152. 17 Things Teachers Can Do This 2017

17 Things Teachers Can Do

Dear passionate teacher,

“You become the teacher you hated in the school.” This is a famous saying in education. I’ve been teaching for almost a decade now and I have to confess, I was slowly turning into the teachers I despised in my school days.  Only after I joined the M.Ed. program in 2012, I realized how bad of a teacher I was. And since then, I have been trying to improve my attitude, skills, and knowledge about how learning happens and how teachers can help students learn better in a meaningful way. Now, I am also passionate about helping other teachers to become better at what they do.

So dear teacher, here is a list of 17 small changes you can bring into the classroom this 2017, and hopefully create awesome learning experiences for your students, and for yourself.

  1. Understand how learning happens:

As teachers, we must understand at least these three insights from the field of Mind, Brain, and Science:

  • learning happens best through social interaction;
  • learning happens when students actively participate in the learning process; and
  • learning happens when students experience an event (directly or indirectly) and then reflect on it.

So the question for us is: are we simply teaching them or are we creating facilitative environment which allows them to interact, work actively, learn, and reflect on their learning.

  1. Give them a big picture:

“Why do we study Geometry, sir?”. I had once asked my math teacher. I got the reply in the form of his slap on my cheeks. He could have instead said to me, “When we understand shapes, we understand the importance of balance.” I never figured out the purpose of memorizing those theorems and calculations because my teacher never painted the big picture for us.

Don’t make that mistake. Give the students meaning before details. Leadership guru Simon Sinek tells us to start with ‘why’. Help the students see the ‘why’ – the big picture and the subjective value of the course. Tell them how challenging the course is and tell them ways to overcome the challenges.

  1. Help them connect the dots:

And then, help them connect their learning to the real world. Help them understand, remember, analyze, synthesize and develop solutions to real life problems. Push them to explore and persevere. Guide them to come up with new ideas. Let them dream. And, support them to nurture their dreams.

  1. Start strong, end stronger:

Be mindful of the first few minutes and the last few minutes of the class. Students usually remember the first moments best, and the final moments next best. This phenomenon is called the Primacy-Recency effect. Don’t have a clumsy opening. Rather, start your class with something that’s unexpected (story, joke, strange facts, drama) but not with something boring and usual. Similarly, end the class with an activity that’s memorable. Don’t say, “Well, that’s the bell. Time’s up. See you in the next class.” Doing that is a lost opportunity.

  1. Let them teach each other:

I believe that peer teaching can be far effective than lectures in so many cases. As the popular saying goes: when you teach, you learn better. Ask students to teach each other in pairs and in groups, usually for revision works. Besides, this is one of the best facilitation techniques. We all need some relief here and there.

  1. Let them review each other:

Give them a rubric and ask them to grade each other’s works. Teach them the art of giving constructive feedback and then have them critic each other. There are tons of research that confirm peer-feedback as an effective learning technique. Also, this gives students a great opportunity to learn the essential art of building and maintaining relationships.

  1. Tell stories:

We may not remember facts and information. But we remember experience. Story is the best weapon to provide unforgettable experience (vicariously) to the students. There’s a myth: stories are just for the literature classes. Well, not true at all. Even if you are teaching math or physics or finance, you can always wrap your content inside the stories and deliver your lesson. Try it. Human brains simply love stories, and every teacher must be a storyteller.

  1. Reduce lecture time:

Decrease teacher talk time. And instead, increase student talk time. When the teacher speaks, the students have nothing else to do but to listen (assuming the students can stay focused). Unfortunately, listening is the least effective way of learning and retaining knowledge. Also, the one who talks gets more practice time, which means, the teacher is getting to practice explaining the information. If your dominant method is lectures, you are not giving students enough opportunities to analyze, interpret, and create their own knowledge.

  1. Mix up different methodologies:

So, how to reduce lecture time? Simple. By mixing different teaching methodologies. Try this mantra: an effective learning happens in a teacher-led-students-centered class. Get them involved in activities. Pair works, group activities, problem solving exercises, student presentations, stories, debate, quiz, panel discussion, interview, and many many more. Important tip: don’t do the activities for the sake of doing them. Always finish off an activity with a reflection. Make them write and share reflections.

