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Don't let your students be the obstacles to your teaching!!! Teach them responsibility.
by Aviva Shapiro

How often have you walked into class, well prepared with what you think is an interesting lesson and have it fail only because the students misbehaved and disturbed. Too often teachers have great lessons prepared but can't manage their classes, so nothing works. The first reaction is to blame the kids, their students for ruining the lesson. This, in my opinion, is not fair. Yes, we have many obstacles in daily teaching life but our pupils should not be seen as obstacles to our success as teachers. I believe that if we work with our students and teach them how to become more responsible for their learning, we will eradicate most of their behaviour problems. I know that most of our students really want to learn and really want us to teach them.

The students that might be viewed as the "obstacles" which keep you from teaching have simply never been taught how to be active, responsible students. We tend to blame them for us not being able to teach and we get frustrated. This leads to anger and soon we may become discontented teachers who spend most of our time feeling angry. In these situations, not only do the kids not learn, we stop teaching, and thus a cycle of failure begins for all concerned.

Well, I believe that in order to stop seeing our kids as obstacles we need to make them our partners in this endeavour to progress in English. I think that by working with our students, listening to their voices and teaching them how to take responsibility for their learning we will be able to manage the class better, manage to use some of our creative ideas and have lessons where the kids are listening, making an effort and most importantly learning. Always remember that we must challenge our students and expect them to learn. Since all our classes are mixed - ability or heterogeneous (unless it's a class of one!!) we have to set one goal for all the pupils: regardless of their level, all the students will progress to some extent.

My ideas come from my experience of 23 years in the classroom. I want to share some of these ideas that have worked for me and made me a better teacher. I know that these methods have also made my students become better learners and ultimately they have advanced in English. By using a variety of approaches I have become a teacher who usually walks into my classes smiling, cheerful and unruffled!!! Some of my lessons might be interesting while others just routine but since my students are working with me and not against me, most of my lessons leave me feeling I have accomplished something. More significantly, the kids feel this too. I know this from their feedback both written and verbal. And occasionally, when a lesson just doesn't go as planned, I don't take it too hard and I don't wallow in pity. For tomorrow is another day!!

So what is the magic? Nothing very complicated. First I realized that I needed to start listening to my students. I needed to hear what they were really saying. And one of the things I heard was that they want to learn and expect me to teach them. To get pertinent feedback in a large class meant having them first write down their ideas (using feedback pages/ or dialogue journals) and then by opening up the class to a discussion on how we want the class to run. The key word here is "we". Yes, it's a joint effort and the kids have a say in how we work together. They must take ownership for their behaviour and how much effort they invest.

At the beginning of the year, I work out with the students the rules for how the class will be run. Together we decide on what is acceptable and what is not. Believe me, they are usually stricter than I am! The only real request I make is that these rules be positive, NOT negative. For example: "Be on time to class" rather than "Don't be late". We then discuss WHY we need these rules. This is extremely important. If the kids understand the reasoning behind the rules, they are much more likely to adhere to them. When I ask them why it's important to be on time, they usually say, so as not to miss material, or cause a disturbance by coming in late, etc. We also talk about our expectations of each other. I ask them what they expect of me, then what they think I expect of them. This creates a positive atmosphere in the class and the kids discover that I am willing to listen to them. It doesn't mean that I will accept everything they say, but if not then I will explain why. These expectations are written down and posted in the classroom and reviewed every once in a while. What I tell the kids is that the only real expectation I have is that they respect each other (and we talk about what this means, like listening to each other, etc.) and me. When they ask me if I expect them to do homework, I answer that I think it's important but it's their decision whether to do it or not. This tells them that doing homework is their responsibility and not mine. We discuss why it might help them and of course I explain that it may affect their grade yet again I will not be angry if they don't do it.

One of the next steps in our class discussion is learning how to set goals. I strongly believe we need to teach our students how to set personal goals. We discuss why goals help and what a goal is. I work with them on setting individual, pragmatic, short term goals. They choose the goals that they want to achieve and any goal is acceptable as long as they also write down the steps needed to achieve it. This again is a process which takes time. After having them write down the goals they have chosen, the steps they will take to accomplish the goals, a timetable (by when) and how they will measure if they have reached the goal . During the timeframe set to achieve the goals we discuss how to monitor their progress. It is essential to remember that the goal must be the student's and not mine. If they ask for advice I suggest something but never decide for the student. A goal they set might be coming to class on time most of the time, (be careful of the word always !!) or reading from their reader once or twice a week, or succeeding to do homework more often etc.. It is imperative to stress to them that all goals need to be short -term and doable. A goal of improving my English is not good simply because it's too abstract.

I also tell them my goals. This is done partly with a written syllabus (handed out at the beginning of the year) explaining exactly what I will be teaching (yes, I probably will not cover all the material and I might change my plans a bit) during the year, and how I will assess them. This gives them a clear picture of what is expected and then when they say, but I didn't know, you can refer them back to the syllabus. In some classes I even allow them to set up the percentage of how their grade will be calculated. (Usually, they are much more conservative than I would be!)

Teaching your students to assess themselves, and to set goals for themselves means you are asking them to take some responsibility for their learning. Of course every so often you must devote a lesson or two to monitoring their progress (which means devoting the lesson to discussing with the pupils what they have accomplished and why this is so).

I assure you that the time doing this is well spent. By working with the kids you create an atmosphere of cooperation, joint effort and partnership which leads to real learning.

Investing time in building a positive classroom atmosphere and learning to work with your pupils will allow you to teach those interesting lessons, and even allow you to teach less interesting ones because the kids will be with you. By working with your students you make your life less stressful. And face it; teaching is an incredibly stressful profession. But it's not only this, we want our students to learn and progress in English and they want this too. We want our students to learn to be responsible adults and so do they. So it's a win- win situation.

In conclusion, these ideas are not new and certainly I haven't re-invented the wheel. However, I hope I have given you some food for thought. I truly believe that our students, even the more problematic ones can and do benefit from learning to set goals, and using self assessment techniques like feedback. So listen to your pupils. Look at them and get to know them. Let them get to know you and let them know what you stand for and what you won't stand for. Be there for them, in and out of class, and stop seeing your students as obstacles. You encounter enough obstacles at school without your students becoming an obstacle too.

Save your anger for the bad timetable (you know 7th and 8th hours with a special education class!) or yet again another cancelled Yud -Aleph class announced only ten minutes before the lesson is to begin (yes, the one you stayed up late planning!!) or the class of 35 kids with only 30 desks! These obstacles deserve your frustration but your students certainly don't. . .

I haven't touched much on the use of feedback pages or other ways of obtaining feedback from you students but if you want some ideas of ways to get feedback see my pages which are up on REED. (Rural Education Department) The site is:

I wish you all a great year. Stay calm by remembering that time you invest at the beginning of the year relating to your students and listening to them will be well worth it. And remember, this is all a process and will take time. The only magic is smiling. Always, whatever your mood is make sure you walk into your class with a smile for each pupil (and you will get many back!) Good Luck.

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