I recently discussed the ideas of advertising and persuasion with my 10th grade English students. “Be wary,” I told them, “because everyone wants to sell you something.” Isn’t that the truth, though? And isn’t it true that we teachers are trying to sell something, too? A lesson or a unit or perhaps even good manners?
Now, I’m going to drop a technical term, but bear with me, because I am going to explain why it is important: ethos.
Ethos, a really old Greek word that comes from a time before public education, means that we must appeal to ethics if we want our audience to “buy into” what we are selling. For teachers, that means that we must first establish credibility with our students before they “buy into” what we we are trying to teach them. Building credibility means that our students know we 1) are knowledgable about our content, 2) present the material in a clear manner designed specifically with our students in mind, and 3) care about them and respect their learning.
Obviously I teach high schoolers, and teenagers are a more skeptical audience than a class full of second-graders, but I do believe the same principals apply. Here are some ways to establish credibility with your students to ensure that they buy into your lessons:
- Do not take yourself too seriously. If you make a mistake in front of your entire class, own up to it. Teachers are human, too, and its better to laugh it of than to get upset. Students respect that.
- Know your content. Many times, I find myself covering a novel or a story or a poem that is new to me. I always give myself time to read and reread through the material before I begin planning my lesson. This is especially true if you borrow lesson ideas from another teacher. There is nothing worse that getting that “You don’t know what you are talking about look” from a class of confused students.
- Make sure you show your students that you care. Let them know they are more than a mere grade percentage. They have passions, and feelings, and interests and worries that have nothing to do with school. Find out what they are and ask questions.
- Check for understanding. I like to stop in the middle of a lesson to make sure that my students understand what I am saying or what I am asking them to do. If there is confusing or a panicked look, I retrace my teaching and try to re-explain concepts in a new way. Sometimes this means scrapping the rest of the lesson or drawing diagrams on the white board. But it is pointless to give an assessment over a lesson that the students didn’t understand in the first place. They will simply get frustrated and resent you.
- Attend their events. Whether it’s a basketball game, a choir concert, or a pep rally at lunch, if they see you outside of the classroom, they will know that you care.
- Be flexible. Sometimes due dates need to be rethought. I find this especially true when I have a class working on a long-term assignment — such as an essay. I know that when I have worried students showing up in class and frantic questions emailed at late hours of the night, then it might be a good idea to adjust the due date in order to answer questions or reteach some material. I would rather them complete an assignment correctly than to be a calendar stickler.
- Get in the spirit. A school is a small community. Sure, there are teachers who arrive at the first bell and leave at the last bell, and they are good teachers who care about their students. I find that the teachers the students really connect with the most are those who find additional ways to get involved on campus — advising a club, coaching a sport, participating in student government events, or even going all-out during Spirit Week.
- Hold them accountable. Students like to play that game where they push your buttons to see just how much you will let them get away with. Be kind, but establish your boundaries. They do not want a pushover; they want someone who will make them live up to their full potential.
- Be consistent. Whether it’s grading, or discipline, or calling on students to share their thoughts in class, it’s always best to make sure that you are treating everyone with the same consideration. Students are quick to point out when they think a teacher is playing favorites.
- Ditch the condescension. Just because we are the grown up in the room doesn’t necessarily mean we know everything. Students don’t enjoy being talked down to any more than adults do. Teenagers, especially, seem to get the brunt of a lot of agism in our society.
- Try new things. This includes updating your lesson plans from year-to-year. Just because something worked ten years ago doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. Additionally, don’t be afraid to try something that might be messy, or noisy, or involve going outside.
- Don’t be afraid to let them know you are nervous. I like to tell my students when I am about to try something new in the classroom — perhaps a new review game or a lesson plan. I tell them that I spent a lot of time trying to make today’s lesson really awesome, so I hope they enjoy it. Usually, if they know you are really trying to do something you think is cool, they will go into with with enthusiasm instead of reluctance.
- Celebrate their victories. This should go without saying. Make a really big deal when they win at sports, get a college scholarship, pass a difficult test, get their driver’s license, or score a job interview.
- Do not give busywork. If you want your students to respect your class time, then also respect theirs. They know when you are giving them work to keep them busy, and they resent it. Make sure that all of your assignments are meaningful and objective-oriented. Save the worksheets for days when you need an emergency sub. Or better yet, make a file of meaningful sub plans.
- Let them blow off steam. There are times when I can just see it in my students’ faces — they need a break. Give them a moment or a lot of moments to decompress from the stress that they face (and yes, they DO have stress). Pinterest has a lot of great suggestions for brain breaks, but you could also squeeze in a great class-building game as well. I do this with my yearbook students once a week to alleviate the stress of their workload.
- Share your passion for your content. In order to “buy” what you are “selling,” students have to believe in the value of your “product.” I’m passionate about Shakespeare, but I realize most teenagers are not. If I want them to not only buy into Shakespeare, but also find a deep appreciation for his plays, I need to share my enthusiasm. Whatever you teach, do it with passion.
- Ask the students what they need. This is especially true, I find, when I teach an essay unit. I establish clear expectations of what their final product should look like, but I’m not always positive what they already know, what they are rusty on, and what they have never done before. So, for example, when I am teaching the research essay, I like to make sure they know how to research, take notes, cite their sources, set up a works cited page, and write a cohesive formal essay. I let them tell me what they need help with, and that often dictates my lesson plans from day-t0-day.
- Say, “Thank you.” Never underestimate the power of these two words.
What about you? Think back to your favorite teacher of all time. How did he or she establish credibility in the classroom?