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Comments to Beginning Teachers


by Harold Spears - 1942

The beginning teacher comes out of the training school saturated (or at least spattered) with advice. In view of this, perhaps these comments should be considered as a review lesson, for, after all, they represent rather elementary principles of school teaching.

THE beginning teacher comes out of the training school saturated (or at least spattered) with advice. In view of this, perhaps these comments should be considered as a review lesson, for, after all, they represent rather elementary principles of school teaching.1 We have talked much of curriculum changes called for by the war, but as to the principles of teaching, if they are sound they will stand up year in and year out.


The student is more important than the subject. The student deserves your sympathy, the subject doesn't—unless it is ailing and tottering around in an aimless manner. And, even then, it invites improvement rather than sympathy. Subjects are means to an end, the end being the maximum wholesome development or growth of the youth who is being served by the school.


On the other hand, the old saying "We are teaching children, not subjects" means little unless we can answer the natural rejoinder, "We are teaching children what?" The what is our curriculum problem. The teacher has much freedom in determining the nature of the courses he teaches; not even the textbook need restrict him. It is the responsibility of guidance to get a student into the courses that seem to promise the greatest development, and to change him from one course to another whenever the law of diminishing returns seems to be operating to a degree that would invite such change. You may have little to do with the child's getting into your course, but you have a great guidance responsibility once he is there.


Rightfully, the learner cannot be considered aside from his environment. He always has his feet mired in his own peculiar environment. Some of its elements are common to the surroundings of others, but many of its characteristics are peculiar to his world alone.


It is true that the twenty-five students before you in a class have in common the subject which brings them together, but they have "in uncommon" their varied home backgrounds, associates, etc. A father in the service, divorced parents, a close friend, a mother working, an early morning before-school job, sole ownership of a sports roadster, membership in a social clique, rejection by the group, and a thousand and one other environmental factors have their bearing on the classroom assignment. A lesson in the history room means twenty-five different things to twenty-five different class members.


Environment is not a cloak that is shed upon entrance to the classroom. It is the mud on our feet that we carry around with us, the mud that we can't shake off. It would be a waste of paper to belabor the point that the more you know your students, and consequently the more at home these students are with you, the greater the teaching advantage you hold.


No two students are alike. There is constant reference in educational literature to the differences in "needs, interests, and abilities" that exist among school children. If as a teacher you dedicate yourself to this truth, you take a load upon your shoulders, but if you are psychologically honest you can take no other course.


Intelligence scores and other such test scores don't tell the whole story of differences, but they are enough to act as the handwriting on the wall for the beginning teacher who would dare pass out uniform requirements to a class and hold a common standard of attainment. A casual glance over the group before you likewise should act as a similar warning. Educational technicians once felt that we could master the ability-difference problem with ability grouping, but it is generally realized today that the principle of ability grouping could not operate unless classes of one were set up, for whenever we place as many as two students together, we face the teaching problem of having different abilities, needs, and interests to deal with. Furthermore, sociological problems present themselves when ability grouping is attempted.


It is good business to know the reading abilities of the group (as near as the scores can tell them), to know the intelligence quotients, and those other more or less mechanical readings that are indicators of which way the wind is blowing. You would use a low reading score not as evidence that you as a teacher are helpless in the case, but rather as a teaching aid. Just as soon as you discover that one student in your ninth-grade class has a sixth-grade reading ability and another a twelfth-grade ability, the whole matter of differentiated teaching materials and expectations begins wigwagging for your attention.


Learning begins where the student is, not where the teacher is. In the good old days, as teachers we stood on the mountain top and tried to coax the students in the valley below to scale the heights. Some reached us, many more gave up, discouraged. (Example: We required Julius Caesar of all regardless of their level of literary appreciation and reading ability.)


Today we begin with the student, first determining where he stands in respect to the particular area in which we are working, and then, using all that we have, we begin the climb up the trail with him, going as far as he can go. Some will get to the mountain top, for they were near it to begin with, while others will climb but a short distance. (Example: We approach American literature by determining which American literature is now functioning in the lives of Tom, Dick, and Harry. If Tom is on the Superman level, and Dick is on the Gone-With-the-Wind level, then our methods will take the fact into consideration.)


If it is in establishing health attitudes and habits, the truth still holds. If it is art appreciation, then this truth again holds. Only by knowing insofar as possible the level of art appreciation at which your students now stand can you expect them to climb effectively with you toward higher goals. Growth or learning always begins where the individual learner is. Get your teaching satisfaction from the progress he makes from that point, and avoid the dissatisfaction of his failure to reach a goal that you might arbitrarily set closer to yourself than to him. This does not deny you the right to have teaching standards and ideals, but asks that they be attuned to the human nature at hand.


