Teachers: Expose Yourself and Show Your Work

All, Education, Rants, Teaching

show-your-workHow often do you show your work to your students? Those who teach in fields such as math and science may well practice this regularly, but a recent conversation with some of my students (who also happen to be teachers) leads me to believe that we should do this more. I think all too often English and language arts teachers have not done a good job at this — at least based on my own experience and conversations with my peers. I am talking about showing our work in two different ways – first, how do we handle the visible mistakes we make before our students, and two, how much of our own process do we show our students.

When you make a mistake in class, how do you react?

a)      Do a quick song and dance and hope no one remembers the flub that led to your new routine
b)      Continue on and ignore the mistake in hopes that no one noticed
c)      Admit your mistake and move on
d)      Seize it as a teaching opportunity

When I was a young teacher I was more likely to choose A or B and today (now that I am older and wiser) I usually choose C but that recent classroom conversation has made me realize that every time I do not choose D I am missing an opportunity.

share-your-thinkingAs a teacher and a parent, I am happy to admit when I don’t know something and use it as a teaching opportunity (or rather a learning opportunity) but there are lots of times when I make a mistake that could be equally opportune. Not only might we learn from investigating or at least reflecting on larger questions but simply stumbling over spelling or grammar problems could be an amazing teaching opportunity. Think about the student who knows she is a poor speller. How wonderful will it be for her to discover that her teacher sometimes forgets spelling rules and needs to consult a dictionary or others? Not only can you help such students by demonstrating that even the sage on the stage sometimes struggles, but together you can investigate and discuss the rule that you broke or forgot. Chances are your students will remember that rule a lot longer than they would have if you simply taught it as part of a lesson. Teach them the little memory tricks you use as you use them. I believe that these simple strategies can not only help your students learn more effectively but will also bring your class together as a learning community.

Perhaps an even bigger missed opportunity is not showing our students our process for thinking through or planning a particular project. We want our students to think critically and we want them to write well, but I believe we are missing a crucial part of the learning experience by not showing them how we do it and discussing the good, bad, and ugly aspects of our personal process. I’ve always explained my personal writing process to my students and I’ve more recently developed the habit of explaining why I design my class and assignments, but I think I need to be a lot more deliberate about sharing my thought process and not just my reasons. It is not enough (although as a National Writing Project teacher I know it is a powerful lesson) to simply write beside your students — you must also talk to them about what is happening when you write. Talk about your bad writing sessions as well as your good ones so they can see the struggles you face and see you work through them. I need to deliberately share my critical thinking process just as I do my writing process. After all, I consider it important for my students to reflect on their process – why shouldn’t I expect to share mine?

expose-your-mistakesIt is human not to want to expose ourselves in this way. When I air my dirty linen for the first time in a class it is always frightening and very nerve-wracking, but I think the fact that I go first makes it easier for my students to share and I believe we all learn from the experience. Some teachers worry that showing off their mistakes or their lack of knowledge or their thinking could cause their students to lose respect, but I believe a little humility and honesty are much more likely to lead to respect. Do you expose your mistakes and missteps to your students? Do you share your own learning and thinking process with your students?