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Classroom Work Just Part of a Teacher's Life

July 15, 1993|MARY LAINE YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Laine Yarber teaches English at Santa Monica High School

Everyone has a general idea what teachers do. After all, most of us have spent at least a dozen years watching them do it.

But you might be surprised to know what goes on behind the scenes in a teacher's professional life. What they do in the classroom is actually just a part of their jobs.

What more is there, besides grading papers? Glad you asked.

First, there's the obvious: Teachers have to know the subjects they teach. "Content knowledge" means knowing deeply the facts, organizing concepts and all sides of debates within a subject. Much of that is learned in college, but teachers must continually update their knowledge throughout their careers--especially those who teach quickly changing fields such as computers, science, art, and vocational courses.

In addition, teachers must know the materials that are available for teaching the subject (books, videotapes, software, models, and exhibits, just to name a few) and the teaching methods that convey the subject best.

To teach effectively, a teacher must also have the social skills to develop productive relationships with students. Some teachers are innately better at this than others, but these skills can, to a great degree, be learned. And they are important, because students learn best working with people they like.

Each teacher would probably define the student-teacher relationship differently. But most would place a high priority on developing a friendly and respectful rapport, knowing students' interests, appreciating their potential and understanding their cultures.

These relationships must also be equitable; teachers must work hard to avoid either unfair treatment or favoritism toward individual students, and also to be fair to all groups of students, regardless of gender, ethnicity or other traits.

Keeping in contact with students' parents--possibly via conferences, phone conversations or written reports--is also part of creating good relationships.

Then there's the step-by-step preparation for actual classroom teaching.

These days, the stereotype of teachers who merely recite or lecture from textbooks is pretty much dust. An effective teacher must develop a variety of instructional strategies. Fairly new methods include simulations, group tasks, Socratic seminars (in-depth discussions), computer work, debates, dramatizations, and using writing assignments in all subjects.

Assessment techniques are changing quickly, too, so teachers now have to be able to measure students' progress in ways other than traditional quizzes and exams. They prepare a whole spate of assessment activities, including portfolios, demonstrations, one-on-one interviews, and multifaceted, long-term projects.

In order to do these things in the classroom, teachers have to spend a lot of time outside the classroom, tending to what they call generally "professional growth."

That means reading journals about teaching methods and course content. It also means attending workshops, courses, conferences, and seminars offered by schools, consultants, and teachers' organizations.

In addition, many teachers go back to college for advanced study in their subjects. Peer observation and coaching among teachers are also becoming more frequent. Some teachers request and implement suggestions from parents and students.

Meanwhile, others publish books and articles based on their own research.

In addition to classroom-related duties, many teachers must also participate in school or district committees that address issues such as textbook selection, setting standards for hiring staff, designing labs, creating new courses or formulating discipline policies.

Teachers must also keep up with what's happening off campus too. That includes finding parents and other community members who can serve as guest speakers or sponsor activities and supplies.

And as part of the currently widening scope of teachers' responsibilities, they must also now know a range of local social services that students can use for problems with drugs, violence, poverty, family relations and other issues.

Finally, there's a behind-the-scenes area that I bet every teacher wishes she or he could do without: student discipline.

It takes a lot of time to devise and implement a fair and practical discipline policy, and then more time to follow up with counselors and administrators when a student has been punished.

Calling parents and, on occasion, attending conferences with students and their parents also takes precious time from more worthwhile and enjoyable behind-the-scenes pursuits.

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