As a teacher and again as a principal I learned many important things from my students. Teaching is a two-way street; a matter of give and take. Students are not blank slates that one is trying to fill, but thinking and highly interactive beings who respond in many different ways to the stimuli we give to them. They have their own points of view which can be quite interesting and unexpected.
Each student is different, each class is different from all the rest. We are there to help them develop their full potential but along the way we learn much from them. Students are very shrewd and they see through many of the defensive walls we erect around ourselves. Classroom discussions and banter or chats in the office can be very enlightening and enable us to identify the traits most students value in us.
Here are 10 such gems my students taught me directly or indirectly.
1. The importance of humour. Many students become bored in the classroom at times. They love humour. the strategic use of gentle humour during lessons lightens the mood, relaxes the students and keeps them interested in what you are teaching. Care must be taken to ensure that humour is not overdone to the point where it becomes disruptive or distracting, and it should never humiliate any student.
2. Students expect to be punished for offences they commit. This does not mean that they will not try to avoid punishment if they can, but deep inside they know when they are wrong and they expect a reasonable and commensurate punishment. If this does not happen they receive mixed signals and become confused and emboldened to commit further offences. They need to know where the boundaries are.
3. The importance of being firm and fair. Nothing can be accomplished without discipline in an educational institution. Students like structure and predictability. They will accept discipline once it is consistent and fair. What they will rebel against is injustice and partiality.
4. The importance of trust. Students need to know that they can trust you to keep their secrets when they confide in you. This is vital because they often need a sympathetic guide who can help them to solve the problems they encounter on a daily basis. For many, this guidance is not readily available at home. The only time you should not honour this trust is if doing so would endanger the student himself or another person. In that eventuality you must inform the student that you cannot keep that information to yourself.
5. The importance of planning and preparation. Planning and preparation are indispensable educational tools. Students have no latitude to be disruptive or restless when every lesson is properly planned and when they are busy doing relevant and meaningful work. There is no time to play the fool. They will appreciate this and settle down and do their best.
6. Every student has a strength. We must take the time to discover what each student can do well. That means motivating them and being patient with the slower ones, paying attention to learning styles. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is very useful in helping us to determine where each student’s strengths lie. In today’s world success comes not only through the academic arena, but through entrepreneurship, sports, music and several other non-traditional fields.
7. The importance of listening. The only way we can understand our students and their conduct and learning problems is by listening to them. We must talk to them individually outside the classroom and get to know them. They are persons not statistics. Listening to them in this way will help us to help them better.
8. Practise what you preach. Students observe you very closely and they miss nothing. They will not respect you if you tell them one thing and do another. You will lose your credibility if your habits and values are not consistent with the conduct and standards you demand from them.
9. Look after your health. Maintaining an extremely busy schedule and keeping a large school on an even keel require a great expenditure of time and energy. Regular, healthy meals, exercise, adequate rest and regular medical checkups are necessary. You cannot run a school successfully from the office alone. Principals need to walk around the campus a lot, to ensure that everyone is on task and that the right ethos prevails.
10. Teaching is for those who love children. Teaching is a vocation. It calls for a special kind of commitment to those entrusted to our care. It is self-sacrificial by nature. We do everything in our power to develop our students academically, socially and spiritually. We do not short-change them if we are genuine teachers. They know which teachers genuinely care for them and they respond accordingly.
This is just a partial list of things my students have taught me over the years. A school is a dynamic learning community with complex relationships and many shared experiences internalized in varying ways. The threads which bind the many constituents and actors in the school together are deeply interlocked and interdependent. In such a context we are all learners.