Focus on Physics: Eight Tips for New (and not so new) Teachers

Being a teacher can be a wonderful experience. Making it so is greatly aided by qualities that you can acquire. Needless to say, you must know your subject and be able to explain it well. Beyond that are traits and practices that make the difference between loving teaching and enduring teaching.

Have the right attitude
Consider your attitude toward students and science in general. Don’t try to come off as the master of your classroom; instead, be the main resource person, the pacesetter, the guide. You are the bridge between your students’ ignorance and some of the information you’ve acquired in your years of study.

Steer them away from the dead ends and time-draining peripherals you’ve encountered and keep them focused on the essentials. If students see you as their helper, they’ll appreciate your efforts. This is a matter of self-interest. An appreciated teacher has an altogether richer teaching experience than an unappreciated one.

Don’t be a “know-it-all”
When you don’t know something, don’t pretend you do. You’ll lose more respect faking knowledge than not having it. If you’re a new teacher, students will understand that you’re still pulling it together and will respect you nonetheless. But if you fake it—and they can tell—whatever respect you’ve earned plummets.

Be both firm and fair
Be firm and expect good work from students. But be fair and get assignments graded and returned quickly. Design exams that are within the abilities of students who’ve put effort into learning the material. If you have excellent students, some should score 100% or near 100% on exams. This way you avoid having to curve grades to compensate for low exam scores.

The least respected teacher in my memory was one who made exams so difficult that the highest marks were some 50%.

Answer this legitimate question
“Will that be on the test?” This often-belittled question is actually perfectly reasonable. From a student perspective, what’s important—by definition—is what you test them on. If you consider a topic important, put it on your test. How frustrating to study a topic covered extensively in class only to find it’s not on the test. Or worse, the test includes material not covered in class or in reading assignments.

Students can’t predict the questions you’ll ask, but they should be able to predict what topics the test covers. Many short questions that span course content is the way to go. Knowledge that you expect them to learn should be reflected by your test items.

Give them a second chance
Consider allowing students to repeat poor work—before a final grade. A note on a paper offering another try before grading is the sign of a concerned and caring teacher. Who among us has not sadly experienced “off” days as a student? During my teaching days, my policy was that a student could retake a similar exam, and the average of the two scores would be recorded in my gradebook.

That students could move a score down as well as up kept the number of retakes to about one-quarter of the class. If all students took retakes, the process would have been unmanageable.

Ask lots of questions
Do less lecturing and more questioning. This keeps students engaged, and the feedback can be valuable for all. And knowing “where they stand” is important before you move on. Frequent “check with your neighbor” intervals can be an important and nonthreatening feature of your class. Students discuss their ideas with the person next to them before volunteers share their answers with the whole group.

Beware of the pitfall of answering your own questions too quickly. Use wait time, where you allow ample time before giving the next hint. Interestingly, a common difference between a new teacher and an experienced one is that the new teacher is quick to answer his or her own questions while the experienced teacher is likely to guide students to answering them.

Give respect. Get respect.
Show respect for your students. Although all your students know less than you of the science you’re teaching, some are probably smarter than you. This needn’t be a threat. We should relish bright students, even those brighter than ourselves. Underestimating the intelligence of your students is likely overestimating your own. Student respect for a teacher depends on teacher respect for them.

Care about your students
Ideally you should love your students as if they were family. Experiencing the camaraderie that goes with being family is quite wonderful. And if that can be the spirit of your classroom, hooray! Your teaching efforts will very likely produce more positive results than those of your not-so-compassionate, not-so-caring colleagues. In my student days I learned much more from teachers who cared not only for their field but for us.

Lucky are the students who feel valued by empathetic teachers. And lucky are the teachers who in return enjoy the students’ love and respect. How to be one of the loved and respected teachers in your school? If you practice the eight teaching tips of this article, they will love you.

How wonderful to be in a profession in which we can be loved for what we do.

Paul G. Hewitt (pghewitt@aol.com) is the author of Conceptual Physics, 12th edition; Conceptual Physical Science, 6th edition, coauthored with his daughter Leslie Hewitt and nephew John Suchocki; and Conceptual Integrated Science, 2nd edition, with coauthors Suzanne Lyons, John Suchocki, and Jennifer Yeh.

On the web
Complementary student tutorials that reflect teaching tips are on www.HewittDrewIt.com and www.ConceptualAcademy.com.

Editor’s Note

This article was originally published in the September issue of The 
Science Teacher
 journal from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).

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