teach me how to teach, please!
September 13, 2009 9:58 AM   Subscribe

How do I become an amazing, inspiring, organized, respected, and effective teacher? What did your favorite teacher do that set him/her apart? Your tips, anecdotes, and resources (particularly online) are appreciated.

I'm a fresh college grad and I've been thrown into teaching without any training. Luckily, I love it; however, I definitely need to learn some basic classroom management principles before the honeymoon period is over and the students lose respect for my authority. Furthermore, I'm idealistic enough that I want to strive to be an extraordinary, life-changing teacher even though most colleagues in my situation (teaching English in Korea) seem content with not much more than mediocrity. I have great kids, more than half of whom are in an elite track and only speak English while on school property, so I'm looking less for English-in-Korea advice (although I'll take that too) and more for foreign language or general teaching advice.

Some things that I don't really know how to deal with: kids who refuse to speak, ultra-rambunctious baby einsteins, the loner in every class who is semi-bullied by his peers, kid who won't stop talking or goofing off, what to do when the entire class seems to make a silent pact to ignore my instructions...

i teach 2nd through 8th grade. FYI: While I don't participate, my school does practice corporal punishment according to a formula I haven't figured out. It seems that most days the principal will deliver anywhere from one to ten strokes of a ruler per student as punishment for homework mistakes, although sometimes he'll walk in, scare everyone, then leave. The students both dread and sort of enjoy this, as a benchmark for punishments I could have the authority to enforce.

Links to excellent teacher communities or blogs would be awesome too!

Bonus question: for the teachers out there, how do you find satisfaction and intellectual stimulation in this profession? I find it extremely fulfilling now and expect this to improve as I become better, but it seems that burnout could arise quite unexpectedly.
posted by acidic to Education (22 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Corporal punishment for homework mistakes? Sounds a bit draconian to me...

With regards to things I've respected in teachers, I would have to say that it's important to know that your instructor is a person--that they have a "life" outside the classroom. Some of the teachers I remember the most are those who would share their personal experiences or relate what we were learning to some challenge they overcame. It also helps to be genuinely funny. Obviously wit isn't exactly something you can manufacture, but being able to offer the right remark that captures the general consensus of the classroom is priceless.
posted by Aanidaani at 10:14 AM on September 13, 2009

My best teacher by far was in 8th Grade, and all I remember about what set him apart was his selfless devotion to education. He would show up to school at about 6 AM to look after the few students who arrived at that time due to parental work schedules. At about 7 AM, when a larger contingent of kids arrived, he'd begin a mix of self-guided worksheets and board-based teaching.

In addition to offering supplementary math instruction before school, after school, and during lunch (all of which I attended) he would travel with the school's math team to competitions. To give you an idea of how much of a difference this guy made in my education, in a single school year I went from not knowing what the phrase "Pythagorean Theorem" meant to finishing Algebra 1 and attending math competitions.

As for dealing with the classes that had wide ranges of skill level, he would generally assign skill-appropriate worksheets to everybody. He'd walk around the class offering help to those with raised hands, and even if you didn't raise your hand he'd check up once in a while to see your progress.

I wish I could tell you more about his pedagogy, but I really don't remember it all that well. I was 13, I barely registered my peers as being people, much less my teachers. All I remember into adulthood is that astonishing level of devotion to education, spending 11+ hours a day in the school and a large part of his weekends as well.

As for teaching in Korea, Dave's ESL Cafe is a major resource.
posted by Ndwright at 10:22 AM on September 13, 2009

The best teachers for me were always the ones who weren't afraid to veer off of their normal teaching plan to investigate something they found really stimulates the students. Imo if you're willing to go off topic and excite students they're going to be much more willing to listen to you through lessons they aren't as interested in.

As an example (and clearly this doesn't apply to 2nd-8th grade Korean students), the most important lesson I remember learning in high school was from my 2nd year Spanish teacher who decided to take a whole class period to teach us about why we should start investing money as soon as possible. He planned out on the chalkboard the difference between starting a Roth IRA at the beginning of college vs at the beginning of one's career with regards to how much money would be in the account at retirement. Because of that I opened an IRA as soon as I had the money to do so.
posted by kthxbi at 10:24 AM on September 13, 2009

In college, I took a course in Japanese history. Towards the end of the semester, we covered the conclusion of World War II. [Which, from their perspective, was really a continuation of "the Japan-China War" that began, after several years of minor skirmishes, in 1937.] After the class let out, I went up to the professor and asked whether - in his personal opinion - we had been justified in deploying the atomic bomb. He said, "The older I get, the less certain I become about things."

