Teaching is About Adapting to Human Nature

We don’t teach students, or grade levels, or subjects. We teach humans (OK, little humans in most cases, but you get the idea).

Understanding human nature is the key to connecting with studentsTeachers should not forget that when planning lessons, leading classes or listing expectations. A large and enjoyable part of my job is to observe and collaborate with teachers about honing their craft; I find my most common piece of advice is to “keep human nature in mind.” Here’s how to do that:

Remember that attitude is contagious

People take cues, both overt and subtle, from the leader in any situation. Your bodily and spoken language, appearance and enthusiasm set the official tone for your classroom.

Being sarcastic, appearing uncaring toward students or the class subject, or criticizing everyone and everything will spread throughout the classroom. This same principle applies to students’ parents. You will gain far more support being active and engaged than appearing aloof and uncaring.

Foster collaboration

Humans are social beings, always on the lookout for connections with groups. Offering activities that enable students to work together automatically taps into their social nature.

Keep in mind, though, that working in “partner groups” isn’t collaboration. That’s just working alongside one another. Collaboration happens when students move toward a common goal, share responsibility and work together to succeed.

Keep it relevant

It’s unrealistic to think everything children learn in the classroom should be immediately useful and relevant. While something learned today may only be necessary in the future, human nature leans toward what is the most useful at that moment. This creates a disconnect in learning.

When possible, class activities, lessons and assessment should play an immediate role in student lives. An example of this would be to have students not only study the state capitals (a memorization activity) but rather have them plan a trip letting them budget, set time aside AND visit each of the capitals. Sometimes good learning is “caught” as much as “taught.”

Don’t expect unending engagement

Most schools divide classes into distinct time periods, and most teachers try to engage their students for the entire class period. But it’s unreasonable to think a child can stay totally engaged that long.

Instead, human nature tells us that we all have moments of intense attention followed by a rest period where we regroup, and then another intense period of attention. A rule of thumb is that children can progressively engage longer the older they become.

Connect on a personal level

This one almost seems like a no-brainer, but it’s worth saying anyway. Human beings pay more attention, think better of, and engage better with other humans whom they feel safe with. This does not mean you have to be peers with your students, but you can be friendly without being friends.

Students will be open to what you offer when they believe you care for them. Don’t hesitate to share relevant pieces of your background, interests and items they’ll find interesting. When they know you like them, they will respect you, and be more open to what you have to offer.

Make the classroom a sanctuary

We know from our teacher training a child feeling fear or intense stress is unable to learn. They’re too busy accessing the parts of their brain that are on the verge of telling them to fight or flee.

That’s why it’s so important to make your classroom a place of safety where the stresses of the outside world do not intrude. Don’t spend class time rehashing the day’s bad news or complaining about some faraway trouble. When the classroom door shuts, the only thing that matters is your teaching and your students.

There’s no shame in repetition

Rote memorization has had a bad run lately in schools. The advent of the Internet and its instant access to all sorts of information, some have suggested that students should no longer have to memorize any facts. While this notion has some merit, I believe the ability to memorize pieces of information leads to mental acuity that spills into other life activities. Recalling times tables, memorizing the Bill of Rights or even reciting a famous speech from memory will make your students sharp in a way that is worth the time and effort.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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