I don’t need to remind anyone that in recent months, many parents have found themselves the recipients of a new job title: teacher. 2020 has not been generous.
For those of you suddenly homeschooling your students, or finding that remote learning simply doesn’t happen without you jumping in as instructor-motivator-planner-encourager, these tips that I’ve collected after years in the classroom may be of use.
Even if your kids are back at school, these uncertain times may be propelling you to the aid of your frustrated students more frequently than in previous years. I hope that these tips can help as you take on yet another hat for the sake of your kids. (Oh, and by the way, teachers–you might enjoy these tips, too!)
- Make sure your student understands that you respect him or her. It may be tempting to let our concern for our student’s progress manifest itself as criticism of the student, or to let frustration with our student’s laziness come across inadvertently as disrespect. Concern and frustration are real, and laziness should be confronted, but students have keen senses for disrespect. If they feel put down, even if the put-down was unintentional, we will probably be fighting a losing battle.
- Do not excuse lies, disrespect, or whining from the student. We may think that we are doing our students a favor by indulging their faults, but in reality, consistently permitting such behavior will only reinforce it. An environment of lying, disrespect, and whining will greatly hinder our relationship with our students and our ability to help them learn. We can and should be merciful and forgiving, and we should always seek to see the good in our students, but we must also help establish attitudes that are conducive to learning and growth.
- Empathize. We should become students alongside our students. Their joy must be our joy and their disappointment our disappointment. We ought to get excited about the correct completion of an algebra problem or a correctly spelled word, and before we complain about their lack of focus, we should endeavor to remember the teenage agony of slogging through yet another class or assignment before being permitted to hang out with our friends.
- Be patient beyond patience. When struggling students feel that they can’t learn fast enough to please their teachers or parents, tension, frustration, and more struggles in school often follow. When helping our students, we must sit and wait while they process the information, and we must be willing to explain the same concept again and again and again until finally, they see it clearly. Our patience will teach our students perseverance.
- Explain things in different ways. Thinking creatively and approaching problems from multiple angles is helpful both in teaching a student who does not right away grasp a concept, and in successfully teaching students whose learning styles differ from our own. It can be easy to subconsciously expect students to think like we ourselves do–and some will, of course–but for those whose strengths we don’t share, creativity and flexibility in the learning process will be indispensable.
- Simultaneously look out for untruths and grant the benefit of the doubt. We are all tempted to lie sometimes, and students may not always tell the truth about their work–especially if they don’t want to put in much effort, or if they feel completely overwhelmed. However, if we treat them suspiciously and incredulously, a rift between us will likely develop. We must seek moment by moment to strike a dexterous balance between fitting skepticism and gracious trust.
- Lead by letting the student lead. To do this is an art that requires practice, generosity, and creativity. As teachers and parents, our role is to lead the time of instruction or homework help. We have the authority to guide the conversation and to require work from our students. However, one of our greatest tools of leadership is to grant as much autonomy to our student as we can without compromising the goals of our instruction or allowing laziness or falsehood to prevail. When our students feel the liberty to choose their path, and when they know that their input helps to guide the process of learning, they will be much more responsive to our suggestions and requirements. When we thus allow our students to help us lead them, they will also learn how to lead themselves, which is perhaps more important even than the academic material that we are studying.
- Establish a system of feedback from the student. Students should feel heard by us, and they may need an invitation in order to feel comfortable enough to speak. We have the authority to make decisions that we think are best for our students, but students will be much more open to cooperating with our decisions if we not only listen to their concerns, but also solicit their feedback. To do so is not to undermine our authority, but to strengthen that authority by gaining the goodwill of those whom we are to lead.
- Respect just criticisms that students have while encouraging them to hold as charitable a position as possible. As we all know, students hate busywork and nonsensical assignments, and they will therefore often be first to point out the shortcomings of a teacher or the inanities of an assignment. As instructors and parents, we do ourselves a disservice by blindly defending everything our students receive at school–some assignments really are unhelpful (maybe even ones we assigned!), and when we admit that, we gain credibility with our students. However, we also have a responsibility of leadership in these situations to search for the good in all things and to guide our students in graciousness. We can teach our students how to respect teachers while at the same time modeling discernment regarding the things that are taught and the assignments that are given.
- Always make a distinction between academic performance and value as a person. This distinction may be clear in our own minds, but students often struggle to grasp the contrast unless we make it vividly clear. Our value as people is given by God and does not depend upon anything that we do or upon any ability that we have or lack. However, our academic performance does depend upon our ability and does depend upon such facets of good character as perseverance, hard work, and love of truth. When students are confident that no failure on their part will lessen their value, they will be more likely to try, more confident despite failures, and less threatened by our exhorting them to excellence in their work.