Todd’s Two Cents – A Good Lesson

I am a retired schoolteacher; I had a license to teach Math, Physics, Chemistry and Music in the state of Minnesota. I still substitute teach in the public schools. Most teachers teach lessons; this is my advice about how to make a lesson.

Be prepared. Know your material and be ready to present it to others. This, of course, becomes easier with repetitions, but it starts with you thinking the material through logically and creatively to find the best way to include and order the subtopics. Having a logical plan will improve your self-confidence. You don’t have to follow the plan.

Connect personally with the topic. Students need to now why they are learning something. Relate to the students some incident from your life where this topic was important. This can be as trivial as you read something in the paper about it or as essential as a story from your youth or simply your passion for the subject. This, I believe, is more important than being prepared with the subject matter. It reminds you why you are teaching this subject, and is the cornerstone our process of getting to know the students by letting them get to know us. In addition, if your lesson organization is weak or you have made a mistake, the students will help you, if you have made a connection.

Meet them where they are. This is physical, emotional, social and academic. If you are teaching elementary school, you have to sit on the floor sometimes. If someone is having a bad day (or you are) acknowledge it; and let them know you see/hear them. You may have to listen to pop music again or go to the high school football game, because your comment about the game or about the song they are listening to will show them you are interested in their lives. If you are teaching chemistry you may have to teach algebra first or if you coaching football you may have to teach them how to be a teamate first. This will cement the connection you have with the students. First connect the topic to your experience, then by knowing them you can connect it to theirs.

Do something physical. Now this is the hard part. Wear a hat that the person you’re talking about would have worn, do a science demonstration, blow up a balloon, open the window, light a candle, have someone sing a song, etc. Include your students, by doing an activity (take a poll, draw a picture, do an experiment, make origami). Students love when you “get physical”; it connects our bodies to the topic or concept.

Use dramatic effect. Probably the biggest tool you have as a teacher is humor. Tell the class you have something cool to show them, but save it for the end of the class. Lay the props for a dramatization on your desk but don’t tell the students what you/they are going to do with them. Don’t practice your demonstration, work it out with the class (purposely make mistakes). Do something spontaneous just because someone asks for it (go outside, watch a youtube video, do a favorite shtick you’ve done before). The tension and release of a mystery or a joke or a surprise makes the hour go faster and increases the learning.

Answer questions. I used to say, “Some well-meaning teacher once told me, there are no stupid questions, but we all know that is not true.” It usually got a laugh. My advice is, “Ask stupid questions, I bet you’re not the only one wondering.” Sometimes when I can’t get the students to ask questions, I will say, “Ask a question about anything.” This will usually get a response and get you way off topic, but it can break them out of their topic-induced coma. However, if you encourage questions, you have to answer them. Answer all of them, even if they are personal (within reason). Students don’t learn well from teachers they don’t trust.