How to be the teacher everyone wants
Seán Delaney shares his story of the case of the missing lollipop, and other lessons to learn on the road to becoming a great teacher
it was the early 1970s. I was in junior infants. The teacher awarded a daily prize to the child who was best in the class. One day the prize was to be a round lollipop with a clown's face on it. On returning to class after the morning break, the lollipop was missing. The teacher was unhappy.
"Who took the lollipop from my desk? It was here before break-time."
"Now boys and girls, you know it's very bold to steal. Who took the lollipop that did not belong to them?"
Still no reply.
"God will be very unhappy with the person who took the lollipop and is not owning up to it."
Eventually, the teacher said she would have to go out and phone the Gardai.
"They'll put special powder down your throats and they'll be able to tell who ate the lollipop."
The thought of having a garda put powder down my throat scared me. I raised my hand. "I took it teacher," I said, even though I had not taken the lollipop.
The teacher did what many parents or teachers would have done in similar circumstances. But trying to force one child to tell the truth resulted in another child telling a lie.
Although I didn't realise it until years later, that was the start of my education as a teacher. I learned that a teacher cannot force a child to do something. Whether it is honesty, reading, maths or PE, a teacher cannot make a child learn. A teacher must have the goodwill and cooperation of the children. It helps too if the teacher has the confidence of parents. That is why becoming the teacher everyone wants to have is important.
Of course children like a teacher who is cheerful, friendly, fair and curious, one who likes children and who has a sense of humour. Without such traits, someone shouldn't even consider a career in teaching. But such characteristics alone won't ensure that teaching happens or that children will learn.
Becoming the teacher everyone wants to have requires effort. Here are lessons I've learned about teaching that help children look forward to going to school.
1. Children like teachers who explain things effectively. Introduce ideas in multiple ways. When teaching about volcanoes, for example, use photographs, line drawings, video recordings, 3-D models and written descriptions of volcanoes; each medium highlights different aspects of what a volcano is like.
2. Children like to be challenged in school. Textbooks tend to portion learning into bite-sized pieces where little thinking is needed and contradictory ideas are minimised. Memorising facts and formulas is often valued over presenting tasks that require thoughtful and creative responses. Although some memorising is good and necessary, too much of it leads to learning that is predictable and dull.
3. No magic method or material can guarantee learning in any subject. Children learn in surprising ways. For example, few people would associate transcription with worthwhile learning but Irish writer Joseph O'Connor learned to write by repeatedly transcribing John McGahern's short story, 'Sierra Leone', gradually replacing McGahern's words with his own. The best classroom resource is a teacher who is interested and engaged in their work, who understands learning, who knows children, and who knows the subject.
4. Children differ in their motivation, work rate, and knowledge, and in how they learn. Lessons can be designed to accommodate such differences. Teachers can choose tasks where every child experiences challenge and success. Children who struggle with reading can be helped by digital books which decode, translate and define words on demand; where the text size can be adjusted and background knowledge on the topic can be provided at a click.
5. Use feedback to motivate. "You're really good at maths" or "You worked really hard at that maths problem" are two kinds of feedback teachers might give to a child who has solved a problem. The first one is generic and gives the signal that talent or intelligence is innate and fixed. The second conveys the message that effort matters. Children who hear the second message recover better from setbacks and value their learning more.
6. Surprisingly few benefits of doing homework exist, especially at primary school level. I suggest using homework to help children learn study skills that will help them throughout their lives rather than learning specific content. Spend more time teaching how to learn spellings and tables. Introduce children to cognitive maps and ways to organise information they learn. Encourage children to monitor their learning - what are you doing? Is it helping you? Could you do it another way?
7. Even though teaching is stimulating, interesting and challenging work, like any job, over time it can become routine or dull. At such a time, the advice of Robert Pirsig in 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' about putting quality into your work helps. Take extra time to get to know a child, become expert in a curriculum area, help a child who is struggling, or record observations about teaching, for instance.
8. Run effective parent/guardian-teacher meetings. Know each child well as a student. Listen carefully to parents. Share positive information about children. Suggest ways for parents to help their children learn.
Oh, and never try to force a confession from a child!
And what about becoming the parent every teacher wants to have? Trust and communicate. Speak well of the teacher in front of your child; discuss concerns directly with the teacher.
Seán Delaney is registrar at the Marino Institute of Education, Dublin where he teaches modules on the practice of teaching. He is the author of 'Become the Primary Teacher Everyone Wants to Have: A Guide to Career Success', which is published by Routledge