Saturday, August 13, 2011

Buck



In 9 days, I will begin my 41st year in the classroom. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to do it all once again. Teaching is just the greatest profession.



One of the things that I love about teaching is that there is always more to learn. It is such a complex art. No matter how long you’ve done it, there are insights that suddenly seem brand new. At this time of year, even things you’ve thought about before suddenly seem totally fresh and invigorating. Unless you just let yourself, there’s never a reason for a teacher to fall back on auto-pilot.



As the new academic year is set to begin, it is not a bad idea for every teacher to pause and consider what actually makes up good teaching. Not “average” teaching or “mediocre” teaching or “getting by” teaching but good teaching where you make a real difference in the lives of your students.



I went to a movie today with my daughters. The movie was titled “Buck” and was about a man who has spent his life training horses, especially challenging horses that didn’t want to be trained.



As I watched the movie, I was struck by what a great teacher this man is. He was marvelous at getting his “student” (the horse) to learn what he thought they needed to know. He made the process look simple.



You can learn so much from teachers like that. If nothing else, it reminds you of how good it feels to be a teacher.



As I watched the movie, I tried to analyze what he was doing and why it worked so well for him. I actually tried to memorize as much from the movie as I could. As soon as I got home, I wrote down everything I could remember about his teaching methodology because I wanted to see what I could learn.



The movie was a wonderful lesson on good teaching. I’m sure I forgot a ton but here is what I wrote down.



--The “student” has to trust the teacher or the student will simply not want to do what is being asked. Everyone wants to stay in their own personal rut. The natural inclination is to resist when someone asks you to do something new, especially if it requires work. His whole teaching style was based on developing trust right from the start. He never did anything that would cause his student to mistrust him.



--Several times he talked about that neat moment when the teacher and the “student” get on the same wave length. When the student comes to understand what is wanted and is willing to do it. At that moment, the teacher and the student start operating as a team. And, in education, if you can create that team, the potential for learning is beyond imagination.



--(This may be the thing that he talked about the most.) The “student” is a product of all the teaching they have had previously. Don’t blame the student for bad habits that prior teachers have created. Instead, have patience and work to retrain those habits. In my case, my students have had 20-30 teachers before they ever get to me. Some of those teachers may have taught the students to memorize so that learning seemed totally boring and useless. Some of those teachers may have taught the students that the development of critical thinking skills was a waste of time. Thus, you can’t get upset at students for believing that learning and thinking are boring and a waste of time. That may be the training they have received. Instead, you have to show them what you want and why it is important. “Here’s what I need for you to do and why” goes a long way in education.



--Allow the “student” to make mistakes because that is how learning takes place but don’t let the student become scared of making mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with being wrong as long as the student learns from the experience. But making the student feel stupid so that they are less inclined to try the next time is not beneficial.



--Work to help the “student” feel good about themselves. In life, nothing succeeds like success. In education, the student who feels good about what they are doing and what they are learning is always going to keep getting better and better. In the movie, Buck would constantly praise the horse for every action that was correct. When the horse did the right thing, there was instant and obvious reinforcement.



--For the “student,” the last two minutes of each session are the most important. You always want the student to walk out with a positive feeling about the experience so that it will carry over to the next class. That positive feeling is not created in the first 48 minutes but in the last two minutes.



--Always be firm with the “student” without being cruel. You are in charge; you have to direct the experience. Whether horses or people, the student wants to have a clear understanding of what is expected. Make sure that information is conveyed clearly and firmly: “Here’s exactly what I need from you by the next class” is always better than “Be prepared” or “Read Chapter 9.” However, no animal or person responds well to cruelty. You want the student to fly, not crouch in fear.



If I were to go back to the movie, I’d probably pick out another half dozen lessons on teaching. These were the ones that my memory latched on to in this first viewing. Did I already know these? Certainly, there’s nothing magic here. However, it is always great to be reminded. And, it is especially great to see them in actual practice and not just in theory.



Most of all, it was just nice (as a new school year gets ready to begin) to watch good teaching. For me, that is always inspiring.

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