Don't Smile 'Til Christmas
January 20, 2008 5:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to be teaching less-than-enthusiastic students; help me keep their respect and attention.

I'm not a trained teacher, but do quite a bit of in-house corporate training.

The attendees are usually
  • quite cheerful because they're having a couple of days off work;
  • quite motivated because they need the training to help them do their work/advance their careers;
  • in their twenties or thirties.
Also the courses are short.

My teaching style in these sessions is to be funny and light and hopefully entertaining. I worry that I'm turning into the guy from The Office sometimes, except the training really is useful and I really do know my stuff.

But I have an occasional job teaching evening classes to graphic design students where everything is reversed:
  • less cheerful because it's at the end of the day;
  • less motivated because it's a mandatory, non-graphic class in a subject they find dull;
  • mostly just out of high school.
The classes go a whole term.

Last time round my chatty, jokey teaching style wasn't much good. They basically didn't respect me much and didn't take the class very seriously.

What should I do to make sure I have a style appropriate to the situation? It's not that different to teaching high school, as far as I can see.

British teachers (whose school year starts in September) have a saying: "don't smile 'til Christmas". Apart from just being very formal and serious, what do I do to keep their respect and attention?
posted by AmbroseChapel to Education (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: What I think the British teacher quote is getting at isn't that you need to be very formal and serious... Instead, it's pointing out that you have to start very serious. The first day of classes, make it clear that you take the class seriously and that you thoroughly expect them to do so as well, and then you can kind of ease into a more laid-back attitude for the rest of the semester. You start out serious because doing so establishes that, even if your demeanor in class is fun and laid-back, your attitude about the course in general isn't.
posted by Ms. Saint at 5:34 PM on January 20, 2008

Part of the reason they don't respect you has to do with the course itself.

I am a teacher and I have a very breezy, jokey manner but have no discipline problems. You may find it useful to find how to make the material relevant to the students. If they feel they have a stake in learning this, or it is made apparent how the material relates to their jobs then they will be more likely to pay attention. If you show them how this material is useful you stop being the obnoxious person who bores us at the end of the day and become the person teaching us useful stuff.

Hope that was helpful.
posted by munchingzombie at 5:36 PM on January 20, 2008

I used to be a teacher, trainer and instructor, and have taught all age levels, in both school, college and a corporate setting.

The most important thing is to make sure lessons are never about YOU. This means you should perhaps ditch the chatty persona. Instead, make sure your less-tan-enthusiastic students know what the outcomes are for the course, and the timeline for learning these outcomes.

This is more of a work situation, so focus on what their outcomes and deliverables will be. Make sure every second of class is relevent to the outcomes of the course. Being chatty is not relevent, so it would be annoying to them. Focus on anything that is not talk-based, unless it is instruction.

However, be sure to show that you are interested in learning about the students: memorize names and try to find out some personal info, such as what part of town they live in, favorite sports teams, basic interests, etc. You can learn this info with a short questionnaire at the start of the course.

Remember this info, and utilize it during appropriate times.

If possible, try to get them out of the classroom (and into a pub or restaurant) every six to eight weeks or so. This could be a reward for the class completing outcomes ahead of schedule.

But always focus on the content, never yourself.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:02 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you need to get their buy-in from the get-go, would be my take.

One thing I do is have the first session be a combination of rapport-building activities and creating a group agreement.

The former helps create a "we're in this together" type bonding. Name games, get to know you bingo, two truths and a lie, something like that, and THEN at least one group problem solving activity. I sometimes do one where I explain that they're on a desert island and have a radio but not a tall enough tower. I give them a whole bunch of random crap like old oatmeal boxes, pipe cleaners, a can of pineapple, laundry basket, empty cans....whatever. Their goal is that they have 5-10 minutes to come up with the tallest tower possible that will support the radio (I use the can of pineapple as the radio). You then debrief with them with questions like "what worked?" "what didn't?" "Why didn't it work?" "Did anyone take a leadership role? Who?"

