10 things I’ve learnt about teaching over the past year

(inspired by a similar entry on a friend’s blog)

  1. When you work on projects that you have a passion for, the energy and motivation comes naturally.
  2. Be firm on your boundaries and do not give in to last minute requests all the time. Don’t let others take you for granted and do not over-commit. Block off periods of time where you will solely focus on what needs to be done.
  3. In addition to managing your time, manage your energies throughout your day. You cannot work continuously for the whole day, so you need to take breaks. Spending time with colleagues during those breaks really helps to recharge and relax yourself so that you can work harder for the rest of the day.
  4. Cultivate a good balance between guidance and giving students’ ownership for their learning. This is easier said than done though. Giving students’ ownership is more than just impressing on them that they are responsible. The teacher needs to provide students with the tools needed to acquire that autonomy over their learning, especially for GP where most students do not know how to evaluate and assess their efforts, even with rubrics given to them.
  5. Balance being process and goal-oriented at the right times. If you are too process-oriented, you miss out on developing traits like drive, perseverance and a spirit of excellence. If you are too goal-oriented, you miss out on developing students’ ability to reflect.
  6. Manage students’ expectations. Tell them clearly when you will return work to them and let them know your constraints too. JC students (like most students) are extremely anxious to get their work back. Don’t take in drips and drabs of extra work to mark from students too – you cannot focus excessively on a few at the expense of the many students that you teach.
  7. Give students an opportunity to see who you are. Share about your life. Do not be afraid to consciously inspire and throw out cliches that you have personally experienced. Students might generally be cynical, but you never know who you will influence.
  8. Focus on knowledge, then skills and most importantly, cultivating habits. Habits is something I failed to focus on this year. When you manage to cultivate habits in your students, then half the battle is won.
  9. Being detail-oriented helps tremendously. Monitor students’ progress constantly and let them know how they are doing as a class. Always affirm them as they move along and provide them with guidance and feedback if they are not improving.
  10. Never stop asking questions – both to your students and your colleagues. Always try to find out why students got their answers wrong, rather than assuming that they don’t get it. You will realise that many times, students are trying to apply what you taught, but they do not know how to apply it meaningfully. Keep asking your colleagues for advice and feedback too. I have learnt a lot this year just from sharing and listening to ideas from my colleagues.

The most satisfying part of my job is that constant sense that I’m moving ahead and learning how to be a better teacher. I’m sure there are many more things that I’ve learnt though and I do want to make a more conscious attempt in 2011 to blog more and share what I’ve learnt in this journey as an educator.


I, the (Lit) Teacher

During my cousin’s birthday a few days ago, the inevitable question of how teaching was came up and a few relatives asked how come I’m not teaching Literature, which I’ve always said was my first love. I do miss reading in a ‘literary’ mode rather than in a ‘GP’ lens and I am indeed thankful for the holidays where I have really been able to indulge in as much reading as I want to.

Over the past week, I’ve read books which have really rekindled my love for Literature again.

Emma Donoghue’s Room

This is one of the few books I can honestly say I didn’t want to put down. Telling the story from the perspective of a 5 year old child really created an emotional resonance that made me want to follow the story and understand what he was experiencing. Much has been written about the writing style of the text, which I agree is brilliant and fascinating, providing much insight into how the child’s experiences have indeed warped his views of the world.  

Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans

Like Donoghue, Ishiguro played also with the notion of the unreliable narrator, though this was done more subtly than in Room. I loved Ishiguro’s dense and precise writing style, but I found his characterization of the protagonist Christopher Banks, in particular, rather weak. Generally though, the characters were rather flat. The detective storyline was sufficiently engaging to keep me reading to want to find out the ‘truth’ though and I didn’t feel like I wasted my time reading this book.

Rebecca Sklatt’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This is hands down the best of the books I’ve read so far. An deeply personal exploration into the background story to the Hela cells so widely used in medical research today. I would recommend all my GP students to read this because they all love Science n’ Technology. Sklatt details in an engaging manner the various controversies relating to scientific experimentation over the years and traces important developments in regulating science experiments.

However, the book goes beyond just telling us facts. Sklatt tells a story that nobody else can because she has invested so much of her emotions and energies into building a relationship with the Lacks family. Sklatt’s friendship with Deborah (Henrietta’s daughter) was truly moving and I cried when I read of Deborah’s death at the end of the book.

Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges

An intelligent exploration of the amoral state of the rich and famous today. The novel created a fascinating world which so successfully drew me in that I found it difficult to condemn and judge Adam’s criminal activities. However, the story lacks momentum at times because there isn’t really a ‘climax’ that the story drives towards. What seemed to be the crisis of the story when Adam’s almost exposed becomes neatly and tidily resolved in an almost unsatisfying manner. The story of their children in the final chapter fell back into cliche territory as I felt I was watching a typical rich-kid gets into trouble Hollywood movie. Nonetheless, Dee’s writing is extremely powerful and his prose is so delicately crafted that you keep wanting to read more.