Some tips and tricks to improve the experience

BY Goolbai Gunasekara

Cascades of verbiage have flooded educational publications on the woes and problems of students. But I have yet to find something that has been written about those of a teacher. Of course, there are training colleges but not many have the good fortune that I had of having a mother who was a well-known educationist and gave me invaluable advice before I began my own career.

“There is one quality you will need right through your teaching career,” she told me, on the eve of my amateur foray into the classroom.

I leaned forward eagerly. I intended emulating her. I had watched her with admiration all my life, after all.

So what golden words of wisdom was I going to hear?

“What you will need in abundance – and what you must keep all your life – is a sense of humour,” she said.

Those words have stood me in good stead right through the 50-odd years of my teaching career.

My first teaching class was in my mother’s school. I was 20 years old, and armed with a history honours degree; but of course, I was nervous.

Wearing sari was compulsory so I arrived in the staff room not only nervous but rather uncomfortable. At my age at the time, saris were usually kept for functions. My fellow teachers were kind but too busy to help me over much.

As the bell rang for the first period to begin, I collected my books and there, waiting for me, were two little girls from Grade 7 (Form 1 in an international school).

“We came to show you the way, Miss,” said a bright-eyed cute girl named Chitra. She still remains a friend.

Of course, I knew the way but facing those 20 pupils for the first time was certainly one of the hardest moments of my life. So perhaps these hints will help teachers.

Know your topic for the day thoroughly.

Never arrive in class and ask the children: “Now where did I stop last time?” You must know.

Never try to fool children. If they ask a question that you cannot answer, admit you do not know… and tell them you will find out and let them know.

This last one has stood me in good stead when my history students would ask me all kinds of way-out questions.

Begin your class standing. You can sit later; but to get the attention of students, you need to be able to see everyone.

If the class is becoming noisy, single out one child to pull up. The others will stop to listen to that pupil being spoken to.

Written work, which is graded, must always be done under test conditions. Work done at home may otherwise be helped by parents.

Corrections should be done and handed back to the kids within three days. If corrections are delayed longer, the impact of testing is lost and children would have forgotten what it was all about.

Written work must be given often. A teacher must be sure the class is following her and understanding what is being taught.

Testing can vary. Sometimes a ‘one word answer’ test can be given without warning. This tests their attention. I was personally quite fond of this.

Essay answers (in subjects that need them) need preparation – including home preparation. Give the class notice.

These were the general rules of teaching…

More to follow later, relating to the psychology of getting subject matter into the heads of students with different capabilities and getting the best out of them.

Young graduates do not necessarily have any teacher training other than what the school principal might give them.

How do they learn to relate to the children they’re going to teach? One assumes they have the knowledge of the subject they are going to impart but do they have the skill to do so?

Many learn as they go along. Others remember what their own teachers did and do likewise. Some are born teachers. I have had such teachers during my principalship at an international school. The happy discovery of such a teacher was always a ‘Eureka!’ moment.

But most of us can learn to teach. It is an inborn trait that parents have. They teach their children, after all. So the art of teaching is not an arcane business.

Developing one’s sense of humour isn’t that easy. Teachers should try not to be pompous. They need to develop the art of being friendly without being familiar. This is more difficult than one thinks.

One amusing incident springs to mind…

There was this very attractive teacher who was much admired. One of the older boys said to her: “Miss, when I see you, I think of that song…”

The title was provocative. The teacher handled it well.

“Silly boy,” she said, relegating his 16 years to childhood, and adding: “Sing me that song in 10 years time and then I may listen.”

The abashed youngster was put in place without embarrassment.

(To be continued)