21 tips for new teachers from a Jesuit educator

*The following story originally appeared in America Magazine

By Rev. Ryan Duns, S.J., assistant professor of theology in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences at Marquette University

Ryan Duns, S.J., (photo provided by the author)
Rev. Ryan Duns, S.J., assistant professor of theology in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences.

Nearly a decade ago, I composed this list of “best practices” for The Jesuit Post to help new teachers when they went into the classroom. I wrote with an eye to high school teaching; but as I re-read the advice, I think it applies to grammar school and college students as well. I have edited a few of them to make them sharper.

Let me emphasize: These are based on my own experiences in the classroom. If I have been a successful teacher, it owes much to the quality of students I have been privileged to teach, my own personality and the sage advice of wise teachers. To each of these recommendations, then, I would add an Ignatian tantum quantum: To the extent that this is helpful, use it. To the extent that it is not, ignore it. I’m not a guru, just a guy who had to learn (often by failing) to make his way in the classroom!

Category No. 1: the ‘Pay Attention to Them’ Division

man and woman sitting on chairs

1. Contrary to popular stereotypes, teenagers are not shallow. They just don’t know they are deep…yet. It’s your responsibility to uncover latent gifts and hidden depths. They’re there.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask profound questions. Develop strategies to talk about sensitive issues, but have the courage to engage them. In addition to course content, you are teaching a style of thinking and dialoguing that our world needs today. Teaching students how to listen, to think critically and reflectively, and to respond respectfully: this is teaching them a way of being human.

3. Take the time to read and comment on written work. Actively engaging with their work will allow you to learn about them and, by signaling your interest in their work, provide an opening for further conversations.

4. Remember that the smallest unit in the classroom is not the student. It is the sub-group of students. Watch how they arrange themselves into cliques. A lot of acting-out behavior isn’t directed toward you so much as it is an attempt by the student to secure a place in the sub-group. As you look upon your classroom and see how the students subdivide themselves, keep an eye on the margins and frontiers. It’s easy to want to be the popular teacher and get in with the popular kids.

5. Go to sporting events, attend cultural performances, chaperone dances and moderate clubs. If you take an interest in students, they are more apt to be interested in what you’re teaching. Do not forget the kids on the margins—some just need a little coaxing to help them find their tribe.

6. These kids live a great deal of their lives behind screens. Do whatever you can to get them to engage with you, or one another, in a healthy way.

Category No. 2: the ‘Know Yourself, Be Yourself’ Division

7. True, nobody knows you like you know you. But you can always know yourself better. And the better you know yourself, the less you’ll be inclined to foist your foibles onto your students (and fellow teachers). The Oracle at Delphi’s counsel remains sound: Know thyself!

8. Don’t abuse your power over them. Instead, use your power as a role model and guide to empower them to discern, and to embrace, who they are called to become. One word of encouragement, one gesture of support, may be all the encouragement a student needs on that day to persevere.

9. Do not make them the center of your life, because you are not the center of their lives. They are important to you, but you have to remember who is at the heart of your life. I pray before bed each night so that I fall asleep thinking of the One who is the center of my life. I’d suggest such a practice to anyone. Who is at the heart of your heart? Let this be your center of gravity.

10. Each day, as you prepare your lessons, you are setting the table for your students. Many are picky eaters to start, so resign yourself to serving chicken nuggets and fries at first. With grace and patience, you’ll have them eating sushi, filet and drinking the fine wines of your discipline by the end of the semester. A semester, or a year, is a long banquet. Take your time and savor it.

11. You will not be a living legend at the end of your first week. Or, for that matter, your first year.

Category No. 3: the ‘Technical Teacher Tricks’ Division

12. Craft assignments to help them discover. Stretching them is good, especially if you encourage them and build their confidence. This is a generation afraid of being wrong. Embolden them to ask a good question and to risk answering it. If they get it right, celebrate; if they get it wrong, teach them to laugh at their mistakes and show them how to correct their thinking.

person using pencil

13. Students lose homework. They don’t lose old tests. If you recycle tests, be prepared for them to cheat.

14. They cheat. Don’t take it personally. Don’t make it easy, either: experiment with novel essay prompts, new quiz questions, different versions of tests. It takes time, but I’d rather spend time constructively than waste time following up on academic integrity issues.

15. Transparency is your friend. If your school uses an online grade book parents can access, update it frequently. If there are problems with students, let the parents know. Younger students (freshmen and sophomores) probably need ongoing assessment and, therefore, lots of grades. For college students, be sure to be in touch with the student’s adviser if you sense something awry.

16. Don’t yell. It adds negative energy to the environment, and it’s a sign you’ve lost control.

17. We all know what it is like to have to work when we’re not feeling well. Remember, too, that kids can feel tired and run-down. Give them the benefit of the doubt—if a kid is looking drowsy or unwell, lay off.

18. It’s better to over-prepare than to under-prepare.

19. Technology does not a teacher make. Fads and gadgets cannot take the place of a good teacher. Technology is a tool, not a replacement.

Category No. 4: the ‘Love Them’ Division

20. Love them. Long after they have left your classroom, years after they have forgotten the content of your course, they will remember you. You are, whether you like it or not, assuming a role in their life’s story. Will you contribute a chapter or a footnote? Will you allow yourself to be a major character or will you play but a supporting role? Your loving support will beget within them their own freedom to take risks and to discern their life’s calling.

21. Auntie Mame said: “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” Like cooking, teaching is an art. Give your whole heart to it and know that—though each day’s lesson may not turn out as you expected or hoped—you’re giving it your best and that your students will be fed. Sometimes they don’t even know they are hungry; but with the right enticement, you’ll find that they’re quite eager to “tuck in” and taste what you’ve prepared.