Common teacher mistake #1
Teachers, especially new ones, are prone to making many mistakes. Some mistakes are made unintentionally, but the worst, and most avoidable mistakes, are ones that are made while actively trying to follow some advice from new-teacher training.
I’m going to write a series of blog entries cataloging the most common teacher mistakes that you can learn to avoid. The first, and most common one, is ‘Teaching Too Much In One Day.’ Here’s how it works:
At home, you create a great forty-five minute lesson. It includes a five minute warm-up activity, fifteen minutes of direct instruction including a mini-lecture, a discussion, and some nice visuals you made for the overhead projector. Then, for practice and assessment, you create an awesome twenty-five minute activity.
Five minutes into the actual period, you realize that the warm-up activity was too confusing. It takes ten minutes and lots of students are lost. Then the direct instruction stalls. Some kids are still frustrated from the warm-up. What was supposed to take fifteen minutes is already taking thirty. Now the students have exhausted their attention spans. There are only five minutes left. You’ve just made the most common error in teaching: trying to do too much in one day.
The cause: There are two reasons new teachers make this mistake. One is a product of inexperience. The new teacher misjudges how much time the topic ‘needs.’ The other reason is that new teachers misinterpret the grossly simplified rule promoted by TFA, “Have high expectations.” This maxim seems to imply that if you have really high expectations, students will always rise to meet those expectations. That’s not really the way it works. I’ve had lessons where my students have exceeded my expectations and I’ve had lessons where my students have disappointed me by not meeting my expectations. The good days were during lessons and activities that were appropriate and clear. I truly believe that my students can do great things, but they need my help. Having high expectations is good. Using your high expectations to not do your job of creating appropriate lessons and then justify those lessons by saying, “I’ve got high expectations,” is wrong.
The consequences: You spent a lot of time planning that activity, and you don’t want to assign it for homework. Yet, you know that if you wait for the next day, the kids will have forgotten what they need to know to complete it. So you try to squeeze the activity into the remaining five minutes, and it’s a disaster. The students leave the room feeling that they have learned nothing that day, and that you are a crumby teacher since you weren’t able to help them learn.
The cure: Until I really know where my students are and what will frustrate them and make them lose confidence, I prefer to teach something short and easy. This doesn’t mean my expectations are low. It means that I’m choosing a less risky path.
A good rule of thumb is that if you think a topic can be covered in one day, it will probably take two days. So you have a choice: Split it up into two nicely organized lessons, each with a good assessment activity or you can try to teach it in one day, fail miserably, and then try to ‘re-teach’ it the second day. There’s no way around it. If the lesson requires two days, it will get those two days one way or another.
Since it is so common for even veteran teachers to miscalculate how much content is the perfect amount, a good thing to do, while planning your lesson, is to have an ‘exit strategy.’ What you do is make an alternative activity that the students will be able to do even if you only get through half of the material you expected to. That way when you’re twenty minutes into the lesson and realizing that you’d better get the kids to work in the next two minutes, you can assign your ‘exit strategy’ lesson and the students will never know that they didn’t rise to meet your expectations. All they’ll know is that they learned something today and successfully completed an activity.