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The Art of Teaching: Part 3

By Mr. Ben Walter & Ms. Manjola Koci
 
Part 3 - Knowing Your Students
 
"Now children, let's have two claps!" will bring a glower to the faces of eighth grade boys at 8:00AM. And if a first grade teacher muses to cherubic faces that, "The friendship between frog and toad puts me in mind of what Cicero said in De Amicitia that, 'Friendship consists of a perfect conformity of opinion upon all subjects, divine and human, together with a feeling of kindness and attachment...'" the class would be thoroughly bewildered.
For a teacher to effectively communicate to a class, she needs to know the class and the students in the class. This, according to Gilbert Highet, is the third essential quality of a teacher: to know the pupils. For some teachers, this understanding is intuitive. For others, it may take more deliberate observation, and even some reading in child psychology.
 
Knowing your students takes self-reflection and observation. First, teachers should try to remember what it was like to be young[1]--the quick-changing moods, the excitement, the easy boredom, the wonder, the joys, the disappointments. At any rate, young people think differently from adults. The teacher who does not fully appreciate this will be frustrated and will quickly lose the interest of the students. 
 
Highet writes, "The wise teacher will set to work, with his very first class, to observe the commonest traits that show character, to look for hidden resemblances of personality even between pupils who seem quite different to the eye, and to test his findings both by checking back with earlier records and by watching how his products turn out, years after they have left his class." (Highet, p. 41)
 
While Highet does not advise the classroom teacher to psychoanalyze each student, he recommends that teachers be able to classify students into certain types, as most students fall into easily recognizable patterns of behavior and thought. There are, of course, the eccentrics that defy classification with their chimerical, quixotic, and erratic characters. We (fondly I might say) have some of our own at the Academy. Teachers treat them carefully! 
 
A teacher, in order to learn about the young, and her own students in particular, should observe closely in the classroom and outside of it. At times, it may even be helpful to participate in games alongside the students. I know, for instance, that some of our teachers thoroughly enjoy a good snowball fight! And, following this time together, these teachers could tell you that they learned something about their students.
 
As an experienced teacher, Ms. Koci can bring her wisdom to this topic. She says, "I like to use humor to show the students that I know and care about them. It is important to show genuine interest in their lives. For example, when a 2nd grader tells you about their new puppy, be excited. Teenage girls like to discuss fashion and be able to complain to someone. The more they complain, and you don't react, the more they relax. Go to students' sports games--they appreciate it!” 
 
One more word of advice from Gilbert Highet is to keep the relationship with students impersonal. He says, "Never step out of the bounds of your profession." What he means is that the best way for teachers to help students is to provide them with a steady and objective point of view, especially when they complain or need help. Ms. Koci concurs. She says, "Knowing your students does not mean trying to be "cool" or popular as a teacher. Instead, gain respect through integrity. Always speak the truth with love!"
 
 
Stay tuned for Part 4: "Know Other Things (Humor)"


[1] It is important to note that Highet does not advise teachers to be, seem, or act like young people--rather they should understand them.
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