Candle advice: the 3 most common tips I give to new teachers

Some things about teaching you can only learn on the job. 

Some things can’t be taught in a lecture hall or in a tutorial.

Some things seem to defy logic and go against what you’ve always thought about human behaviour.

And often these things can have the biggest impact on your success as an educator.

Three of the most common pieces of advice I find myself repeating year after year with pre service and beginning teachers are: using thanks, not please, speaking quieter, not louder, and giving less attention, not more.

1. Use “thanks”, not “please“. 

No doubt you were taught that proper manners involves a please when asking for something and then a thanks when receiving it. But these two words have implications. They communicate silent messages that children perceive loud and clear.

When issuing an instruction or a direction, using please implies that the person receiving the instruction can choose to follow/obey/take the advice. Or they can choose not to. A please sounds like you’re begging. A please makes it seem like the teacher has no control. Even the most assertive of pleases will never equal a single thanks. 

A thank you, issued as though the direction has already been followed, gives the student no alternative other than to do as asked. A thank you communicates an expectation and a calm control, whilst also allowing the child to gain that warm fuzzy feeling one gets when pleasing another. A thank you, particularly accompanied by a pat on the back and of walking away, leaves no room for protest, for argument, for confrontation. Instead, it results in collaboration, in teamwork, in a culture of mutual respect. 

When you would usually say, “Please stop swinging on your chair Mary”, try out “Stop swinging on your chair, thanks Mary”. Notice how the different dynamic feels by just changing that one word.

2. Speak quieter, not louder. 

When the noise level in the classroom gets higher and higher, and your temptation is to raise your voice higher and higher to get above it, do the exact opposite. Get quieter. Or, to make even more of an impression, remain completely silent with your arms crossed and with a blank expression on your face that indicates to the class that you refuse to speak until they are all listening to you. They will very quickly learn that you mean business. 

Nothing is more suspicious in a primary school classroom than quiet. It is so out of the ordinary that children pick up on it as quickly as they would hear a chocolate wrapper being opened from the adjoining room. They notice it, they stop talking to figure out what’s happening, and the effect is contagious.

Accompanying the quiet with the removal of table points or the placing of student names on the amber section of the traffic lights makes the silence even more potent. Or recording tally marks on the board. That builds up the fear- what is she counting? How many minutes of play time will we lose? How many phone calls will she make to parents? How many of our tongues is she planning to cut out? 

Once the room becomes calm and serene, whisper to the class. Make them strain to hear you. Then get to the point of your message and give them time for a reasonable level of chatter with their friends. Train them that when you speak, it is in their best interests to listen to what you have to say. 

3. Give less attention, not more. 

When you get to the point of frustration with a student that you think you are about to do or say something that you regret, walk away. Chances are that the child is equally worked up and ready to explode, and nothing can be resolved while a person or people are in this state. 

Some teachers feel as though they need to get the last word in, or have the final say. Some teachers think that they can talk or argue a child into submission. Some teachers think that making an example of one child will send a powerful message to the others. And they could be right about this last one, except the message they send will be that of fear, and nobody learns best when they’re in a constant state of fight or flight.

When your head becomes filled with “just do your work!”s and “why must you always make her cry?”s, try giving less attention to the situation instead of more. Direct the whole class to a different area of the room, distract them with a session of GoNoodle or a walk to the bubblers, diffuse the situation with some humour and move on. 

Nine out of ten times, a child whose audience has been removed will no longer perform. Take the time later in the day to debrief what happened and find out what’s really going on with that child. 

And, by all means, if the class is going berserk because there’s a bee in the room, get it out and close the windows. There’s no way a group of 25 seven-year-olds will ignore the bee just because you told them to. 


What would you add to this list?


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