20 Habits of Highly Effective Educators
If you’re a long-time educator like me, you’ve probably seen every student trick in the book. These days, the constant stream of new technology means that student excuses are a little more elaborate than the sorry old “my dog ate my homework” tale. But that doesn’t mean that students aren’t still communicating with us through their excuses and frustrations. And, when students don’t pay attention, turn in their assignments, or exhibit any interest in succeeding in your course, you may also find yourself getting frustrating and feeling demoralized.
When this happens, it’s time to shake things up, for the students and yourself! Take a look at these best practices from educators who use their creativity, dedication, and knowledge to optimize their students’ chances for success:
- Maintain frequent contact with students. Learn student names, answer questions and emails promptly, and write thorough comments on student work. In online courses, maintain a continuous presence by responding to student posts and participating in chats on a regular and scheduled basis. This is important because as some researchers have noted, “The anonymous feeling of the online environment can make it easier for students to withdraw, participate minimally, or completely disappear from the course.” Prevent that from happening by staying in touch with your students. [Check out our article on how to light social engagement afire].
- Keep a back-up plan in reserve. Sometimes, the curricula and/or classroom exercises you have planned doesn’t work out. That’s OK—it happens to the best of us. Always have an alternative tactic in the queue so that you can keep students moving steadily toward the lesson or course outcomes.
- Switch the script. Don’t rely on the same old tired teaching plans or lectures. If you’re bored, the students will be. So try something new. When you want to refresh your teaching, search the web for sites geared toward pedagogy in your subject, or check out some of the general sites dedicated to teaching strategies, such as “A Brief Summary of the Best Practices in College Teaching” offered by the University of North Carolina.
- Design comprehensive syllabi: Teach101 states that “the syllabus needs to lay out the bureaucratic ground rules of the course, and it should also carry some materials that the students probably won’t read but that will provide protection for the faculty member if there are problems or disputes in the future.” Your syllabus should include as much relevant detail from.
- Don’t be afraid to innovate. Embrace an experimental outlook when it comes to your teaching. The traditional lecture style is comfortable and allows subject-matter experts to explain the subjects they know best, but for some students, this isn’t the best way to learn. In fact, “higher education leaders increasingly attribute the high attrition rates in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines to the passive lecture style.” Instead, use cutting-edge technologies to keep students involved. Clickers, iPads, flipped classrooms—all of these can be used to create a new dynamic in your courses.
- Develop your technological aptitude. Don’t be that professor trying to figure out how to use the computer while restless students giggle and grow frustrated. Don’t be the professor that can’t help their online students navigate the course learning management system, either. Attend all the training sessions offered by your college, and ask questions when you don’t know something—just like you encourage your students to do.
- Listen to your students. I don’t mean listen to their problems. I mean really pay attention to what your students’ work is telling you about how the course is going. Once, 90% of the students failed the first exam in one of my courses. A good instructor will pay attention to that and determine what went wrong. In this case, the textbook (which the administration had chosen) was well beyond the average reading level of the students in the course. I had to make significant adjustments to both the reading assignments and my teaching content so that they understood the material.
- Maintain professional conduct. Students will model their conduct on yours. Set precedents at the start of the course by using correct grammar when you write and speak, take a measured approach to controversial topics, adhere to all school regulations regarding faculty conduct and student work, and generally behave the way you hope your students will.
- Admit when you don’t know something. Similarly, if you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t evade the question or make something up. Use the computer in your classroom to demonstrate the correct way to research an answer. Or, if you are teaching online, give the students a chance to look it up and contribute what they find to the discussion. This is an opportunity to show students how to continue lifelong learning—and to develop a little humility along the way.
- Set clear expectations. Today’s students require very comprehensive, detailed instructions for many aspects of their course work, especially when new technology is involved. Create a level playing field between all students by providing as much clarity in your instructions as possible.
- Respect your students. You are the authority in the course, but you can’t let that power go to your head. Arrogance, disdain, and impatience are immediately apparent to students, and that can lead not only to unpleasant exchanges, but to disengaged students who do not respect you or the course. Remember that they are there because they want to learn or are trying to achieve a career goal, and respect them as not only students but also as individuals working to improve their lives.
- Identify struggling students as early as possible. We all have students who immediately trigger our concerns, whether it’s for behavioral issues or because they do not perform well on early assignments. Don’t dismiss this as a fluke or a sign that they only need to “get used to” your teaching style. Contact them and provide information about your school’s academic support services or other tools they can use to get back on track before the semester gets away from them.
- Be consistent with school policy and procedures. Make sure that your grading scheme, course rules, and policies on plagiarism and cheating are consistent with the student handbook. This protects you from any charges of favoritism or discrimination, and it helps students develop a consistent work ethic themselves.
- Connect with colleagues. Teaching, especially online, can feel like a solitary enterprise much of the time. To keep your spirits up and a sense of connection with the larger education community, join online teaching communities or professional organizations relevant to your field. You will be able to draw wisdom from a community of experts and, hopefully, get some validation along the way. Check out our article on how to build your professional learning network.
- Share your enthusiasm. Don’t be shy or worry that you are too geeky or nerdy when you get carried away discussing a favorite subject. There’s a reason you went into teaching: you love your subject! Your attitude can be infectious and help many students see the benefits of all of their courses.
- Build opportunities for competency-based learning into your courses. For many students, college schoolwork can be intimidating. Don’t punish them for what they don’t know. Instead, create assignments that incorporate rough drafts and rewriting opportunities. Students will develop confidence as they learn how to monitor their own work and improve as they go along.
- Vary student activities to give everyone a chance to shine. Students have a wide variety of strengths and weaknesses. Make sure that you assign different kinds of work so that students who excel in multiple choice quizzes but not essays get a chance to succeed, and vice-versa. This also has the benefit of countering the bad stereotypes of traditional courses as lackluster, flat experiences.
- Maintain contact with support staff so that you know about student resources. Stay in the loop with librarians, academic advisors, and administrators. They are valuable sources of information and can help you refine your teaching methods, solve classroom problems, or address student problems.
- Continue your own professional development. It can definitely be difficult to work time for professional development into your busy schedule, especially if you teach online some distance from college campuses or research libraries. But it’s important to remember that not only do you need to stay current with the newest knowledge in your field, you also need to continue your own intellectual development.
- Take a break! Teachers are caring people, and sometimes the needs of our students can be heart-wrenching. Though we may try our best to help them, it is inevitable that not all students will succeed. It is absolutely necessary for educators at all levels to remember that once you do your best, there’s little else that can be done. Keep your work in perspective and remember that it’s your job, not your life.
You won’t do all of the things I’ve suggested above all the time; that’s OK. The important thing to remember is that teaching is always a dynamic profession that changes with different student groups, different colleagues, and new technologies constantly changing the parameters of your experience. Flexibility and an open mind can help you maintain your own standards no matter what happens!
[Editor’s Note: Article contributed by an anonymous guest poster.]