What I learnt in 14 years of teaching at school?

I learnt, unlearned and relearned quite a few things while teaching at school. I started teaching in the year 1997. I was 24. I was appointed as a Primary school teacher. I taught Science, Maths and English to classes 1& 2 and took reading lessons to KG 2.  Later I went on to teach secondary and senior secondary classes. I was fortunate to also lead a team of 10 -12 years in my stint as Head of the Department at 2 prestigious schools. At 43 with just over a 5  year gap in between, I continue to teach, albeit a different age group. I learnt my first lessons in teaching from my students.

Lesson 1: Feeling helpless or insecure leads to anger which is harmful

I was teaching Kinder Garten Senior, a class of over 40 children. It was my first job ever.The Principal was on rounds.I was nervous and wanted my class to be quiet. My helplessness made me angry and I used a wooden scale to hit a child, I regretted it immediately.I had taken out my anger on an innocent child  and it pinched me. I realized that I had alienated her, perhaps for ever. I resolved never to hit a child again.

Lesson 2: Stick to your areas of expertise

I was teaching mathematics to students of grade II. My confidence in my mathematical skills is rather poor. It was so then as it is now. Yet I was teaching complicated ‘line sums’ to students of grade 2. The class was very affectionate because I usually told them stories. They rarely asked me any questions exposing my ignorance. I simply copied what was given in the text book as a sample sum on the board and asked the students note it down. During the PTM, a parent told me that though the boy was very fond of me, he did not know how to solve the sum. I did not either. I kept mum. I realized that as a student of English, I had no business teaching mathematics to anyone, not even a student of grade II, especially because I was no good at it. I stuck to my subject thereafter, no matter what.

Lesson 3: Know your audience

I will never forget how I had rather sarcastically asked my favorite students to stand up, meaning those who get scolded by me in Grade II. It was still my first year in teaching. I watched in surprise as some of the brightest boys and girls stood up almost shy, declaring themselves to be most beloved of me. I realized sarcasm doesn’t work with small children. In another instance, one of the students invited me to his home almost everyday and  I casually replied that I would come the next day. This continued till he came to me and said angrily,” Come on 35th, madam!” .I realized that children mean what they say.

Lesson 4: Beware of labeling

I was teaching at a Government Boys School in Calicut, Kerala for my B.Ed practical teaching sessions. The teaching period was for a month and a half. I was assigned a class of Grade IX repeaters. Some of the boys had not been promoted for years together.While teaching them I realized how being branded as repeaters and failures restricted their scope of imagination. When asked what their ambitions were in life, they replied modestly, “I want to open a cycle repair shop”, “I want to run a watch repair shop” and so on. I don’t know what they grew up to become in life but I am sure they are doing well.

Lesson 5: Even a senior student is still a child, at times

I had gone to meet the Principal and rushed to the class of Grade XII, Science batch. The class had well over 40 students. As I walked in I was surprised at the silence. I wondered if the students had quietly ran off to the ground. I entered the class, fearing the worst, to find all my 12 standard boys and girls pretending to be fast asleep, their heads on the desks and their eyes closed.It was a sweet gesture. I was touched by the innocence of adolescence!

Lesson 6: Keep them engaged, or the hell breaks loose

I have over the years learnt that a class has to be kept engaged at all times. It requires some amount of ingenuity and planning on the part of the teacher but there is nothing like an engaged class, eager to prove their skills. Activities, if well-designed and planned can keep even the most unruly class hooked and students, irrespective of their age, love to be challenged. At the same time, students easily see through the charade of activity to camouflage lack of preparation! So be cautioned.

Lesson 7: You can be a good teacher without having to be strict

I always envied those of my kind who inspired silence with their mere presence. With my taste for activities, I do not always find a quiet class very interesting. Besides, how do you learn a language with out speaking it? I got over this feeling of insecurity with a lot of practice and experience over a long period of time. I realized, a silent classroom may not always be the right place for learning.Moreover, if the learning process is interesting there is a willing confluence of interests of that of the teacher and the student that makes the whole exercise meaningful.

Lesson 8: Just be yourself

I taught in what may be called the elitist schools and colleges. I was a little apprehensive initially. Should I now start to change how I dress? Will they accept me? I learnt that students rarely judge you on the basis of what you wear and how.  They are most concerned with how you teach and how you can be of use to them. Once they are convinced of the knowledge and willingness to teach of an educator, they usually come around. While my short stint in the corporate sector overemphasized the relevance of appearance to success, the learners rarely bother much about the attire of the educator, except that he/she should be decently dressed.

Lesson 9: Own up ignorance and get back when prepared

In these techno driven times, it is understood that students do indeed know more about subjects than probably the teacher does. This should not deter the teacher, who can always ask for time to look up, read and then get back. Students do not expect the teacher  to know everything any more! I had this experience of a student of mine who would wait each day to test my vocabulary with the most difficult words.Whenever I did not know, all I had to do is to say, “I don’t know.”

Lesson 10: Allow students to take charge

A classroom that is democratic in nature is always a winner. Allowing students to collaborate and co-create learning experiences by allowing room for experimentation and exploration, activities and entertainment makes a class more lively. It also guarantees that you have the support of the students in what you do. By asking students, how they want to go about attaining certain skills and by accommodating their suggestions to improve an activity or a classroom event, the teacher helps in ensuring that students themselves take ownership of learning. Nothing helps more than a will to learn. By sharing responsibilities in deciding parameters for judging classroom events, designing assessments and activities, I could mostly manage to get the near absolute support of students. While designing newspapers, cartoon strips, magazines or organizing debates and discussions, the pattern of collaboration always helped.

Lesson 12: Be generous in appreciation

Despite the common perception that most youngsters are utterly spoilt, self-willed individuals who rarely listen to anybody, I realized that harsh words and harsh actions always hurt and  the damage is irreparable. Even the most difficult and unruly child can be won over by  appreciation and a pat on the back. One of the teachers I worked with, Ms.Julie Clinton is quite a favorite with her children. I remember how a particularly weak student did not want to fail in her subject because ‘Julie mam would be hurt’. It is interesting how much can be achieved in a classroom with some affection, an open heart and a willingness to understand and appreciate the effort that goes into learning. This in fact holds true even in the case of adults. When I informed my students of my decision to move on, a 2nd year degree student mumbled, “Mam you helped me to regain my confidence, now what will I do?”

Lesson 13: Stop playing the victim, give up romantic notions about yourself as a savior

This is perhaps the most difficult learning in my teaching career. I remember many times when I thought of myself as the victim, as someone who has embarked on a noble mission of teaching, preparing the grand future of the nation, only to be dismissed, humiliated and misunderstood. But it is also the most important lesson I learned. It was a bitter pill that sometimes my adolescent students administered to the egoistic teacher in me repeatedly till I accepted the fact that teaching was like any other job. It is not necessary to be liked or loved as long as you know you are doing your work.

In the most difficult situations in my life, I find myself asking, “What would the teacher in me do in this situation?” .Trust me, I have learnt to hold my tongue and lend a hand thanks to my students.

To more years in teaching, Cheers!



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