While on holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of daily teaching life, I have plenty of time to reflect. This opportunity brings about some useful insights. One of the things I’ve recently noticed is that I’m a slave to my habits. In the morning I switch on my laptop instead of doing a short workout first. When I’m tired I have a cup of coffee instead of making myself green tea or just going out. I do these things in spite of the burdensome feeling that I shouldn’t be doing them – either because I consider them unhealthy or damaging.
This realization made me ponder my teaching ‘habits’. Are they good or are they automatic and thus it’s difficult to judge their effectiveness? By no means am I talking about classroom routines which are born out of well-thought planning. I’m talking about habits which have taken control over the way I teach.
A teacher’s extensive experience is undeniably a great thing but I believe it can also hinder effectiveness of instruction. Let me give an example; an experienced colleague of mine always checks students’ homework at the beginning of class. He does so because he believes revision should come first in the lesson. The consequence of this is that some of his students regularly skip the first minutes of the class and if you ask, these students admit that they usually turn up late for one obvious reason – they haven’t done their homework again and want to avoid the feeling of embarrassment. It’s difficult to judge whether this is a useful classroom routine or if it’s just a habit on the teacher’s part which subsequently creates bad habits on the students’ part. I suppose it depends on the perspective.
But I also have my special classroom wonts. For example, I always plan a test for the beginning of a lesson. I don’t think about it very much now but I definitely started doing so for a specific reason; I didn’t want to stress my students for longer than necessary. As I haven’t really challenged this routine since, I can’t say that it’s justifiable any more. It’s become another habit which I tend to stick to because I once believed it was useful.
I have a habit of answering a student’s question in more detail than necessary. I hate it when people do this in everyday conversation so why do I do it myself in the classroom? Perhaps I want to make sure everybody understands, but is it really necessary? Sometimes it can turn out counterproductive because the student stops listening to me once she gets it and the rest is often just a redundant babble taking away the precious time.
I’m not saying that old habits are inherently bad but I can say with certainty that they die hard. But first things first: one needs to detect a bad habit to be able to deal with it. Thus it’s good to stop and analyze from time to time. Classroom observation or video recording are ideal: your attention is drawn to nuances you’re no more aware of. But if you are the observant and reflective type of person, you can easily tell by your students’ reactions that you’ve just done something they are allergic to – a word, a phrase or a gesture. These can be part of your identity but they can become pretty irritating. Habits are a source of safety but they can bring about boredom as well (and malicious laughter and imitation, for that matter).
What are some of the classroom practices that need to be challenged – the things you’ve been doing for so long that you no more think about their effectiveness or even harmful effects? Have you ever caught yourself doing something really ridiculous only to realize that you actually do it all the time? How did you find out and what did you do about it? I believe these are the questions a teacher needs to ask regularly in order to continue developing as a professional.