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My Ten Commandments of Teaching

If you work in a school that teaches kindergarten through college, you have some odd experiences. Once while leading a college class, the children’s choir came by and sang us a French song.

This was lovely and reminded all of us in the discussion the value of looking at the world with wonder. The small ones got to see that full-grown adults read, discuss, learn and like it! Last year I went out to the garden with a kindergarten student, discussed Plato with a seventh grader, and rooted for the Packers with a college guy.

There are different methods to use in teaching different ages: but being around all age levels (4-24) reminds me that the similarities are greater than the dissimilarities.

Good teaching is good teaching. As I think about goals for this year, I recall what I want to be and do in the classroom and it helps me to write those down.

Here are ten commandments for me as a teacher this year:

1. Be a good example.

We could just stop here: be good, but being good is hard. Where I have failed as a moral example, I have put the lie to all I have taught. Virtue has grown over time and I pray God gives me more!

If we are teachers, we will need mercy and grace. That’s a good reason to show much mercy and grace as we teach.

2. Be kind and smile from the first day forward.

Whoever said not to smile before Thanksgiving as a teacher was wrong. A teacher does need to establish boundaries (different for each type of education), but the idea that being grim helps is wrong. A good teacher aspires to a joyful learning environment and it is hard to get from being a jerk to joy. Sometimes a class is tough and the joy feels distant, but we never show our frustration or anger to the students. In this way, even if we fail and a student must transfer to some other teacher or program, we will have left as positive a memory as possible.

3. Be calm and don’t panic.

There may be a semester or year where nothing goes wrong, but that is not a year I have known. Panic in a bad time is never useful. A good teacher is calm. When I feel anxiety, I try to keep that anxiety from students. We need friends and pastors and many of us might need to see a counselor, but we should (rarely if ever) get our students into our anxiety.

4. Don’t assume a common culture for all students.

We have students from many different backgrounds. Do not assume you “get it.” Study. For example, do you have a wealthy student? Don’t assume they have no problems.  Read up on as many variables in your students as you can. How do you reach a kid from an urban neighborhood? What about a student from a rural area?

5. Learn with your students.

I have taught Homer to first-year college students for decades, but still learn something new. Freshmen say many of the same ideas, but the student saying the idea changes. Why did she say: “God is greater than Zeus?” Her reason for speaking may have little or nothing to do with that guy from three years ago. Listen. Ask. Learn. Do not assume.

6. Hard work, but in small (though growing) doses.

Do not fear the break. When students are tired, change up the activity. This is true of college students as well as kindergarten folk. Of course, we want a college student to have more endurance for study than a small child, but after forty-five minutes most of us need a break. Take the class for a walk. Let them get a snack.

7. We are teachers, not pastors, parents, politicians, or social workers.

Every good teacher fills many roles during a year, from entertainer to advisor. We are, however, teachers, and must always recollect that fact. Students should have a pastor, because we cannot long fill that role. We are not parents. We are not here to advance our political agenda, though as advocates for justice and virtue we can discuss our opinions. While a good teacher will often go as far as to feed a student (it happens!), this cannot be sustained. We need to work with a community team as much as possible and not try to do it all.

Our job is to educate and if we are not careful we will end up poor pastors, ersatz parents, powerless pols, and ineffective social workers while students are not educated. We can only do so much.

8. People, not programs. Men and not methods.

Teaching a student wisdom, virtue, and academic skills may require different means for different students. The student is not a “problem” if she needs different methods! I work for a school and college with a set pedagogy, but when that pedagogy isn’t working for a student work with your upline to try some new techniques. I am no fan of workbooks for most students, but I have had students (at every level) who were helped by them.

9. Go outside as much as possible.

This might seem easier in Southern California than Houston in the Fall or Buffalo in the winter. This is because it is easier, yet my So-Cal friends do not go out as much as we do! Outside, if you can go there at all, is such a great break. Try to find some green space–even if it is just one tree–and sit under that tree in the green space. Walk and teach.

Don’t be afraid of rain or getting dirty.

10. Be as loyal as you can be.

There exists a temptation to complain in front of students or buy cheap favor by hinting you disagree with an unpopular school/college decision. Avoid this. Just as you wish loyalty to be shown to you, show loyalty to your co-workers. If you come to hate the administration (or at least stop believing in their guidance), then get a new job as soon as you can.

I know these ideas are good the hard way: by making mistakes. Try to learn these truths the easy way: by joyfully avoiding mistakes!

Pray for me, teachers, and I will pray for you.

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