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What Works in the Classroom

Thoughts from a 20-year teacher

     I’ve been a teacher, part-time, for 20 years. My students have ranged in age from two to 79. My subjects range, too: music, French and English as a Second Language. I’ve taught at two elite private elementary schools and two public institutions of higher education. Except with my own kids, I’ve skipped middle and high school.
    This non-traditional career path — along with observations gleaned from the education of my own two adult children — has made me a learner as well as a teacher.

Back to School Shopping
    I don’t earn much, so shopping begins at home with gathering essentials that engage. I have enough cast-off notebooks and one-sided Xeroxes to keep me supplied in paper for years, though my correcting pen supply needs regular replenishment. Also, a new binder or organizer is in order as my old one finally burst its zipper after 18 years. It was a fine investment, purchased with a coupon.
    I don’t invest in a professional wardrobe, but I dress my best without overdressing, emphasizing accessories that grab the eye. A teacher has just one chance to make a good first impression and daily opportunities to lose the allure, so I capture my students’ attention with style, color and mystery.
    I was amazed to discover how much more watchful my singers were when I replaced the old black music stand with a stylish orange one. Likewise, buttons in foreign languages, creatively tied scarves and unique pins have all helped me establish rapport. The World War II submarine pin my grandfather fashioned in the shipyard was a favorite with midshipmen.

The Good Teacher
    The good ones don’t leave their job at the end of the day. It follows them home and to bed. It took me years of lesson stressin’ to hit on a winning formula for class preparation: a detailed plan that teaches to a variety of learning styles and allows for flexibility — but a plan I am also willing to abandon. My syllabus is a suggested menu rather than a rigid diet, and I don’t teach to tests.
    With my adult learners I like to shake it up. I’ll say something controversial to see where they will go with it. I rely on the power of whimsy. Jokes, mimes and song all play in my language classes.
    The best learning happens when I wing it and address the students’ concerns of the moment. That might mean reteaching the basics — orally, in writing and visually, complete with YouTube videos.

The Good School
    A good learning environment is palpable in the air and visible in the students’ comportment as they work. It is structured and disciplined yet values each child and teacher enough to let them work to their own strengths. The best school I ever taught at was a private Montessori school where a typical week saw gifted fourth-graders working out the square root of 10-digit figures and focused kindergarteners illustrating a map of the world labeled in cursive.
    The worst school I ever taught at counseled teachers to ignore rudeness and inattention because the students understood appropriate behavior and work expectations and would demonstrate it when ready.

The Good Student
    Motivated students make the best learners, and motivation comes from within. One reason I love teaching ESL to adults is that they are desperate to learn what I have to offer. They ask intelligent questions and make time for class at the expense of their personal lives because English is a life skill they need. Conversely, some college students I’ve taught expressly told me they just wanted a D to fulfill the credit. With successful children, motivation was the joy of learning and accomplishment, which they intuited from an environment that placed paramount value on industry and productivity.
    Kids who learn the gratification of hard work young grow into productive and happy adults. Parents, teachers and schools pave the way by helping each child identify and nurture special talent. To that end, we need arts and foreign languages in the schools: The kindergarten map artist deserves just as much opportunity to shine as the fourth-grade math prodigy.

Jane Elkin is an adjunct instructor at Anne
Arundel Community College and author of World Class: Poems Inspired by the ESL Classroom.