(What usually happens with the teenagers I've worked with is that a couple of people have good ideas that others don't listen to, there's a lot of fighting/frustration, there are some breakthroughs, some people are creative, etc.)

As you lead to the discussion, elicit from them the characteristics of how people best work together. This will come in handy in a few minutes.

Move on the group agreement

Typically the process for the groups agreement goes like this:

1) Ask the participants to brainstorm what they're there to accomplish. You can do this in small groups and have them report back, or you can do it as a large group. Ex: pass the class, do skill x, meet new people, fulfill a requirement, get out of the detention center (I've done this at a day reporting center for older adolescents, [talk about an unwilling audience!] and it worked) etc. Write them all up on an easel pad, labeled "Where do we want to go?" I usually add something like "Have fun!" as well as adding any serious goals/objectives that they must accomplish, if those haven't been mentioned yet.
2) Then get a new easel pad sheet labeled "How we can get there?" and then explain that since you're all in this together, there are things you can do to make sure everyone in the class can get these things done. Elicit from them what THEY think they'll need to agree to in order to meet the goals they laid out in the first part. Relate it back to the desert island activity for inspiration.

Examples, depending on your needs, the subject matter and your audience, could be:

Speakup/speakdown (i.e. if you talk a lot, let others talk, and if you don't talk, challenge yourself to),
Arrive on time
No cellphones
Opinions aren't facts/Agree to disagree/respect other's beliefs
Take care of yourself and others without disrupting (this is good for those who need to go to the bathroom)
All questions are good (but if they're off topic or something you don't know the answer to, put them on a separate sheet to address later, which you can call the "Parking lot")
Listen to others
Don't speak at the same times as someone else is.
Let everyone have a voice.
Respect confidential matters.
Speak for yourself and not others.

There are TONS of things that could go on there. Make sure during the process that you're clarifying what they mean and add in any that you really think are crucial.

When that's all done, Copy them neatly on another sheet that says "group agreement" or "rules of the road" or some other catchy title.

Then have everyone sign it
. Praise participants who are actively following the rules of the road, and call out the participants who are in violation. Eventually the participants will start self-enforcing. Post the rules of the road at every class for reference.

Make SURE your activities fun, interactive, engaging, and meaningful. A dull subject doesn't have to have a dull learning process.

(sorry this was so long!)
posted by Stewriffic at 6:27 PM on January 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I've been teaching math classes as an AI at big state universities, as adjunct faculty at a community college, and to high school kids in a summer program for a while now. Things are a different at each of them and so things are almost certainly even more different in your class, but some of what I've learned may be helpful to you.

Ms. Saint hits it on the nose about being serious early on. Be strict and unyielding right at the beginning of the semester. It's easy to get more lenient as the semester goes, but getting less lenient will get you bumping horns with the students very quickly. So start out with very rigid rules about attendance, make-up assignments, and in-class behavior. Stick with it for a while and if absolutely necessary, you can make exceptions later (at least a month into the class). You'll be surprised how rarely that's even required. You don't have to drop any humor or smiles, but don't let the students get away with anything and don't drift off topic in lecture.

Pay close attention to your syllabus (and to the course announcement if you have one separate from the syllabus). Make sure that the students know exactly what to expect when it comes to readings, assignments, in-class work, quizzes, evaluation, etc. Nothing turns unenthusiastic students into resentful ones faster than finding out that they have to do something they hadn't already encountered.

Find out why your students are taking the class. You can do this by asking them, though you'll have to tell them that it's okay for them to say that it was just a requirement.

If most of your students just want to get the requirement out of the way, then you'll have to make sure your in-class activities tie directly into the assignments and tests that have to be done. Not only that, but you have to make that connection very clear very early in the semester (give a graded homework or quiz within the first week so that those who weren't paying attention realize the consequences of not paying attention). Humor is good to get them to wake up if they're drifting off, but if they don't respond positively, get back on task very quickly. Some of these students will never really get with the program, so don't worry too much.