  1. Revisit 3X3W:

Retention is a big issue in teaching/learning. How do we make sure that students understand and remember what we teach? One of the ways is to implement variations to teach a single concept (especially the difficult ones). Here’s my rule of thumb: teach a concept at least 3 times in 3 different ways. Suppose you are teaching the concept of photosynthesis. Tell a story about how plants work throughout the day to produce oxygen for the living beings. Show them a process diagram and have them practice drawing the diagram. Then show them a video of how photosynthesis happens. Well, you get the idea behind it. Unlike drilling, this sort of repetition is helpful because students will have a chance to encode at least three versions of the same information in their brains.

  1. Emphasize on Reflective Writing:

As mentioned earlier, learning happens when students experience an event and then reflect on it. Simply experiencing an event (listening to a story, doing a pair-work) is not enough. The students must reflect on the experience and make a meaning out of it. For this, reflective writing is an amazing tool. Before the class ends, ask students to calm down and reflect on the day’s learnings and write freely for about 5 minutes. What do they remember and how will they use the knowledge in their lives? How did they feel? Why did they feel the way they felt? And so on. This short closing activity will help students cement the experience and meaning in their long term memory, and they can easily retrieve the insights when they need them.

  1. Make students draft their classroom constitution:

Why not let them write their own classroom constitution? They will feel the ownership and teachers won’t have to enforce rules in an autocratic way. Also, students will feel that they have autonomy over their learning process/environment. It’s best to do this on the first day of the class. Divide the class into several groups and tell them to come up with a certain number of rules. Then, each group leader will present their versions of the constitution and through voting, they finalize the draft.

  1. Modify classroom setup:

We like changes. We love novelty. In life and in classrooms. And when students spend their entire semester or a session in the same classroom, they surely would love to see some changes. Studying in the same set up day in and day out for months is not motivating (and is not fun at all). Change the seating arrangement. Change the layout of the benches/desks. Change the posters and wallpapers. Better yet, assign a group of students as Change Police Officers every month. They’ll have to implement new ideas for change in the classroom.

  1. Go beyond the four walls:

John Dewey had said, “Community is the curriculum” and I interpret this as a call out to all the teachers to take their teaching beyond the four walls of the classroom. A lot of teaching and learning happening inside the classroom, sadly, do not reflect the realities of the communities and the society at large. We’re still teaching subjects in isolation however learning becomes meaningful when students get opportunities to integrate their subject-skills (say – language, calculation, social studies) and apply the skills to solve the problems of a community (say – write a narrative of people on how they are earning through poultry business). When students get to interact with real issues, their learning becomes real learning.

  1. Manage the Affect in the classroom:

One of my inspirations, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa writes about how teachers should take control of the affect in the classroom. Affect (a subjectively experienced emotion) directly influences attention and learning. What she means is that we should take charge of the ‘feeling’ in the classroom. Walk with positivity into the classroom and you can help students feel better, learn better, and retain better every single time. (See: Pygmalion Effect). Also, let the students know that they can count on you if they are facing any problems.

  1. Take risk:

If we only do what we can do, we will never be more than what we are right now. Great quote, right? Therefore, challenge yourself. Many teachers (especially the ones who have taught for many years) I know are reluctant about, for instance, class observation. They might have valid reasons for such reluctance. Nevertheless, request your colleague to observe your class and listen to their suggestion. Ask your students to anonymously evaluate you on your strengths and weaknesses. Be ready to face the worst comments. You can pick on one area of improvement and work on it. If the rules allow, take your friends as a guest into the classroom.

  1. Make your own list:

[This space is for you. I’m sure, you must be doing these already in your own ways. Think about how you can add on to the above ideas and personalize them for your students.]

Popular blogger Seth Godin once said, “If you want people to become passionate, engaged in a field, transformed by an experience — you don’t lecture them and you don’t force them. Instead, you create an environment where willing, caring individuals can find an experience that changes them.” Fellow passionate teacher, teach we must but let us also create awesome learning experiences for our students. Let’s keep trying.

Passionately yours,
Umes Shrestha

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144. Overcoming the wall of hopelessness with passion and pride

(Originally published on The Himalayan Times – Perspective on May 8, 2016)

THT An Open Letter To Passionate Teachers

Dear passionate teachers,

When I was in Class VIII, we had an amazing teacher who taught us Physics. I used to wait for his class the way I would wait for momos to be served. He was tall and skinny. He was funny. He was warm. And, Physics made sense. However, he left the school after only three months. On his last class, we were in tears, he was in tears. I did not forgive him for a long time, for leaving us, for betraying us.

