Three things good teachers do that bad teachers don’t - Lessons from sitting in the back of the classroom

Three things good teachers do that bad teachers don’t

Paul D Morin
Oct 14 · 6 min read

If I asked you to name a really good teacher you had at some point in your education, you could probably do it in a heartbeat, without even a second’s hesitation.

So we know this much: Good teachers are rare. They really stand out.

But if I asked you to name a really bad teacher you had, you could likely do that just as fast. They stand out, too.

Have you ever thought about why? In that sea of teaching mediocrity that is your educational background, what precisely made your good teachers good, and your bad teachers bad? Why did they stand out and what was the difference between the two?

I’ve spent a lot of time watching teachers in action. I’ve worked as a director of English language programs both in the U.S. and overseas, and in these positions I had countless opportunities to observe teachers in action.

Some of these opportunities were informal or impromptu, and some were scheduled, formal classroom observations. For these, I would sit in the back row, watch and take notes on how the teachers handled themselves, their students, the material, and the clock. Following each observation I would summarize my notes into something resembling coherence, fill out the program’s evaluation chart, and send it all to the teacher (with cc to management) for future discussion and action.

One thing I’ve noticed in my observations is that the interactions that good teachers have with their students tend to be marked by the same few characteristics. One teacher might be more friendly and another more formal, one more demanding and another more lenient, but inside the classroom all good teachers tend to have the same basic habits that frame the relationships they have with their students. I’ve identified three; a different observer may name more.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that bad teachers tend not to have these same three habits, or they practice them poorly. These teachers may be bad in additional creative ways you can’t imagine, but it’s a good bet they don’t practice these three central habits.

None of what I’ve noticed is surprising, and to you may even seem obvious. But evidently it’s not, at least to the bad teachers.

First of all, good teachers watch their students’ faces. They watch like parents do, like best friends, like border collies poised on a hair trigger waiting to see who or what will flinch next.

The reason: It’s in their students’ faces that good teachers find the most accurate barometer of how they’re doing. The students’ expressions are like an applause meter, and the only place they can really tell whether they’re getting through to the students.

This — actual facial interaction — is also how they initiate the human connection with the student that is the foundation of all learning.

Bad teachers don’t do this. They just don’t follow their students’ expressions. It’s hard telling what they are looking at or might be seeing, because their eyes are just kind of glazed over.

They don’t realize they’re missing a connection with the students so they don’t make any effort to create one. Either that, or they don’t care. You could erect a curtain between teacher and students with no change in the classroom dynamic or atmosphere.

Maybe these teachers believe they are only paid to provide information, and so they provide it. In any event, they walk in, they start their instruction, they go through their instruction, and they end their instruction, hopefully somewhere near the end of class time.

They don’t bother to find out if they’re not getting through to the students. No one has raised their hand to bring class to a grinding halt, so it must be going okay.

I don’t mean to convey that bad teachers are necessarily boring. I remember my college astronomy professor gave extremely enthusiastic lectures, complete with deliberately lame humor — he just never thought to notice who was following along, or he didn’t do anything about it if he did notice. He just kept talking, day after day.

On occasion any teacher can make this mistake. In my own teaching I’ve sometimes taken time to reflect after class, and realized that I was just too eager about the material I was presenting, to the point that it became more important than the students I was presenting it to.

It’s your students’ expressions that tell you when you have to repeat something, when you have to slow down, when you ought to ask a question. Which leads us to the next habit.

Second: Good teachers check for understanding. All teachers think they do this — it’s drilled into them if they took an education degree — but there’s a big difference in how it’s done.

Good teachers ask questions that require actual judgment, that require the student to apply the information just conveyed in some way that penetrates to the central issue. (Any educated person should be able to find that issue, it seems, but maybe it’s a gift only good teachers have.)

You can imagine what I mean. It’s not what Lincoln said at his second inaugural (“With malice toward none, with charity for all”), it’s why he said it. It’s not how to cross multiply, it’s how to figure out what percentage of your own money is going to candy.

Bad teachers, in contrast, only go through the motions of checking for understanding.

They will literally ask the entire class the yes-no question, “Does everyone understand?” and take the silence that invariably follows for a yes rather than a no. When have you ever been in a situation where everyone understood? The question, “Does everyone understand?” is the worst possible question you can ask to see if everyone understands.

Additionally, if they ask an individual student rather than the whole class, it’s usually one of the smarter students in the room, someone near the front, someone who won’t upset the apple cart, possibly because they have an unconscious fear of what would happen if they asked someone trying to hide way in the back.

They know the smart student will let them off the hook by saying, “Yes,” without expressing any additional commentary or question, and they can move on.

Further, if they do happen to ask a random student if he or she understands, and the student says, “Yes,” there’s a good chance the student is lying, and this doesn’t occur to them. Bad teachers never ask him to prove it. Many students, even in adult settings, will do anything to get the attention off themselves, and answering yes to a yes-no question is an easy way to do it.

So, two other points: Good teachers call on individual students by name, rather than asking the whole class, and almost never ask a yes/no question.

One more: Good teachers tend not to spend attention on the best students, who can take care of themselves. They minister to the middle of the pack, with occasional pauses with the least proficient. Bad teachers retreat into the comforting delusion that everyone is catching on like the best students are.

Third: Good teachers deviate from the lesson plan when necessary. It’s necessary when students just don’t get it. A good teacher has the gift of inventing, on the spot, a completely different approach to the same material. They can figure out what the student is stumbling over — they can think like the student, in other words — and create an approach that makes the issue clear.

Bad teachers, on the other hand, stick to their lesson plan like it’s written in blood.

If a student says, “Could you go over that again?” they do — they go over it again, exactly as they did the first time. Well, the student isn’t hard of hearing. So this is usually when they lie. “Does that help?” the teacher asks. “Yeah, thanks,” the student says.

In sum, you could think of it all like this: In any context, whether it’s explaining subway routes to a sightseer, rules of chess to a niece, baby instructions to your sitter, or dishwasher operation to your housework-averse spouse, whenever you’re explaining something, you’re teaching.

And what is your behavior when you’re explaining something? You’re watching the person’s face. There’s this constant Are you with me? monitor in your own head, and you can see the answer to that question in the other’s face. Sometimes, if the person’s expression is neutral, you might even ask it. “Are you with me?” If they’re not, you do something about it. You explain it in a different way.

That, in a nutshell, is good teaching.

Good teachers connect with every student, in the same way they connect with the sightseer, the niece, the babysitter, the spouse. They don’t think of themselves as interacting with the “class,” or even with “students.” That’s what bad teachers do. Good teachers interact with people.

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