Common teacher mistake #2

Common teacher mistake #2. Teaching effectively is mostly a process of elimination. Don’t make the most common teacher mistakes, and everything else you do will be OK. Unfortunately we’re programmed to make these mistakes. The only way to avoid them is to be keenly aware of the most common ones. Here’s #2: Allowing students to shout out answers.

Before my first year, I was advised that the very first rule of any teacher should be ‘Respect yourself and others.’ I’ve since learned that this is way too vague for a rule, especially for a first rule. If I were only permitted to have one rule, it would be “Raise your hand and wait for permission to speak.” I used to think that ‘Respect yourself and others’ implied this rule, but actually it’s the other way around.

This is an important rule yet many teachers do not realize just how important it is. It’s such an easy rule to let slip becuase, as a teacher, it feels good when you hear your question answered by someone loudly a half second after you finish asking it. If you watch any movie about an inspirational teacher, you’ll notice that the students never raise their hands to answer questions. The teacher asks something and one student calls out an interesting answer. Then the teacher asks a follow up questions and a different student calls out another great answer. The rhythm of the discussion is like a march. Question. Answer. Question. Answer.

The problem is that, off the silver screen, some students take a little more time to process the question. After a while, these slower students stop even listening to the question, knowing they won’t even get a chance to fully digest it, let alone answer it. By allowing the first student who figures it out to call out that answer, you lose the ability to assess whether the majority of your class is learning. When one student calls out the correct answer, all you can be really sure about is that at least one student understands. And since this student was self-selected, this is known in statistics as a very non-random sampling.

Though calling out answers seems to work on the movie screen, an real teacher knows to make use of one of the most important components of teaching, ‘wait time.’ The teacher first asks a question, waits a few seconds, and then calls on either a volunteer or even a non-volunteer. It’s a completely different rhythm. Musicians would say that it’s “In three.” Question. Wait. Answer. Question. Wait. Answer. It’s ‘The Wait Time Waltz.’

One way that I constantly reinforce my ‘no calling out’ rule is that I begin almost every question with the words, “Can someone raise a hand and tell me …” I also raise my own hand while I say this, transmitting a bit of a subliminal message. I probably look a little silly with my hand up all the time like that, and my class discussions don’t have the rapid-fire pace of the fictional movie classes, but I feel confident that my students don’t have the easy opportunity to tune out and let a few students answer all the questions.
Another way I’ll really force the pace down is by asking a question and then instructing the students to write their answer into their notebooks. This serves as a prolonged wait time. Then, by the time I choose a student to answer, everyone has had ample opportunity to think about it.

There will be some situations where you choose to suspend your ‘no calling out rule.’ Maybe you’re asking a fairly easy recall question and you think that most of the class knows it. What a lot of teachers do, incorrectly, is change the inflection of their voices to indicate this. “In what year was The Declaration of Independence signed?” With raised eyebrows and mouth slightly opened in anticipation. Even if this works for you, I don’t advise it since the students may get confused and think you are doing this when you’re not. Instead, if you want to have a group chant, direct it. “On this question, I want everyone to call out the answer when I finish asking it. In what year was the Declaration of Independence signed?” This may seem excessive, but it is effective and it does not confuse them. It’s a good feeling when your entire class shouts out a correct answer. Unfortunately, your ears are not sensitive enough to distinguish between thirty-four students shouting the correct answer and nineteen students doing it. I’m all for a group chant now and then, but don’t rely on it as your primary assessment tool.

(Also a mistake to not watch my workshop (see post near the end of this page) )

This entry was posted in Common Teacher Mistakes, Teach For America, Teaching Advice. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Common teacher mistake #2

  1. Jessica says:

    Thank you so, so much for this. I’m a second-year teacher (non-TFA but I am alternatively certified) and I am eager to pounce on all your tips.

  2. Ms. W says:

    That is an excellent tip. One that I need to practice more fully in my classroom…

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