Now that I’m a teacher, I realize that teachers have the most unthankful job. We are the most obvious targets for every dark spot in the education system. And, many good teachers quit. I will never know why the Physics teacher left us but I am giving him all the benefits of doubt. May be he didn’t want to, but had to.

Bright teachers enter the profession with hopes to make a difference but end up quitting when they see the huge wall of hopelessness staring at them. For instance, many educational institutions don’t have proper induction system for new teachers. They are usually left stranded to figure out everything on their own. As a result, many never feel quite at home.

Likewise, many educational institutions have an irrational ‘fear’ of allowing their teachers to go for professional development. Most admins assume: If I let my teacher go for trainings, who’ll handle the class? After such trainings, the teacher will demand higher salary. Or, the teacher will join another school/college. As a result, teachers rarely get opportunities to grow and improve.

But, let me not blame the institutions only. A major chunk of the problem lies within us. Even when an institution supports our growth, many of us ‘chop our own foot with an axe’ by not preparing a personal and professional development plan. Year after year, we simply go into the classroom, teach the syllabus, and come out. We perform just enough to be in the safe zone.

A couple of reasons: first, we are teaching for the time being, and waiting for something else. May be a job at an NGO. May be a visa to fly abroad. Second, we feel we were the victims of the situation and ended up being a teacher. We never wanted to be teachers in the first place.

And, here’s my argument. If you are a teacher – by choice or by chance – you can always choose to conquer the wall of hopelessness and make a difference. For that we need two weapons: passion and pride.

You may not know if teaching is your life’s calling. But as long as you are a teacher, teach with passion. Every single time we go into the classroom, we can choose to spread happiness among students, sow hope, and share dreams. As one of my mentors said: students can smell your passion, and regardless of any subject you teach.

We must also walk with pride. Let’s say with conviction: I am a teacher and I make a difference. Let’s not scratch our head, give a fake smile, and pretend that you didn’t have a choice. Pride is contagious. With pride comes respect. Let’s restore respect into this noble profession.

Dear teachers, we can’t wait for someone else to do it. Here’s what I propose: Let’s build a community of passionate and proud teachers. Let’s empower each other so that we can destroy the wall of hopelessness. You might ask – how?

Start an online community on social media, ask teachers to join in and contribute their stories. Then, start an offline community. At the college I work, we’ve started a weekly session named “Empowering Fridays” where we welcome passionate teachers to share their methodologies, stories and insights. You too can join in. Or better, you can start similar support groups in your colleges and schools.

When teachers get involved in a community full of passionate and proud teachers, may be then bright teachers wouldn’t feel lost and aimless. May be then, students wouldn’t have to feel betrayed by their teachers.

Passionately yours,
Umes Shrestha

133. Then and Now

then and now.001

(Picture concept: Making Classrooms Better – 50 Practical Applications of Mind, Brain and Education Science by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa)

Everything has changed. Transportation. Communication. Banking. Market places. But the structure of the classrooms remains the same.

At least we have classrooms and schools, you might argue. That’s true. But the arrangement of classrooms, with fixed benches and desks, everyone facing the same direction, and made for no movement at all – the classrooms are the most brain unfriendly places in the whole school. The only possible reason the classrooms remain the same is it’s easy for the cleaners/janitors to clean the rooms after the school. Or, from a teacher’s perspective, to keep the students quiet and stationary during the class.

What do you think?

128. Woes of Education

classroom

The head teacher said, “If only we could implement the system similar to the boarding schools, our students would not drop out”. I didn’t understand it right away. He added, “If only we could teach the students in English, if only we could provide them two sets of uniforms, if only we could have proper khaajaa system, the number of students will increase in our school too”.

We were at a public school in a not so remote village of Madadevsthan, Kavre. As we chatted away with the head teacher, we could feel his distress about the high rate of student dropping out. I know there’s a huge English-mania in our context but naively, I had never thought that uniforms and khaajaa made such a big difference in student attendance.

“Last year, our teachers collected some money on their own and provided the students khaajaa for three months since the start of the session”, the head teacher continued, “there were around 100 students then. Now there are only 48.” And it makes sense. The majority of students are from the marginalized community of Danuwar. They are not doing well, otherwise “they would have sent their kids to a private school”. In other words, they are poor and they have no other choice but to send their kids to the public schools. “Rinn kaatera bhaye pani, people send their kids to private schools.”

The head teacher, clearly helpless, wringing his both hands described, “Some kids start yelling ‘bhog laagyo’ right after the assembly and some run away after the break. And people expect good results from public schools.”

