A few more pointers to help teachers

BY Goolbai Gunasekara


To many, teaching is simply a job. It is used as a stopgap till something better comes along. At the time I started my teaching career, there was a custom whereby young newly minted male graduates would take up teaching for a year. They had to teach for the full year since wily principals placed them under contract.

Principals had to be careful that these young men didn’t leave the minute they were offered a better paying job… and let’s face it, almost every job was better paying! Unfortunately, women graduates generally didn’t have the same wide choice of alternative employment as did their male counterparts.

Many such bright young men went on to enjoy lucrative careers in the mercantile sector, often ending up as CEOs of their companies. One or two of them were my colleagues and made excellent teachers.

This is a problem across the world except in Finland where teachers are the highest paid civil servants. Teachers in Finland can’t begin to teach without a master’s degree. One can easily understand why Finland has made it to the top in as far as educational standards go.

Let me get to strategies that teachers can adopt to enhance their performance.

In last month’s column, I offered a few basic rules. This time around, I’ll list a few more tricks a teacher can employ, which will make classes more enjoyable and teaching pleasant.

A teacher must read around the topic for the lesson. He or she should know something that isn’t in the textbook. For example, a chapter on the Crimean War contains the Charge of the Light Brigade, immortalised by Tennyson’s famous poem.

This is a dramatic story but it becomes even more dramatic if children understand the animosity between generals and common soldiers based on class distinctions in England. Generals all came from the aristocracy while better men were overlooked. Such antagonism led to the misunderstanding that ended in the fatal charge.

Tell the class the story that lies behind the event. Their attention is guaranteed.

Teaching gimmicks are possible in every subject. Even mathematicians are reporting many mesmerising methods in teaching.

Let me get to punishments, which are always a problem for a teacher. Silly punishments such as giving lines are outdated. A punishment must fit the crime. One teacher I know had a child who was never prepared for a test. He seemed backward but she knew he had ability.

She gave up a Saturday morning and told the recalcitrant youngster that he had to prepare for three questions, which she would test him on. He had to turn up at school on a Saturday too, of course. He didn’t dare come unprepared and so passed well, gaining high marks in all three questions.

The thrill of achievement never left him and he did very much better afterwards.

Another bad habit teachers have is speaking too stridently. Children don’t react well to shouting; and yet, noise levels in schools can be so high that most teachers feel the need to talk far too loudly.

Noise is a factor principals must cope with. I used to tell teachers to begin their lessons in a soft voice. Children will quieten down to hear what is being said. In fact, a teacher standing silent before starting to speak can be far more effective than telling the class to be quiet.

Teachers shouldn’t have to compete with each other’s voices. If one is talking too loud, the teacher next door needs to do so too. It becomes a vicious circle. Teachers tend to talk far too loudly in order to drown out the other.

And teachers should look smart. Sloppy dressing suggests a sloppy attitude. Neatness (not high fashion) is the criterion.

One of my lecturers in university had a class of nearly 150 students. She was young (and very smart) and had recently returned from Oxford, we were told. As she entered the lecture room, she asked if we would like to learn snappy abbreviations.

“Yes,” we chorused, captivated.

We were introduced to ‘PDQ,’ which when translated meant ‘Pretty Damn Quick,’ and a few other catchy phrases. It was an imaginative start to English lecturing by a born teacher. Her classes were immensely popular.

A last thought here is about what can be done with a child who has been a good student but is now tapering off. One solution is to double promote him. I often found that such a student is getting bored in class and does better when faced with a challenging situation. This double promotion act has worked for me at least four times in my teaching career. I don’t recommend it until other factors like domestic problems are taken into account.

Teaching well is knowledge of the subject and insights into child psychology. In good teachers, much of this psychological knowledge has to be instinctive. High salaries may bring about a class of teachers whose better training helps them to be fine teachers.