September 16, 2017

When I started out as a teacher, one of my more experienced colleagues told me that to be a good teacher all you have to do is be kind and consistent. The years since has only convinced me of her wisdom, but I think if she was still teaching today she might have added a third thing, be present.

Up until about five years ago, when you were at school, you were in a bubble. Unless there was death in the family, all news could, and would, wait until the end of the day. I can still remember during the 1992 Cricket World Cup; our principal would make all call announcements to keep us up to date with the score. It was almost as if the classroom was a sacrosanct space where everything paled before learning for both teacher and learner.

This wasn’t by design or enforced by rules. It was the reality of life; you could only be in one place at a time. The smartphone changed it all. Suddenly you can get a message from your husband reminding you to pick up milk; an email from the principal about that irritating parent and read about the terrorist attack on the other side of the world and all of this while you are teaching how to differentiate an equation. While the kids are working, you can quickly grab a moment behind your computer to catch up on your email or let’s be honest grab a moment to see what is going on on Facebook.

The value of a present teacher.

We all know teachers are underpaid and overworked. There are not enough hours in the day to get through everything, so who can blame teachers for grabbing every opportunity they can to do a bit of multitasking.
But the being present, is what distinguish a great teacher from the rest. By not multitasking and rather putting all your focus and energy on the learners in front of you at that moment, you are telling them that they are important. That there is nothing in the world more important to you at this moment than them and their learning.
I have tested this idea a few times in my class. While the learners are doing individual work, I would spend part of the time sitting at my computer, catching up on my emails, the rest of the time I would be walking around, helping here and there, or sometimes just sitting on a desk watching them work.
No matter how many times I tell them they are welcome to interrupt me while I am at my desk, they seldom do. However, while I am walking around the classroom, they would often get my attention to ask a quick question.

Model good behaviour

Adults and teachers specifically are very good at pointing out learner’s bad habits. But what we seldom think about is the bad habits that we model. We all know the old saying,

Do as I say not as I do.

We might complain about the notifications on learner’s tablets distracting them, or learners being busy with other things while they should be listening or working. But so often we are distracted by an email that just has to be answered or you quickly have a look what is happening on Twitter, instead of walking around answering questions, pointing out misconceptions and interacting with your learners.

We can tell learners time and again that multitasking is not effective. Until we stop doing it ourselves they will not believe us.

Make your classroom sacrosanct again.

Distractions didn’t originate with smartphones; it is as old as time.But let’s not fool ourselves, smartphones increased the number of distractions exponentially. So maybe it is time, that we make our classrooms sacrosanct again, intentionally.
I have recently made a deal with my learners.
While we are in the classroom, we give each other our full attention.
For the 45 minutes per day that they are with me, there is nothing more important to them or me.  They are not allowed to multitask other homework while listening to me and I am not allowed to check my emails and work on my computer. Unless we are using the internet in our learning, we are not using it. We leave the world to itself while we learn.
In a world full of distractions it is liberating to just focus on one thing for those 45 minutes. And to realise that the world continues to survive even if you do not know what is happening on the other side of the world.

Give it a try. Both you and your learners will thank me.

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