Nov 17 2010


Well, it’s finally happened: I’m a teacher. Well, not officially; I don’t pay dues to a union or have tenure or anything. But I’m teaching Latin to a classroom of people, with real textbooks and everything.

Classroom with desks

Photo courtesy of csessums @ flickr

I never expected this. When I was a kid, if you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, ‘teacher’ would have been way down on the list, just above actor and professional clown. I hated the idea of getting up in front of people and talking, and teachers do that every day! Besides, with the exception of my mom and a couple others, most teachers seemed to be unpleasant, bossy people who did pointless things like making you do long division over and over on paper when you’d already been doing it in your head for years.

Yet, here I am, making up a lesson plan for my next class. And it turns out I like it. I still get nervous before every class, worrying that I’m going to freeze up or forget something important.  Or that I’ll be unable to get something across to them, and they’ll all give up and stop coming. The dread seems to be lessening a little with time, though. Of course, I don’t have to put up with a lot of the bad things most teachers deal with. All my students want to be there (or their parents want them to be), so no one is using my class as free day care. I also don’t have an administration looking over my shoulder and tying me up with a bunch of regulations from every level of government. So I realize I’m getting the good side of being a teacher without the bad of being an ‘educator.’

I’m learning a few things, too. For one, a lot of the talk about class size is nonsense. There are really only two different class sizes: singular and plural. You’re either working one-on-one with a kid, so you can figure out exactly what he understands and what he needs help with, or you’re standing in front of a group and trying to go at a pace that has the majority of faces nodding instead of looking puzzled. My daytime class usually has 11 students, and I don’t think it would make much difference if there were 20 or 30. We recite things like vocabulary and declensions together, so 30 people can do that as well as 10. If I had them take turns answering things, then class size might matter because each student in a smaller class would get to answer more often; but I don’t do that because to me that seems like an obvious recipe for boredom. So the only difference for me in a bigger class would be that the more faces there are, the harder it would be to spot the kid who’s getting lost. But that’s very possible with 10.  When people argue over class sizes in the 25-30 range, as if going from 25 to 30 is going to ruin someone’s education, it’s silly. A sea of faces is a sea of faces.

Related to that, I’ve noticed it’s not nearly as hard as I thought it’d be to tell who’s getting it and who isn’t. Students basically have three looks when you ask if they understand something:

  • The relieved nod: The look that says, “Thank goodness, I’m still keeping up!”
  • The honestly puzzled frown or head-shake: This student doesn’t get it and wants you to know that, so you’ll explain it further.
  • The frozen head-tilt: This student doesn’t get it, but is afraid he should, so he’s trying not to commit one way or the other, while furiously trying to figure it out. So he gets this frozen look, like he doesn’t want to look confused, but he doesn’t want to lie and nod either.

The first two are no problem, because it’s obvious what they mean. There will always be students who don’t get something the first time; that’s why you ask. The third one is the dangerous one, because no one is saying “could you slow down and do that again?” so you have to judge by the faces. If you ask the question in the negative, like, “Is anyone having trouble with that?” the lack of response could make you think they’re not, when really they just don’t want to say so. So I’m learning to keep the question positive by asking if they get it; or make it impersonal, like, “Should we go over that some more?” That way, no one has to speak up and feel like the dummy for not getting it. They can agree in the sense of, “Yes, you should probably repeat that in case someone hasn’t quite gotten it yet.”

I’ve also learned that a real teacher beats a video any day. Since we have the video course, my original plan was to just play the video, and then answer questions and help them with the exercises afterwards. I figured Kids These Days™ would pay more attention to a TV than to a real person. I realized pretty quickly how wrong I was. Watching them watch the video, I could see how easily they got bored and distracted or missed things. I could keep pausing the video to explain and repeat things, but if I’m going to do that, I might as well do it all myself so they don’t have to switch their attention back and forth between two teachers. They can still watch the video at home to review, since it covers the same stuff; but I’m doing all the classroom work, and that’s working much better. They respond really well to flash cards and other interactive work that a recording just can’t do very well.

Having said all that, I’m still a long way from being good at this. I need to get better at making sure they’re all participating, so the more enthusiastic ones don’t drown out the quiet ones. I probably need to slow down sometimes, and keep in mind that it won’t hurt to spend some extra time on a topic even if they’ve all basically gotten it. The course moves slowly enough that there’s no need to rush. And I need to be better at keeping them focused on the subject, because even students who want to be there can get distracted and goof off now and then.

So far so good, though. Now I’m thinking about offering my services to teach Latin at John Wood (the local community college). That would be a different course and a very different pace, with its own challenges. I’d be able to use my lessons that I already wrote up for my web site, though, and I might even get paid!

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