What My Teachers Taught Me About Teaching
For Teacher Appreciation Week, a 10-year veteran reflects on what he learned about his future job from teachers he admired.
My fourth-grade teacher, Sharin Russell, was consoling me after I scored below perfect on a weekly vocabulary quiz.
“David, nobody gets everything right all of the time,” she said. “It’s important to be OK with making mistakes, so long as we learn from them and move on. I know that you can do that.”
After 10 years in the high school history classroom, I can’t overstate how much these words continue to guide my instruction. Early in my career, with Mrs. Russell in mind, I decided to allow students full-credit retakes on most assessments. I want them to know that they can make mistakes in my class—the world won’t come crashing down around them, and they have a chance to recover.
Mrs. Russell isn’t the only teacher who made a lasting impression on my thoughts and actions in terms of becoming and remaining an effective teacher.
Listen and Care Deeply
In eighth grade, I had the good fortune of being taught history by Paul Murray, who was not only gifted at making the learning interesting, but also showed how much he cared about me—far beyond my performance in his class.
He took the time to really listen to what I had to say, even as I rambled on about fears of not doing well in some capacity or another. He never seemed rushed or anxious to have me leave. And through the simple act of listening, he boosted my confidence in being able to handle whatever came my way.
Thanks to Mr. Murray, I strive to listen deeply to my students. I want them to know that I care about them and their success, and that I’m here for them. I’m still working on cultivating Mr. Murray’s patient ear, but I’m making progress. When a student approaches me, even during a busy time, I pause whatever I’m doing to give them my undivided attention. If I don’t have time at that moment, I’ll make a plan with them to talk later in the day.
Make Your Love for Teaching Obvious
I always struggled with math, and it remains my weakest subject. However, in high school, I had a great Algebra II teacher in Nancy Bradley. She did her best to make the math relevant, often by giving real-world problems. With a terrific sense of humor and an obvious love for teaching, she made coming to class a true joy.
She paid attention to our lives outside of class too: Like Mr. Murray, she cheered students on at sporting events and theatrical performances. Mrs. Bradley made me want to study even harder. I wanted to do well to show my appreciation for her skill as a teacher and her eagerness to provide additional help.
Mrs. Bradley wasn’t putting on an act. She loved her job, and she made sure her students knew it. I strive to convey a similar passion for teaching history.
Students know my love for Mondays, when they have a whole week of learning ahead of them. I’m genuine about sharing my love of clear, concise writing, which I get across by showing my own work.
Offer Kind But Honest Feedback
When I was a high school junior, my writing and critical thinking skills benefited from two talented and dedicated humanities teachers.
In AP English Literature and Composition, Judith Guild offered kind but honest feedback. She never soaked my work in red ink. Instead, she focused on two or three areas that I could work on improving. Her candor played a huge role in helping me hone my thoughts and craft a cogent thesis statement.
“Without kind but honest feedback, nobody can hope to improve,” she told me.
So now I’m cognizant of not providing too much feedback at any given time, fearful that students will feel overwhelmed by it. I sometimes catch myself going too far, but by and large I’m committed to providing focused feedback.
Ted Barker-Hook, my U.S. history teacher that same year, saw that though I had deep thoughts, I couldn’t always express them clearly, especially in writing. After I did poorly on my first essay, he sat me down and said something that changed my life.
“David, you’re an incredibly hard worker. I know that you’re upset with your grade, but I’m willing to work as hard as you are to help you improve,” he said. “Whenever you and I are available to meet, I’m here to help you succeed. I see a fire in you, and I know that you’re capable of great things.”
To pay that forward, I strive to do the best I can to meet one-on-one with my own students about their writing. In my experience, this is the most effective way to promote growth and understanding.