If most of your students are concerned with learning some particular skill, then you need to tie to that. Some very result-oriented students (often returning students and/or small business owners) will respond very poorly to any digression that does not seem to teach them anything they can use immediately. If you're building general principles, make sure the class doesn't lose sight of what the applications will eventually be.

If you have a significant number of students who are genuinely interested in the subject, count yourself lucky. You'll still have to work to keep them interested, but the rewards are very high. These students will tolerate and sometimes enjoy drifting slightly off-topic into interesting digressions.
posted by ErWenn at 6:37 PM on January 20, 2008

Response by poster: Just for clarification (and thanks to everyone so far!):
  • the course is something like "basics of computer programming";
  • The students are all aspiring graphic designers;
  • they have no choice whatsoever about taking the class.
With the odd exception (guys who want to create games, mostly) nobody comes into the class interested in the subject, and I'd say that 95% of them will never use the course material in life or work.

So, it's been rather difficult to get them enthused about the subject, and the requirement to work with text files and get every single comma, quote, bracket and semi-colon right is at odds with the rest of the more "creative", fuzzier, no-right-or-wrong-answers work they do.

But maybe I'm looking at that too negatively and should be searching for ways, like the gaming thing, to relate the code to the arty stuff.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:53 PM on January 20, 2008

With the odd exception (guys who want to create games, mostly) nobody comes into the class interested in the subject, and I'd say that 95% of them will never use the course material in life or work.

Well, that's the problem right there--if 95% will never use the material, they flat out shouldn't be taking it. What a waste of their time and money. Frankly, I wouldn't respect you either. Perhaps you should petition the school to stop requiring the class?
posted by Violet Hour at 7:42 PM on January 20, 2008

Ambrose, as a designer who also is a programmer, the reason I learned programming was to ensure that the stuff I designed a) could be built and b) was built exactly the way I wanted it to be done. Perhaps appealing to the anal-retentive, pixel-perfect nature of the designer in them might be an avenue to their interest.

Pointing out that they'll never have to hear "we can't do that" if they say "I can do that" is an arrow in their quiver professionally. If 95% will never use your material again and more than 5% of them go to work in an electronic media environment, they're in the wrong business.

Sorry for the specific lack of help with the class, but it's possibly more important to them and their future value as designers than they realize. Can you combine their interests and your own in the class exercises?
posted by maxwelton at 8:00 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A couple of thoughts from a once-upon-a-long-time-ago math teacher:

Make sure you plan out what you are going to cover, and do so in a crisp manner. Extensive (and even excessive) preparation helps here. Stumbling or backtracking in the middle of an example doesn't help in the respect department (not suggesting that you do, of course).

Don't lecture for more than a few minutes at a time, then provide mini-exercises/problems for students to work out at their desks. The idea is to have them learn by doing even if "doing" consists of writing out syntax on paper. Details from the blackboard (or whatever you use) can be mind numbing to anyone, so aim for interactivity and involvement.
posted by Kevin S at 8:19 PM on January 20, 2008

Best answer: Speaking as someone who started out as a graphic designer, but rapidly learned that I needed to learn programming to do my online design work better, and gradually turned into a mostly full-time programmer:

I'd wager that a majority of designers now, and more in the future, are going to do at least some web-based work at some point. It's not necessary to be a hardcore programmer to do that, but a designer who doesn't at least understand the basics of the underlying code is going to be hobbled, and their design work won't be as good as it might be if they knew their tools.

Make them understand that what you're teaching actually is going to be relevant to their careers, and they'll pay more attention. If need be, tweak the lesson plan to make it more relevant.

Get them thinking of the software as the medium in which they're working. Code's a tool, just like oils, ink, and paper -- if they don't understand how it works, they won't be able to do good online design. If they're art students, they've got some built-in snobbery against people who don't understand their tools -- you can harness that snobbery to your advantage.
posted by ook at 8:42 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: > Get them thinking of the software as the medium in which they're working. Code's a tool, just like oils, ink, and paper

I like that idea, ook. That's a different way of thinking, certainly. 95% of them will probably never do an oil painting either but the college requires it.