Personality plays a great part in life. You must not discount personality in the classroom. It is history by now that five years ago the New York Regents' study of the schools of that state revealed that by and large school teachers minimize personality while the business world capitalizes upon it. Whether we approve or not, personal impressions made by boys and girls who apply for jobs weigh more heavily than school records. (See Spaulding's High School and Life, Chap. IV). Remember that the person in front of you in class is first a personality, and second, a student of a particular subject. If there is any doubt in your mind about this, just note how a particular little Flossie in the group releases with ease the pent-up kittenish antics of the boys. As a teacher of the subject at hand, it may be difficult at times for you to remember that this action is more natural and more essential to the perpetuation of the race than the assignment for the day.


If we are inclined to overlook the personality factor, perhaps it is because so many of our procedures deal with grading students in their mastery of facts and skills, and as teachers who want to be fair we are on guard against "apple-polishing"—against the student who would "turn on" his personality to secure a mark that was above his scholastic performance. Out in life, gray matter, personality, and effort are all rolled into one, and perhaps only in academic institutions do we try to break them apart.


It is relatively easy to misuse the marking system. Marks, often called grades, should hardly be used as threats for failure to work or as promises for good work done. They represent extrinsic values, and the wise teacher wants his students to work for the satisfactions that are in the learning experiences themselves. If you direct a class with grade book in hand, mechanically checking the fate of each after his recitation, you run the risk of injecting a performance-for-teacher atmosphere in the classroom. The total of all these little check marks is, after all, a rather cold or artificial indicator of the growth or development that has taken place in the case of a child who has been under your influence for a semester.


You can very well use the marking system as a means by which students can help to check their progress from time to time. If the pupil has purposes of his own and spends a period of time trying to get to the goals those purposes represent, then certainly he and the teacher might well determine together his accomplishment or his progress at any particular moment.


If grades or marks alone become the chief incentive for work in your class, and keen competition for these rewards is encouraged, you need to be prepared to cope with cribbing and similar underhand methods that are resorted to when the pressure is on. Students who work for themselves, rather than for teacher or reward, take high marks and teacher commendation in their stride.


If you outline to a class the amount of work that is necessary to get a. credit you are not only emphasizing extrinsic values, but you are placing yourself in a position of having to fail students who do not reach the minimum requirements that you've set up. Furthermore, you would be outlining all these requirements before you have had time to know your students—their abilities, interests, and needs. In short, I'm afraid you'd be violating the first principle that we discussed above. Personally, I would like to teach a class at any grade level—elementary, high school, college, graduate—with as little emphasis upon marks as possible. We need to respect and encourage individualism, but we need not misuse marks to do so. Do you recall that a veteran teacher said in a recent faculty meeting that he wished that he did not have to give marks, that they hindered his natural teaching procedure? Those of us who have an opportunity to observe his shop classes are impressed with the fact that his students seem to be working for the satisfactions that their projects are bringing them.


A lifelike atmosphere is a boon to learning. You want to get the work done, but in generating the enthusiasms that will accomplish this you will find that a lifelike and wholesome atmosphere does wonders. Our classrooms must never become stagnant holes in the wall, removed from the naturalness of life itself. Human beings, just as plants, grow better where there is plenty of light and air.


There have been too many studies made regarding what pupils want their teachers to be like to review them here, but these can be summarized by the statement that the qualities that we want in our respected friends in any life situation are wanted in the classroom by the students. Be yourself.


The teacher should be a. director of learning rather than a hearer of lessons. Psychology has not yet told you exactly how learning takes place, and you cannot wait for the perfect answer—school must go on. However, it has pointed out that learning is an active and not a passive process, and that it comes from "within, and through the learner's interaction with his surroundings. The teacher and the teaching materials form an important part of these surroundings. All of this means that you don't give learning to a student, you promote it. Effective learning asks that he have the purposes and make the effort himself, you helping to direct the learning experiences that will lead him toward his purposes or goals. Teaching, then, must be a harder task than assigning something to read or "to learn," hearing the student recite back what he has read or "learned," and marking him in the book accordingly. The traditional assign-study-recite formula for classroom procedure has lost ground rapidly in recent years. Emphasis shifts more and more to students working for themselves, group and laboratory procedures, and longer unit assignments or blocks of work. Visual and auditory aids, field trips, and firsthand experiences supplement reading materials. The teacher becomes a director of learning rather than merely a hearer of lessons. And, of course, when we do use questions in drawing out knowledge, we'll use them as primers. That is, from a time angle we'll state a question as economically as possible and get as great a response as possible from it. If you're giving one-minute questions you ought to be getting five-minute responses rather than half-minute answers. The students, not the teacher, deserve the opportunity to learn by doing.


