Every industry the in the world must adapt its products and services to the ever-changing needs of its customers. This is no less true in education. Students have changed. With increased exposure to television, music videos, advertising and the Internet, young people have developed shorter attention spans and different values. No longer do educators command the respect and attention of students just because they are playing the role of teacher. Consequently, many traditional teaching methods no longer work. Last year’s lesson plan may not work for this year’s class.
What has remained constant is the teacher’s obligation to meet state education standards. While educators and policy makers see the value in these standards, the average back-pack-toting sophomore reporting for 2nd period may not care. Why should he? He knows what the teacher’s getting paid. And in today’s “bling-bling” culture, money talks and curriculum walks.
Before we can educate these students, we must get them to buy into the process – to accept the traditional student/teacher relationship and open their minds to new information. This comes about less from teaching and more from connecting.
Experienced professional speakers will tell you that their first step in delivering a successful speech is building rapport with the audience. They initially establish this connection not through the subject matter, but from something humanistic. They tell a story or a joke. They discuss their experience of the event everyone is attending, or of a current event everyone is thinking about. Most importantly, they meet the audience where they are at — conveying a sense of understanding and familiarity — before attempting to give them something new. The speaker knows that before she can launch into the real content of the speech, she must first establish common ground with the audience.
Effective teachers do the same thing. They know that before students respect them as teachers, they must first appreciate them as people. Some talk about their summer, their families and their hobbies, revealing enough information to seem as human as students, while remaining dignified and appropriate. Others ask about the students’ lives outside the classroom (again, keeping discussion appropriate). It is a mistake to regard these discussions as extra-curricular. A classroom with a personable instructor is an environment where curriculum is most effectively delivered and standards are met.
It is also worth noting that standards, are just that – standards. Minimum requirements. Potentially a teacher can have far greater impact on students than the state requires. A math teacher who limits his responsibility to teaching mathematical concepts is depriving his students of an important mentorship. With an ability and willingness to connect, an educator can influence students at life-changing levels.
To further enhance the classroom environment, the teacher should also promote connection among students. This goes beyond collaborative learning assignments. Occasional experiential exercises in team-building, communication and trust will quickly win students’ attention and make class a place they want to be.