By Teachers, For Teachers
As an adult who works with children on a daily basis, my occupation permits me to, with regularity, tell students what to do. “Do this,” “Don’t do that,” “Do it this way,” “Never do that again,” “It’s best if you try it like this.” What I realize is that while much of my instruction is related to academic principles (like reading and writing skills) a multitude of other directions are related to character and habits.
Students will absolutely learn from what we tell them, about life and about school. However, what’s equally evident is that simply telling students what to do is not as powerful as actually doing it yourself too.
The idea is that if we are telling students about valuable academic principles or life skills, our message about those skills is amplified when we practice what we preach. After all, if they truly are valuable skills, then they should be valuable enough for us to apply them ourselves! While our students will inevitably learn from the expert instruction we provide, we can maximize our instructional impact by also demonstrating to students that the skills we teach them are ones we value enough that we apply them ourselves. When students see this example we set for them, no one has to tell them about a skill’s value; they can witness that value for themselves.
There are many different areas of our lives and profession we could expose to students to heighten instructional impact, but if you’re looking to get started on the most important areas of practicing what we preach, check out this following list:
Of course the first main area we can focus on practicing what we preach is the academic skills we’re responsible for teaching to students. When students actually see that we apply the same academic principles in our own real-world situations, then the learning takes on a value beyond just another academic hoop to jump through to pass the grade.
Connect content to current situations/events. If you’re studying a particular topic – especially history or literature – you can tell students about how these scholarly topics also have relevance to something you have personally witnessed or thought about lately.
Demonstrate personal use of your class’s skills. There are certain skills – like reading, writing methods, or critical thinking – that could be applied in a multitude of ways. Share with students how you do these things on a regular basis.
It’s assumed that you’ve mastered and regularly apply the academic principles you teach students. However, simply having those skills isn’t enough: after all, even the smartest students won’t succeed without a sense of responsibility or work ethic. Find ways to demonstrate how you are a self-controlled, responsible adult.
Avoiding Procrastination. Students are terrible about procrastination, right? Well, actively show them how you budget your time and start your tasks well before due dates so that you won’t be rushed to finish them.
Quality. Sometimes there’s a difference between students’ “best” work and what they actually turn in. Why? Because they are satisfied with “good” even though their work can be “great.” Let everything you do exude quality to the best of your ability. Show students that you are consistently devoted to doing your best, and that your best is pretty darn good.
Handling Busyness. While we’re all busy, not everyone holds up underneath their burden of busyness. But you should strive to be one of those people who does. It will reveal to students that busyness is not an excuse, but it is an opportunity to thrive.
Just like it’s important to be a person who possesses skill and responsibility, it’s important to be a person of good character, too. We constantly teach our students about respect, tolerance, kindness, and other virtues. But beyond correcting and directing them, we can also show them what a good person is like.
Keep your word. If you say something to students about a promise, reward, or possibility, keep your word. Students trust adults, and they are at the mercy of their authority. Use your position of authority to demonstrate to them what true word-keeping looks like.
Be honest. It can be tempting to lie, disguise truth, hide details, or even use contorted information to better control our students. It’s tempting, and sometimes a few of us might give into it. But don’t. No matter what the truth is, give it to students. Of course don’t tell them about things that are none of their business, but when something important pertains to them, let them know. Even if the truth makes you look weak, irresponsible, stupid, embarrassed, or cruel, they appreciate honesty in the long run.
Be kind. We don’t have to be mean or stoic people. In fact, it’s an enormous example for students when they witness an adult being genuinely polite and self-sacrificial for others. Do your best to treat others with respect and to go the extra mile for someone else. Whether you’re kind to your students or just telling them about a kindness you shared with someone else, let them see how your light shines.
Make good choices. Tell students about real-life situations you’ve encountered where you’ve had to make a tough decision. We face many difficult, tempting situations, but if students can see how adults struggle with and overcome certain issues, then that empowers them to do the same thing themselves when the time comes.
It could serve an enormous good for students to witness an adult actively trying to make themselves into a better person beyond just academic studies. Then they’ll see that learning isn’t just something they make you do in school; it’s something that humans do to make their lives and their world a little better.
What you love. If you spend your free time doing something other than teaching, what is it? Tell students what you do for fun, and how you actively make yourself more skilled and knowledgeable about it.
Reading on your own. If you read for fun, tell students! When the only reading students see is from a required textbook or piece of literature, they fail to make the connection that educated adults actually read for personal entertainment and growth.
Goal setting. No one should stagnate, so tell students about what you’re current goals and ambitions are, and what steps you’re taking to realize them. This will help them make personal aspirations for themselves both now and in the future.
Community contribution. When you make a contribution to anything outside of your classroom – whether in your school building, your church, another organization, or your town – don’t be shy. Since students get educations to contribute to their world, show them how it works yourself. You’re educated – how do you contribute?
Would we ever teach students principles that we know they would never need, or that we know they shouldn’t apply to their lives in some way? One of the most impactful ways we can demonstrate the value of what we teach is to actively incorporate it into our lives, and tell students about it. Whether in small ways or big ways, let students witness how truly important everything you teach them is!
What do you do in your own life that helps model good skills and behaviors for your students? What can you model for us fellow teachers that will help us be a better example for our students? Share in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com.