Aside from the character lesson of his humility, this imparted what are perhaps the two most important things to take away from one's education: 1. Think for yourself. 2. Never stop learning.

I submitted his name for the annual teaching prize.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:32 AM on September 13, 2009

Thanks for the tips so far. I will definitely work hard to inject some personal experience/unordinary lessons into my teaching. I sort of did this on Friday with 4 classes, when I gave just-the-facts lectures on 9/11 ("How many planes were there?). The kids were totally silent and transfixed-- most of them had thought that bombs, not planes, were involved-- and we had good discussions about racism and North Korea afterwards. What other facets of my life or American life might interest a bunch of kids this age?

And yes, corporal punishment for homework mistakes is draconian and unfortunate, but not as draconian and unfortunate as the "corporal punishment" of providing bathroom soap to neither students nor teachers. I'm going to use my meager lobbying power to try to change that policy first.
posted by acidic at 10:41 AM on September 13, 2009

You might find it useful to spend some time gathering psychological insights from someone who knows traditional Korean culture well. For example, my partner grew up in Japan and now lives in the US. He explained to me that children have a lot of leeway in behavior until about age six, then the social rules begin to get imposed on them. Males are especially favored, but lots of very subtle social cues and values are imposed that completely escaped me as a person who grew in in the US. I would see a young boy throwing an outrageous temper tantrum and pounding on his mother and be shocked, but given his explanation, I could at least see the cultural pattern if not condone it.

If you understand their cultural values, their ultimate educational goals for their children, you might be able to figure out some Korean culture specific strategies.
posted by effluvia at 11:12 AM on September 13, 2009

I have friends who've taught English in Korean (having lived there myself for 9 years, and attended such after school learning institutions, but for other courses). Feel free to email me if you have any specific questions. Like the cultural ones that effluvia refers too.

(I attended an international high school there and a lot of my hakwon teachers were mediocre ivy league grads who didn't care about us and just wanted their exorbitant summer paychecks. I'm moved by your dedication! I hope it works out!)
posted by hellomina at 11:24 AM on September 13, 2009

The absolute most important thing is to respect your students as people. That's not to say you let them get away with stuff or fail to assert authority, but I still remember the sting of being treated like an infant and having my ideas and opinions ignored and dismissed. They're proto-adults, not a different species- I don't understand how so many adults manage to forget that when they grow up.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:34 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

A good start would be emulating the teacher in this documentary: Children Full of Life.
posted by netbros at 12:12 PM on September 13, 2009

The fact that you love what you are doing is a very good place to start from. In terms of overall advice the best (short) thing I can say is 'be there' in all senses of the expression...
posted by Chairboy at 12:21 PM on September 13, 2009

Did you check this previous question?

There were some tips there that might help you. Good luck!
posted by dealing away at 12:29 PM on September 13, 2009


Here is the link:


(Sorry, I'm such a noob...)
posted by dealing away at 12:30 PM on September 13, 2009

I'll be brief, for me:

My third-grade teacher read excellent chapter books aloud to us. Roald Dahl, E.B. White, George Seldon. We were allowed to either listen or draw while she read. I learned to love books and language from this, and learned how to read well aloud myself which I'm now using daily with our daughter; and I loved drawing already, so I was in heaven. Others were just glad for the downtime.

My eigth-grade teacher expanded our vocabulary at every opportunity, and was great at hands-on work which interested everyone. For example he gave us a selection of vials filled with smelly things (good and bad). We not only had to try to guess what was in them but to find words to describe them. Then he gave us new and better words on top of that. To this day I always have, as my husband says, a ten-dollar word for a ten-cent object.

I'm not a teacher, but volunteer weekly in our daughter's kindergarten class. Following her teacher's lead, I've learned to pick my groups to work with carefully - breaking up cliques, balancing energy levels, and grouping according to work habits. Knowing them is the key. Some kids like to be done with crafts quickly and move on - others will spend all day. And I always have an escape plan. If buttons strung on chenille stems to make caterpillars isn't working, then the stems just get spiraled into snails and we move along. Nothing is worse than getting stuck in a rut - it's better to fly. I'm hoping that these things that work can follow me through later years in volunteering...
posted by peagood at 1:50 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I try to keep in mind the phrase "Educate, Inform, Entertain", and make sure that every lesson ticks at least two of those boxes.

I do my level best to challenge the students on a regular basis.

I try to balance being predictable (so they know what's expected), and unpredictable (so they stay awake and engaged).