> What a waste of their time and money. Frankly, I wouldn't respect you either. Perhaps you should petition the school to stop requiring the class?

With respect, Violet Hour, I have a kid, and a mortgage, and a VISA bill due on the 30th! If they want me to teach it, I'm going to teach it. And you can see I'm trying to make it the best class I can in the circumstances.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:04 PM on January 20, 2008

Why not point them at Scratch?

From the web page:

Scratch is a new programming language that makes it easy to create your own interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art -- and share your creations on the web.

Scratch is designed to help young people (ages 8 and up) develop 21st century learning skills. As they create Scratch projects, young people learn important mathematical and computational ideas, while also gaining a deeper understanding of the process of design.'s graphical, it's a programming language, and it's aimed at visual outputs. If you can incorporate it into your classes, perhaps it might motivate people a bit.

Also, if your students are graphic designers, maybe you could use some trial copies of Photoshop and get them thinking about Photoshop scripting. You can present it to them as a way of speeding up workflow, saving them time and money. Give them an example done without a script, and then with a script. Saving money is often a good motivator.
posted by flutable at 9:44 PM on January 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Another avenue could be looking at Silverlight or Flash development.

Again, the tools are free, and if you can come up with some compelling examples that are relevant to the rest of their course - ask the other teachers about suitable examples - then the students' buy-in might be greater.
posted by flutable at 9:57 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm guessing that maybe you're teaching a community college class?

Maybe what I'm about to say will sound ridiculous to you, but it works for me.

We are humans, and we have human rhythms. People at a 6:30 class are well nigh useless, because they've skipped dinner to show up. They're hungry, and cranky and tired. Maybe they've eaten a candy bar or drunk a latte so they'll at least be able to keep their eyes open, but having your eyes open != being present and ready to learn.

When I've had to teach early evening classes as a dog trainer, I've treated the first twenty minutes as adjustment time. The dogs get to run around and get their ya-yas out, and I've fed my students cheese, crackers and tea as we talk about what's happened in the week before.

As brilliant as you are, as vital as the course material is, if your students are crapped out, you can't teach them. If you can make a ritual of stuffing a little bit of protein into your students before you get down to business, your classes will change for the better.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 11:46 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

You could always do what my Precalculus/Calculus teacher did: act like a jerk and scare the crap out of the kids about how much work they would have to do to pass the class on the first day. That usually weeds out the slacker students. I'm just saying...
posted by slc228 at 12:20 AM on January 21, 2008

I totally agree with the "everyone's sitting there hungry all night and cranky" thing. BRING FOOD. Seriously, it'll perk everyone up.

I actually think it might be nice to have a teacher who goes into the class not all, "This is Very Important," but acknowledges that yes, this is material you probably won't use, yes, this is stupid, now let's get on with getting you guys the knowledge and getting out of here. At the very least, it's refreshing to the poor bastards stuck there learning something they won't do anything with to ACKNOWLEDGE it. I'd certainly look upon you better.

That said, props and video always liven up a class. Group projects and small group discussion make people homicidal. Keep that in mind.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:43 AM on January 21, 2008

Sorry, but what is being taught *is* very important, like all learning. A teacher should never go into class if s/he feels what is being taught is a waste of time - if this is what the teacher thinks, then s/he shouldn't be there.

As leaders, teachers must be positive. Negativity only produces more negativity, which harms or even shuts down learning.

Think about it: by using a programming language, you can tell a device what to do. It's very interesting, isn't it? Programming is very logical, but there are choices the programmer can make, and what makes programming great is the elegance of the choices.

A teacher must educate the students about why they are in the room, and why learning is important.

And bringing food is a great idea.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:45 PM on January 23, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your contributions to the thread, just about everyone was very helpful.

I've marked my own particular favourites as "best" but it was a very productive confidence-building thread overall.

<hits control-p>
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:37 PM on January 24, 2008

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