How to become the best instructor is not as simple as understanding the content that you are teaching, in fact knowing what you are teaching is only the foundation. Don’t get me wrong, if you don’t know what you’re teaching, you’re never going to be able to figure out how you have to teach it, but there are also less obvious variables that need to be considered as well.
1. Know who you are teaching – If you don’t know who you are teaching to, you minimize your chances of being an effective instructor. Even if it’s just one student, you need to understand what their learning needs are – I’m not just talking about what they need to learn. Learning for each student goes much deeper than this. Sure there may be some obvious learning challenges to address in some cases, like dyslexia, dysgraphia, physical challenges, etc., but when it comes down to it, understanding where a student is in their current level of understanding, what life experiences they’ve had inside and outside of the classroom, and what makes them want to learn, is the key to breaking down walls and building up learners.
2. Understand your strengths and weaknesses – As hard as we may try, none of us are perfect, so being able to reflect on who you are right now as an instructor and who you want to be, is super important. Just like some of the behaviors and thinking that we develop from our families, very often we have teaching styles that mimic or are in response to the learning experiences we had as learners in the classroom. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however we can never get caught up in thinking that the way things were taught in the past, have to be the same way kids should be taught now and in the future. The only way we can really grow as instructors is by practicing self-reflection and taking responsibility embracing our successes, but also finding solutions in the cases where students aren’t engaging or understanding what we are trying to help them learn.
3. Being prepared for everything – You didn’t just jump in a car one day and roll onto the expressway (hopefully!), so jumping into a session with a student or group of students shouldn’t be any different. Practice! Practice! Practice! You practice driving so that in most situations you will be able to handle whatever comes your way – the same holds true for being an effective instructor. The more prepared you are the better your chances are for helping your students reach their goals and maximize their potential. Structure is important – students should have a clear understanding of what the learning goals are and the path that you will take together to get there, however, over-structured or over regimented learning sessions can be just as bad as chaotic ones. It is important that you leave some wiggle room for what might happen and/or a pivot that might be an essential part of helping students master their understanding. If you are prepared, you’ll have the flexibility to adapt to go “off-roading” whenever you hit a “roadblock.”
4. Never make assumptions – When you go into a session with your mind made up about what a student can accomplish in a day or a lifetime, you are setting them up for failure. Everyone learns differently and at a different pace. As instructors it is not our place to set limits, it is our place to set goals that help each student grow and maximize their potential. It’s natural to compare and contrast students – we want to have some type of metric to use to gauge where a student is at in their evolution of understandings and skillsets, however when we use these comparisons to judge or put limits on students, we create unnecessary barriers for them instead of ladders to help them get over the barriers that they have no control over. Not every student will build rockets or go to the moon, but who are we to tell them that they shouldn’t reach for the stars.
5. Teach them how to fail – I’m not saying that you should go out and tell students to get F’s on their report card – we’d all be out of a job if that was the case, but what I am saying is that learning from failure and to critically think about things and to ask questions is essential. We know that nowadays you can jump online and find out facts about anything and everything and that it’s pretty easy to regurgitate text from a book, but what students struggle with the most in our very competitive culture, is understanding that failure is just as important, if not more important than success. Teaching students to not get discouraged or stuck when things just didn’t turn out how they expected and to reflect on what caused the failure, is probably one of the best and most universal skills that you can teach them. Some of the greatest discoveries have come about via iteration – there is a lot to be learned from it. Reminding students of this, walking them through the process of reflection, and helping them move forward, rather than judging them on their failures will help you build trust and to connect with your students.
There are lots of logistics that we can address when talking about optimizing instruction for tutors, like understanding all of the technical components, establishing schedules, reviewing behavioral expectations, explaining communication protocols, etc., that are keys to successfully teaching students, but sometimes we need to examine the intangibles (listed above) to take learning from a good experience to a great one!