And yeah, classroom management stuff, basically... if you get the buy-in, they're yours. You have to be someone they can buy into. Don't bullshit them, if you say something will happen, it happens (rewards and punishments). And the important words: "well done" or "thank you". If someone does well, let them know on the way out of the door. No need to be effusive if what you say actually means something.

I like to keep track (at least a little) of my students' lives. Just enough to be able to say "how was the [hockey|new puppy|maths competition]?". It gets them used to simply communicating.

When they do pairwork, get feedback by asking them about their partners. This allows you to up the quality of interactions, as sometimes you find people taking turns to sit in silence. After a few rounds of "What does Juan do at the weekend?" "I don't remember", they start to listen to each other. Then you can move to "Oh, Josef likes going to the cinema? What sort of films does he like?". This depends on the level of English they have, of course.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 2:18 PM on September 13, 2009

My favorite teacher ever was my fifth grade teacher. I have since gone back to visit her a few times. The thing she did that set her apart was that she was willing to challenge us and teach us beyond the test-taking curriculum. On top of our normal studies, we had an entire half a year devoted to Shakespeare. We performed Hamlet in 5th grade, and she let girls play the boy parts if needed because in Shakespeare's time boys played the girl parts. I got to play King Claudius and another girl was Laertes. She worked really hard to teach us basic acting and how to memorize our lines, and the play was better than you'd expect for 5th graders. We also read Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet.

On top of this, she had a list of possible projects, each that counted for a different amount of points depending on how in-depth it was, and you could pick whether you wanted to do a bunch of small ones, or a couple big ones, to get the amount of points needed for your overall Shakespeare grade. The project ideas were fantastic. I built a model of the Globe Theater -- which required me to go to the library and seriously research what it looked like -- for a lot of points. I made two dioramas based on scenes from other plays -- we could pick any play we wanted, and I choose a Midsummer's Night Dream and I think the Merchant of Venice -- for a lot of points. Then there were some smaller projects, like taking any soliloquy and translating it into modern-day language. I did a couple of these, one from Julius Caesar, entirely by myself when I was ten years old. I detail all this not to say "hey look what an awesome kid I am," but to show how much children are capable of if you really push them and teach them more than you think they can understand. I think too many people underestimate children, even those that are struggling academically.

I also think a lot of the success of the students in these areas were because the thing she taught us were interesting. We had to memorize vocab words like every other class, for example, but we all learned way more from Shakespeare because those words were critical to our understanding a story. We had to learn basic history and geography, but we learned much more from her seemingly unrelated units because the stories gave those things context. We also had a few months devoted to Egyptian mythology, which I was never again taught in public school, and several months (nearly as much as for Shakespeare) devoted to Greek and Roman mythology, and to learn those things you have to learn a lot more than just their mythology. I spent so much time in the library that school year, and I loved it.

We learned Greek and Roman mythology at the end of the year, so for the last day of school she would organize a pretend feast where we served grape juice (for wine) and fruit salad (for ambrosia) and whatever else the parents brought. Everyone got to dress up as a god or goddess, so I went as Iris. All this stuff made what we were learning seem SUPER fun. I was excited to go to the library and research Iris because I'd get to dress up. It didn't even seem like studying, but it was.

Later, when I had to study Greek and Roman mythology in 6th grade, many people seemed to have a lot of trouble with it -- other teachers never taught it as well as my fifth grade teacher -- and I didn't have to study. Again in 8th grade, and 9th grade, and 11th grade, and 12th grade. (I don't know why Greek and Roman mythology is taught so redundantly in Texas.)

She also read to us from a novel for an hour every day. The only one I remember is Mutiny on the Bounty but we got through a couple of them before the school year ended.

This was just a normal public school, and no one asked her to teach these things. She did it because she thought we could handle it, and mostly she was right. Nearly every student had a lot of fun with it, and learned a lot.

Oddly, as much fun as this makes her sound, she was extremely strict. She wouldn't tolerate anything other than our best. At the beginning of the school year I was intimidated by her and sort of disliked her, but I came to love her after she taught us all that stuff. So my advice there is if you're doing everything else right, don't worry too much about whether the kids will dislike you. With the younger kids it might matter more, I'd imagine, but I had my first strict teacher in 4th grade and wasn't traumatized.
posted by Nattie at 2:18 PM on September 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

And yes, corporal punishment for homework mistakes is draconian and unfortunate, but not as draconian and unfortunate as the "corporal punishment" of providing bathroom soap to neither students nor teachers. I'm going to use my meager lobbying power to try to change that policy first.