Even before we argue on the effects of English as the medium of instruction, even before we discuss on the nature of assessment, I believe we should think about the hungry ones, the dirty ones. Because when your stomach is rumbling and your uniform is ragged, being a ‘good’ student is not in your priority.

But there’s another side too. The teachers themselves. I asked him, “Aren’t they responsible for the degradation of public school system? Otherwise, why would a poor family take loans to send their kids to private schools?”

His answer was plain and simple. Politics le bigaaryo. “Teachers in private schools work hard from 9 to 4, but teachers in public school are busy working for the parties. In some ways, I’m involved in this game too, other wise I wouldn’t have been able to be in this school for all these years”. He shrugged his shoulders.

I am not stating that all government teachers are selfish, irresponsible and opportunists. But sadly many are. So, is it possible to make them caring, responsible and hard working? What if we could change the education policy and reform the system of teacher’s permanent appointment. Every teacher works under a contract, say a 3 year one, and the contract gets renewed based on his/her performance evaluation and recommendation by parents. What if we can wipe out all the political affiliations from schools and universities, and end the criminal-like political appointment of teachers, head teachers, rectors, deans and chancellors. And what if there are teacher bodies and student councils but without any political aspiration and backing.

But it’s not that plain and simple. The whole education system – from the bottom to the top – is muddled in politics. And when there’s no politics, there’s our society with hopeless crater of economic divide, there’s private schools with glamour and grandeur of English based education, and there’s people with desperate dreams and hungry stomachs.

How is it possible to end this injustice?

126. SLC: A Goddamn Lie

SLC is a lie

(The result of this year’s School Leaving Certificate exam is out. This year too, over 50% of students have failed. That’s over 200,000 students.)

SLC, short form for School Leaving Examination, is a lie. It’s a lie so well cooked and polished that almost every parent of students appearing in this annual mockery believes that ‘distinction’ means social prestige.

The schools claim their bragging right when their success rate is 100%. There’s a hierarchy within the 100 per cent too – 100% distinction, 100% first division, 100% pass. This madness goes on.

In a couple of days, there will be tikas on the students’ foreheads. There will be garlands around their necks. There will be photos in the newspapers. There will be banners in the school’s main entrance. There will be scholarships for the students with ‘distinction’.

Parents will celebrate. Schools will celebrate. All the while exaggerating this lie: SLC is the biggest hurdle in a student’s life. SLC is the iron gate. SLC is your future.

Worst of all, students believe this lie. (I did too, once.)

And in the same world,
Students those who didn’t get distinction.
Students those who didn’t get the first division.
And, 213,071 students those who didn’t even make it through the pass marks.
They will curse their incompetence.
They will mourn their fate.
They will lament their insignificance.

SLC is a lie. It is injustice.

SLC news, Kantipur Online

115. Teacher Beware and Student Beware – Part II

Teacher Beware can be a blessing for Teachers

In the first part of this article, I talked about the new concept of Student Beware and Teacher Beware. Metaphorically. I came up with these after going through Dan Pink’s To Sell is Human where he talks about Seller Beware and Buyer Beware situation.

Laxman Gnawali, one of the few exceptional teachers.

Laxman Gnawali, one of the few exceptional teachers I’ve met.

So, to continue, in a ‘Seller Beware’ situation, a dishonest, manipulative and pushy salesperson won’t survive for long. In order to excel in a long term, the salesperson or companies will have to be exceptional.

Exceptional as in a salesperson who is honest, caring and responsible towards the buyers. Because in this competitive marketing where buyers have too much information and too many choices, sales these days are more about building connection, maintaining personal relationship and building identity than about selling products, making profit and getting richer.

Same goes for the teachers. In this ‘Teacher Beware’ situation, they have to be exceptional if they want students to ‘buy’ their ‘products’.

The ABCs

In To Sell is Human, Pink resoundingly states, “Like it or not, we are all in sales now”. Doctors. Accountants. Lawyers. Designers. Bloggers. Actors. Writers. Singers. Engineers. Journalists. And, teachers. And he stresses that every salesperson (and every human being) must possess three key skills to be exceptional. They are: Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity.

Very briefly, Attunement means to understand another person’s perspective, have emotional/social intelligence and empathy.

Buoyancy is how to keep afloat in a world of constant rejection, criticism and negativity.

And, Clarity is about problem identification and then solving it. It is about making a sense out of the clutter of information.

