Some years ago, I listened to a talk by Dr Tony Humphreys, a clinical psychologist, entitled “The 7 deadly sins of teachers”. It provided the inspiration for this blog post.
I have always been interested in what separates ordinary teachers from good ones and good ones from great ones. While I do not believe there is a prototype for the “model” Maths teacher, I do think there are some things one really needs to avoid if one is to be better than average. Here are the 7 deadly sins I have identified – things which should be avoided at all costs. Like me they are in no order:
- A lack of joy and passion. In my previous life I employed many teachers. I always believed in employing for attitude rather than aptitude. I think one can help a colleague fill gaps in his / her mathematical knowledge, but it is far harder to incite passion or joy in a person. Passion for one’s subject is contagious. So is apathy. We cannot expect our students to be passionate about our subject if we are not. Our youth of today face so many challenges. We need to inspire them and give them hope by being joyful and optimistic. Some days we will have to fake it and put on our “game face”. We owe it to our students to do so.
- A lack of preparedness. At a time, I got so far ahead of myself that I believed I was sufficiently competent to be able to “wing it” in lessons. I now know that my best lessons are those for which I am properly prepared. Great teachers understand that contact time is too valuable to be wasted so they plan carefully and they arrive early enough to be set up and ready to greet the students before the lesson starts.
- Adopting a “colour by numbers” approach to teaching Maths. Great maths teachers attach significant value to understanding and they are relentless in finding ways to promote understanding, as opposed to dumbing the subject down to a set of recipes. Students who learn recipes without understanding are exposed by questions requiring insight and problem-solving abilities. They do not know how to think and are therefore not future proof.
- Using bad language. Here I am not referring to swear words which obviously have no place in education, but rather to language which is mathematically problematic. By way of example, the word “cancel” is unhelpful as it gives no sense of what we are doing mathematically. If we can cancel the 3s in then why shouldn’t we cancel them in ? Far better to say, “divide the numerator and the denominator by 3”. When solving an equation such as 3x – 2 = y many teachers will say “take the 2 to the other side and change the sign”. This is problematic as, on the next line, we take the 3 to the other side but do not change the sign. Far better to say, “add 2 to both sides and then divide both sides by 3”.
- Perpetuating an unwelcome or, worse still, a hostile environment. Most kids approach a mathematics lesson with a degree of apprehension which might arise from inter-alia: unrealistic parental expectations, the stress of just not getting it or a bad experience in the past. It is well documented that one cannot think optimally when one is anxious. We need to counter our students’ anxieties by making our classrooms as welcoming, friendly and fun as we possibly can. They need to understand that we are on their team, that we are champions for their cause.
- Playing God. Too many teachers are aloof and arrogant, holding the view that they know it all and lauding it over their students. They believe in the love of power rather than the power of love. Great teachers are confident in themselves, comfortable with the fact that some of their students are far cleverer than they are even if they do not know as much maths yet. They see their work as an act of service and they seek to form productive partnerships with those in their care. They are intent on seeing and teaching the whole person, understanding that it is easier to build a strong child than to repair a broken adult.
- Ceasing to learn. The best teachers are continually striving to grow their knowledge and to improve their practice. They model the lifelong learning they hope to inspire in their students.
In 2013 I visited Canada. The Alberta Board of Education had the following commission on a billboard: