Learning from Bad Class Experiences

In a recent #keltchat, a group of teachers discussed the idea of learning from bad class experiences.  What I took away from the great contributions is that, generally, teachers know they will never have perfect classes.  On the other hand, we still seem to find it hard to accept or make sense of the negative ones.  I’ve had lots of bad experiences while teaching and, looking back, I can see that quite a few of them were the result of situations I had set up myself. In short, my ideas about what “a good student” SHOULD be doing at a particular moment in class were somehow not being met (either in reality or in perception).

After a particularly bad string of classes came to a head, I found myself at a crossroads as to whether or not to actually continue teaching.  It took a long time and a lot of reflection and discussion with other teachers until the situation improved through a key realization.  I started to question my assumptions about teaching from the ground up by looking back on my own educational background throughout my formative years.  I went through a really strict school system with lots of unhappy and stressed out teachers who kept us students in line through things like collective punishment, lost tempers, grade reductions, etc.  It never occurred to me until a few years ago that I had unconsciously adopted a similar way of being in class.

From talking with others, I slowly realized that I was actually free to choose to be any kind of teacher I wanted to be and that I was free to pursue and explore these different emotional “modes” of teaching until I found something that fit me and the students more comfortably. This kind of became a turning point in my own career as I experimented more with a style that made me both a happier and more effective teacher.  The “bad classroom experiences” reduced dramatically in both quantity and intensity.  I still have bad days – I just don’t have bad semesters anymore.

The key advantage I had over many other teachers is that I had colleagues and friends who would carefully listen to me after the worst of these classes.  They were there to talk things over, commiserate, give advice, and offer perspective.  Quite a few times, they had suffered some similar experiences that I had just been through and they were there to listen without judgement.  I think that’s key.  If I had thought that I would be judged by bringing up these experiences, I would have kept things to myself and just “soldiered on”.  I would have been scared of being labelled a “bad teacher” by my colleagues or even worse, having what I told them reported up the chain to someone who could have cut short my career.  Clamming up and just “dealing with it” on my own would have been even more frustrating and, as a result, I probably would have repeated the same classroom mistakes later on.

Another advantage of talking to other teachers is that they can offer important perspective on classroom problems.  They may be able to point out weaknesses in your technique or they might have a better “ear to the ground” and know that your students are facing a problem with one of their other classes or having a private crisis, etc.  Quite often, we find that the students who are repeatedly falling asleep in our classes are doing it because they have a 3 hour commute either way in addition to a 40 hour per week “part-time” job.  The student who is using their smartphone repeatedly in class is dealing with an ailing family member and their phone is the only way to stay informed of important updates.  Students who seem unenthusiastic and unwilling to participate may actually be enjoying our classes but unable to show it for fear of social ostracism from others in the class.  Sure, this may sound like I’m making excuses but these are all real examples of things I’ve encountered in a “bad” class and later understood by talking to other teachers who knew what was really going on.

I understand that not everyone is fortunate enough to have a good friend or colleagues with enough time to sit down and really listen.  For those teachers, I recommend going online and finding someone to talk to.  Getting involved in chat sessions on twitter (like #keltchat for example – hey, don’t worry!  I always go on there and I’m not even in Korea!) and making connections with people around the world is a good way to build your own support network of professionals who have probably been in your shoes at some point in their own teaching careers.  Teaching blogs are full of advice and reflections on classroom experience that are applicable to many situations, possibly your own included.

What I’m trying to get at in this article is that, as teachers, we need to be good to each other.  When those bad classroom experiences occur, it’s vital to seek a better understanding of the situation you’ve just been through and to find people who are sympathetic and open to your interpretation of events.  I really think these are essential ingredients for positive reflection and personal and professional growth.