Being disorganised: This can take place in many forms such as: being late for class (consistently), being unable to find your materials for class quickly, not being comfortable or up to date with the course content (just got the lesson plan for the class a week before class starts or worse, you don’t have one!), being uncomfortable with the technology in the class such as PowerPoint, lecterns, DVD’s, flash drives ,etc; being unsure of what upcoming assignments are due and a HUGE ONE is passing assignments and exams back weeks after they were due.

15. Telling your students, “This is easy” or worse, “This is so easy.”:  The message it conveys to students is that if they don’t find it easy, they are not very bright.

16. Teaching the course material rather than teaching students: I believe that when the focus is on the students learning the material and the students learning how to learn the material, then the material will be learned. When the focus is on the material and not the students, the students are lost along the way. When a class needs more time to absorb a concept or students are excited and running with an area of the curriculum, it is better to adapt the syllabus than to lose students.

17. Adopting a new strategy just because it is popular, or everybody is doing it: Without thinking through a new way of teaching as to whether you really are committed to that strategy is a big mistake: Trying to be someone you’re not. Always be yourself. You don’t need to the bells and whistles of specific technology, or need to integrate role play – if you are not going to do it with integrity.

18. Making a hard and fast deadline that is non negotiable: Allowing no alternative exam, assignment or mode of meeting a syllabus requirement can be a huge mistake. Today’s non-traditional students have lives that are logistical nightmares, so one effective way to ease students out of the course is to make a hard and fast deadline for every major assignment and allow no make-up or extra-credit alternatives to meeting course objectives. “Do you want students to pass your course?” If yes, then maximize ways to avoid zeroes, and assume that most students are honest .

19. Failing to allow enough time for discussion, exploration, practice: Learning and innovation happens for students when they are discovering/learning a new skill or revisiting an old skill. Teachers/trainers would benefit best by allowing students to discover answers, rather than “giving” all of the answers.

20. Telling students you don’t care: Of course no teacher would say they don’t care if students learn, or they don’t care about the students. But as a wise man once told me, if you tell a student that you don’t care if they attend class, what the student hears is “I don’t care,” even if you meant to say that attendance does not directly impact your grade. The words “I don’t care” should be banned from the classroom in any context.

21. Practicing a “do as I say, not as I do” philosophy: If students catch you making mistakes, and you try to cover up for them, they lose all respect for your authority. Since they don’t know the subject matter as well as a qualified faculty member, they don’t know what else you’ve said that might be wrong.

22. Asking a closed-ended questions: The risk here is that students will try to guess the exact wording of the answer you are looking for.

23. Invalidating students’ opinions and viewpoints: Nobody likes know it all’s. Especially students with their instructors. If a student shares a viewpoint that is based on opinion, conjecture, extrapolation or observations; the quickest way to cut off further sharing is to invalidate the students opinion by saying something like “I fail to see how that factors into or applies to………..” Instead a simple “That may be so…….” followed by your assessment defuses the appearance of an outright rejection and allows the possibility of the students opinion as valid which will encourage further discussion.

24. Yelling at students: I say this because I did it once early in my career and basically lost the class for the rest of our time together. When you yell at them, they see that you have lost control. So they lose respect for you, and then it’s over.

25. Making all students pay for the misbehaving of one or two students: The title says it all.

26. Gluing students to their chairs: I like the saying, “the brain can only absorb what the butt can stand”. I take the students outside every so often, and walk them around the campus while talking about whatever subject I’m teaching. Though, i appreciate this can be harder with large or young students.

27. Making incorrect assumptions about student engagement: The student with his head down on the desk may be listening intently, not dozing. The student who is chattering so animatedly with her best friend may be involved in peer tutoring, not discussing party plans for the upcoming weekend. The student with the “oh so totally” bored expression may end up rating my class as one of the most interesting educational experiences of his life. My solution is to regularly remind myself to avoid jumping to conclusions. I create frequent opportunities for individual student/teacher engagement. From these, I can get past perceptions to reality.

28. Responding with “You should know that” when a student asks a question

29. Destroying the students’ inborn, natural desire to learn through competition and grades: Sometimes grades (especially forced ranking and grading curves) rob students of their intrinsic motivation to learn (and probably robs teachers of their joy in teaching). Our schools must preserve and nurture the yearning for learning that everyone is born with.

30. Saying “okay” about thirty times a class: I realised I was doing it, I consciously tried to stop because it was just blather wasting time and sent the message that “none of this is really important, okay?” Constant repetition of one word makes it hard for students to read when something actually is important, ok?

31. Trying to be a friend to the student, and not their teacher: A good teacher is a friend; but a friend can sometimes be a blind teacher.

31 mistakes that teachers should avoid
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