Exceptional teachers

Now, back to my point: like it or not, teachers are also in sales now. We don’t sell any physical products as such but we try to sell our ideas, information and knowledge. In return, the students pay us with their attention, time and effort. And it will definitely get tougher for teachers in this ‘information parity’ situation where information is easily and freely accessible.

Because students won’t buy from a Math teacher who constantly makes students cram up formulas, steps and methods. They can learn math better by watching Sal Khan’s youtube channel. Students won’t buy from a Psychology teacher who reads from notes and never even looks into their eyes. They can understand better by watching Paul Bloom’s free video lecture series. Students won’t buy from an English language teacher who knows the grammar rules but does not have communicative competence. They can learn English better by listening to BBC podcasts.

Therefore if the ideas, information and knowledge are straight out of the textbook (and are routinized), students won’t be interested in them anymore; because they’re everywhere. However, they will certainly be interested if the ideas, information and knowledge are co-created, shared and owned by the students and the teachers.

And, yes, I am not trying to devalue the importance of professional mastery, practical knowledge and experience in one’s subject area. They really matter a lot. It doesn’t make sense if a teacher is very friendly and positive but doesn’t have sufficient mastery over the subject and methodology.

Who will the students ‘buy’ from?

What students need is a teacher who is more than just a mere information seller. A friend, a guide, a mentor. Someone who understands them, treats them with respect and avoids judgment. Not someone who talks down to them, frowns at them and walks around with a stick in the hand. Researches in Social Science say power reduces tendency to understand how other people see, think, and feel. Students don’t need some bullheaded authoritative teacher who can’t see students’ perspective. They need teachers who would step down from their high horses and get in ‘sync’ with them.

Students need educators, not mere teachers. Teachers who not only make students memorize information, but also motivate students to think, analyze and synthesize the information. Teachers who are open-minded and won’t silence students’ voices with demoralizing ‘chup laag’ or ‘jaaney huney hoina’.

Students need a Math teacher who encourages them to come up with different answers. Students need a Science teacher who can tell stories not just theories. Students need an English teacher who can empathize with their struggles of learning and acquiring foreign language.

Exceptional teachers, just like exceptional salespersons, will have to possess the three skills of attunement, buoyancy and clarity. Exceptional teachers will have to know how to ‘tune-in’ to match with students’ perspectives, remain positive even in the flood of frustration and criticism, and have a clear idea about the problems students and teachers go through.

And one last thing. Exceptional teachers exude the attitude of service and understand that their work can affect the lives of many.

As a student and a teacher, I have been very lucky to have met some exceptional teachers. And I’m sure there are a lot of exceptional teachers out there who are changing lives of students. I want to be that exceptional teacher someday and I’ve already saddled up for that wonderful journey. I hope to meet you somewhere along the way.

(To be continued)

For more readings:

Dan Pink: To sell is Human

How To Be A Good Leader: Power And Perspective-Taking Helps Leaders Make Bigger Impact

Losing Touch

113. Investing on teachers?

I am just a teacher. I am not an expert on education. I don’t have any Phd yet to claim that but here’s what I think will help significantly change our education and education system. So, how do we do that?

The answer is simple – by investing on/in/for teachers.

Let’s put aside the vision, mission and objective of our ‘troubled’ education system for a later discussion. Let me just focus on one of the aspects of teachers and their development.

sikshak-1

(Pic: Sikshak magazine)

The headline pretty much says it.

Most teachers don’t read. Only few regularly buy and read books. And many never touch books which are beyond the syllabus.

And I would definitely make a mistake here if I come to a quick judgment. Judgments like – the teachers are lazy… the teachers take their job for granted… the teachers don’t like to develop professionally.

Plus, judgments like – that’s why Nepal’s education system sucks because the teachers themselves don’t read anything new once they become teachers.

It might be a part of that reality but that’s unfair.
In fact, very unfair to most of the teachers out there.

Like I said, I am not an expert on education but I truly believe that one of the ways to create better teachers is by investing in them to develop teachers’ reading culture, writing culture and eventually a sharing culture.

Because, we need amazing teachers.
Empathetic teachers.
Rebel teachers.

However, many teachers in Nepal have not yet been ‘invested’ in a true sense.

And, not to just smear the whole blame on the government’s and policy makers’ faces, teachers, who whine all the time, need to stop making excuses. Because, khaaney mukh lai junga le chhekdaina, garna man laagey baahaana le rokdaina.

sikshak-2

(Pic: Sikshak mag)