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How to be a good teacher – 5 don’ts

If you want to become a good teacher,  there are obviously a lot of things you should be doing.  At the same time, there are some things that you should not be doing.  The don’ts need as much attention as the do’s. If you want to become a good teacher, here are five things to avoid – five mistakes, pitfalls, traps, snags, five perfectly human errors.  Ironically, they can come about for the best of reasons:  you want to show that you are a good teacher They happen often because you are trying hard.  Perhaps too hard.

1. Don’t show off  

You often can’t see your own classroom teaching in the way that other people may see it.    Inevitably, you are the victim of what you are.

You are older than your pupils.  You have more knowledge than they have.  Of course; you’ve passed exams to become a teacher. Simply because you have been alive longer, you must have picked up all sorts of skills, knacks, tricks, and wisdoms that they haven’t. It is a very human desire to want to demonstrate that fact when the chance arises.   It is partly ego, but it is also partly because you want to pass on something worthwhile, and which you think could raise you in their estimation; you want them to think well of you.


For several reasons.   Here are two.

One, life being as cussed it is, it is extremely likely that it will go wrong.  And then you  are in soup up to your ears.   It is no longer a forgiveable mistake; it is a disaster which you brought upon yourself.  And serve you right.  Well, yes.  But life can be hard.

And two, even if your little trick does come off, it isn’t worth it.  They may be impressed by what you have done, but they will not be impressed by the fact that you gave in to the temptation to do it.

You may be pleased that a smart idea of yours has worked; they don’t see it like that.  It may seem effective teaching  to you, but it’s pretence and swank to them, and they can smell pretence and swank a mile off.

On Teaching,  A Good teacher
Take a look at my memoir sharing stories and lessons from over 40 years of classroom teaching
2. Don’t get angry

This is something that can come about not only because you are trying too hard but because they are trying you too hard.  They are human, they are young, and they have their share of original sin. They don’t have the same burning desire for effective teaching as you do.

Because you are putting out a lot of nervous energy in your quest to become a good teacher, you are vulnerable; your defences are just a little bit down. You are, as I said, trying hard.  Your desire to give that effective teaching is showing.   Ideally, teaching, like acting, shouldn’t show.  When it does, it becomes that much easier to score off you.  

You are likely to be smitten by all sorts of emotions, so watch out.   It will be up to you to exercise as much control of them as you can – impatience, bafflement, uncertainty, confusion, shame, exasperation, surprise, embarrassment, consternation, disbelief, frustration, even despair. They are all there like dragons in your path towards the Nirvana of being a good teacher, where you deliver non-stop brilliant classroom teaching (of course) and at the same time bask in adoring attention, and enjoy total control.

However hard you try, you will let out telltale gleams of all of them at one time or another, but make your greatest effort to avoid showing the slightest chink of another one – temper.

That is the greatest giveaway of all.  Then you really have let down the drawbridge.  At a stroke they can see that control has been lost.  You have appealed to the very worst  in them.  They know from then on exactly what they have to do to produce the same results.  If there are monsters in the class, that’s when their eyes begin to glitter.

If, God forbid, it should happen, mend the hole in the dyke as soon as possible.   If the red cloud has descended and won’t go away – if all else fails – leave the room.  It will give you time to calm down.

Then work out what you did wrong, what you hadn’t planned for, and see that it doesn’t happen again.  They are not the ones who should reform; it’s you.

Take a look at my series of short YouTube lectures on How to be a Better Teacher
3. Don’t nag 

Here’s another trap you can fall into simply because you want to make your effective teaching even more effective.

By all means show that there was more that they could have done to reach the required standard.   Yes, you should always try to get the best out of them.  (Note, not perfection; just the very best that they are capable of.)  Yes again, they should be made aware that you set the highest possible standards. Make sure that you maintain those standards yourself, and are seen to maintain themSetting an example is not difficult; all you have to do is what you expect them to do, and are trying to get them to do.

Allowing for all that, allow too for a sense of balance.  You’ve got to be pleased with them sometimes, and say so.

Good classroom teaching shows that you know when the bottle is half-empty and when it’s half-full.  It’s the difference between showing them how close to failure they are and how close to success.  How much progress they have made and how far they have slipped back.  No matter how much a naughty pupil maintains that he doesn’t give a damn, nobody enjoys failure.  And he certainly doesn’t want to be constantly reminded of it – worse still, having it proved to him.

Don’t yap at their heels; it means you’re behind, moaning, instead of in front, leading.  And they’re not listening anyway. Nags are always a nuisance, never an inspiration.

4. Don’t try to be popular

It is a very human desire to want to be liked.  Starvation of love is the worst deprivation the human spirit can suffer, and every single one of us is human.  But in the classroom being popular is only the dividend.  Remember that the situation is called ‘classroom teaching’,  not ‘classroom club’, or ‘classroom chat’.   It’s work.  That comes first.  That is the investment, and that comes from you.  And, as we all know, the dividend is proportionate to the success of the investment.

I repeat, the investment is work.  God knows, there is enough to do.  So get on with it.  Don’t keep cocking an eye to the popularity polls.  You’ll find out soon enough.

Nor does it mean that you have to be nasty.  You don’t have to BE anything – just busy, doing your best.  Making yourself useful.

Get it across.  Make it stick.  So that they know it.  And remember it.   If that happens, they might, they might just, remember you.

If you’re lucky, that’s when the dividend comes – but you may have to wait years to hear about it. A good teacher will be content to wait.

5. Don’t break your word

Like so many pieces of advice from every walk of life, this is shriekingly obvious.  How many parents have sworn that they will never break a promise?  How many parents work hard to plant deep in their child’s psyche the idea that the most sacred thing you ever give, to anybody, is your word?

In the classroom, we are a long way from courtroom oaths and Mummy’s promise, but the principle is the same, if only in a milder form.

We are talking about a teacher’s advertised plans, pious hopes, wonderful ideas.  They notice very quickly if you don’t deliver.  Be wary; if you’re not sure, don’t say.

Incidentally, this applies particularly to threats.  They soon learn to sneer at them if they don’t materialise.  Don’t threaten; just do it.  If you work it right, you will usually not need to do it again.  The message has gone across.  But think it right through first:  are you really prepared to do it?  If you mean it, they soon learn.

Summary – five don’ts
  1. Don’t show off
  2. Don’t get angry
  3. Don’t nag
  4. Don’t try to be popular
  5. Don’t break your word

Ultimately, like parents, you are working to make yourself unnecessary, not admired.  Once they’ve got it, they don’t need you any more.

Berwick Coates Life at a Grammar School in the 1940s

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Berwick Coates