Your priorities are all fouled up. Maybe you could buy some soap for use in the classroom and work to ensure that children are not hit by adults?
posted by mlis at 5:11 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I teach French as a second language, and use the AIM method (aimlanguagelearning.com). It uses gestures and drama. There is a fairly active message board community. The actions really help the kids engage in the lesson. You can see some video clips on their website and on YouTube.

One thing I do with my little ones (k-2) is use puppets. I have two main puppets, a bird and a bear. Then I have some special guest puppets who come in from time to time. The kids get very into the whole 'story' of the puppets and it's a great way to reinforce behaviour (for example, the bear and the bird sometimes fight with each other and do not always choose sensible places to sit; so we can talk about 'choosing a good place to sit' without it being about the kids!) It's also a good way to check for comprehension (this is more with my older students). For example, the bear has got a blue hat. If I said the hat was red and they did not correct me, I would know they did not understand what I was saying.

I have been surprised at how even my Grade 2 students get so involved with the whole drama of the puppets. I had to be at school in the evening for an event last year, and the kids all asked me where the bird was since they were not used to seeing me without him. When I said he was 'sleeping' one of the Grade 2 kids said 'But it's only 7 o'clock!'
posted by JoannaC at 6:38 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hey there acidic, great to see another ESL peer here on MetaFilter.

I have done teacher training work with Korean teachers on a number of occasions in addition to teaching teachers elsewhere on the planet. My advice might seem tangential to your direct question, but please hear me out...

Corporal punishment, no soap in the toilets, unfair testing regimes... these are all things that suck, but they are also things that you cannot change, and that will frustrate you and burn you out as a teacher the more you bang your head against administration trying to bring about change. Do not even bother.

You can subvert these wrong elements within the walls of your classroom, when you are alone with the kids. And you can indirectly let students know, through your own behaviour, how you feel about these wrong things. Students will respect you for that.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:04 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had a basic chinese language teacher in university who was absolutely amazing. She taught by asking us to play games. Everything was turned into games or social hour: we memorized new vocabulary by forming teams and competing against each other for who remembered the most vocabulary, we did role plays, we practiced chinese by talking about topics that interested us (jobs, cultural differences when it came to who picked up the tab during a date). She also peppered her lessons with a lot of interesting chinese history, both stemming from the short readings that we did, and from her own personal experiences. She challenged us by encouraging us to participate in speech writing competitions, offered to correct said competition compositions (extra work for her), went with us to the competition itself to cheer us on. She also genuinely cared for her students: I remember how a certain student began to miss her classes, and how she very quietly took him aside to ask him about his behaviour; I also remember her inviting us to her place for an end of semester celebratory dinner. I was having personal problems myself (which I never spoke about), and I will never, ever forget that she was one of the reasons I even got through that year.

This was college we're speaking about; the average professor was interested if you somehow connected with their interests, but they took no personal interest in your life and your progress. She did, to almost every one of her students, but in a way that managed to be respectful and compassionate.
posted by elisynn at 8:19 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm a teacher in Seoul (in my eighth year) and have had a lot of success with the best students in the country. Don't really want to toot my horn, but getting great results by any metric I can think of. PM me if you want to talk.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 4:26 AM on September 14, 2009

Jokes. Lots and lots of jokes, especially jokes that are relevant to -- and thus help students remember -- the material.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:36 PM on September 15, 2009

Just some high level advice from a former (and likely future) teacher.

#1: Be Present. That may sound extremely simple, but it's as fundamental as you can get and absolutely essential. By "Be Present" I mean to specifically engage your students (eye contact, asking open ended questions as much as possible, active listening, etc) every day. I had a couple less than awesome semesters teaching, and in retrospect it was because I wasn't present every day.

#2: Try to have a 'hook' at the beginning of every class. I taught psychology, so my hook was usually some hypothetical question with no correct or incorrect answer. That may be a bit advanced for your age range, but anything that hooks their attention at the top of a class can only help.

#3: Consciously sit down and think about the best qualities of the best teachers you've had (sounds like you've done a bit of this already), and the worst qualities of the worst teachers. Try to emulate the best qualities and avoid the the worst. This is of course much harder in practice, but helped me quite a bit.

Overall, I had a lot of success by asking tons of questions as a way to work through the lecture, being Present as much as possible, and modeling/demonstrating my own natural enthusiasm for the topic and the transmission of that information to my students.
posted by skechada at 2:49 PM on September 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

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