Questions and answers will always hold a rightful and important place in the classroom, but it is doubtful if you will find the assign-study-recite system satisfying day in and day out. If you have two classes or sections of the same course you will no doubt want to experiment with methods, using one procedure in one and another in the other.


In your college study did you run across the report of the extensive research study that one of the Jones boys made some years ago in respect to how much a college student retains as a result of listening to a lecture? This study of many cases revealed that, on an average, immediately after the lecture 62 per cent can be recalled, three or four days later about 50 per cent is retained, after one week the percentage drops to 37, after two weeks to 30, and after eight weeks 20, and on down. Naturally, such a study does not lead to the conclusion that a teacher will never want to use the lecture method, but it does give him some data when he is still in the stage of comparing methods and searching for the most efficient ways of teaching. And then, too, such findings tend to strengthen our appreciation of the fact that learning is an active and not a passive process.


Praise is a greater educational force than blame. You recall all of those psychological researches that emphasized this point. The job at hand is to apply the research. None of us like to be blamed for our shortcomings, even though we know they are there, and above all we don't like to be caught short in front of others. On the other hand we like a little praise thrown our way, even if it's nothing more than somebody's recognition of our hair-dress or the fact that the tread on our tires is pretty good. (Of course we hope your students bring more to school for approval than a new dress or a fair tread on their tires.) This discussion doesn't mean that a student shouldn't be taught to face reality.


Good discipline is self-discipline. Discipline as such took the center of the stage in the old school, because it was so often a take-it-or-leave-it school, with little concern for the pupil as an individual. The curriculum was a preordained affair considered good for all, and that was that. Naturally disciplinary problems were many and discipline was a popular topic at educational gatherings.


Today we speak little of discipline. The fine spirit between students and teachers in our schools reflects the fine development of teacher-training programs the past thirty years or so. The teacher feels an obligation to the student as an individual, and consequently curriculum adjustment to needs and interest is in greater pedagogical esteem than wielding the big stick over a class. The teacher does not take advantage of his position as the one who has the authority, the one who can threaten, the one who can use sarcasm—in short, the one who can push others around.


Today the teacher is concerned about discipline, but his concern about it is educational, not pedagogical. That is, he sees self-discipline as a basis of successful group living in American life, and he uses every opportunity to give the students a chance to develop their ability in disciplining themselves —in managing their own affairs. The spirit he wishes in his group is the spirit that marks misdemeanor in the group as trespass upon the group's rights, not as a misdemeanor against the teacher. He strives for a natural work situation that will not collapse as soon as he leaves the room.


If he is assigned a study hall, he should likewise be concerned about his obligation to teach American youth to handle themselves. To sit at the front of the study hall on guard is perhaps easier than educating the group in self-discipline. But if American boys go to battle to preserve the American way of life, certainly in our schools we can do no less than to teach it. We don't learn self-discipline through speeches, correct classroom answers, or editorials—we learn it through practice. It is easy for us to drive 35 miles an hour if the police car is driving behind us; it is easy for students in study hall to hold to their job if the authority is sitting before them. The test of our attitudes and learnings comes when we are on our own.


The details of school management may at times act as a deterrent to the natural enthusiasms of teaching. The larger the school, the greater the number of managerial devices and organizational mechanics that seem to eat in on the teacher's actual teaching time. School administration has to fight constantly the tendency to tighten its own security by adding more reports, more records, more controls, which in turn regiment teachers and students more and more to the point of having the school run like a mechanical device rather than a human enterprise. Likewise, you need to guard against operating your own classroom in a cold and mechanical manner. We all appreciate the necessity of organization, but you must help to determine when those controls get beyond the point of means and smack of organization as an end in itself.


Sometimes the pressure of mechanical routine may make you want to scream. If so, just scream and maybe that will be a relief. If it isn’t, go beyond that and question the procedures. Maybe you’ll have a suggestion to offer. Your standard for judging all administrative and managerial devices and routine should be—does this device or this particular routine help us in the wholesome development of the boys and girls?


It seems impossible that you should be alive, young, and a teacher in this decade without having some social opinions, and that these opinions should not appear important to you. For no matter what you teach—even if it is music or needlework—social and political issues are in some way going to enter your teaching life. The very fact that you are a servant of the state or of private employers makes this inevitable; and you may as well take stock of what you can and cannot do about your opinions in the role of teacher. —Henry W. Simon in PREFACE TO TEACHING







1 A bulletin issued by Dr. Spears to the Faculty of his school.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 44 Number 3, 1942, p. 169-175
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9226, Date Accessed: 10/25/2021 10:03:31 AM

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