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Five non-negotiables of teaching

FEBRUARY 1 — I’ve been teaching and facilitating training for slightly more than a decade now. So that’s a few dozen semesters, a thousand classes, a million test/exam papers and, so far, about 300 training hours. I’ve also run how-to-teach programmes for a hundred truckloads of teachers (you know what I mean),

And yet… after all this time… I still can’t say I know much about education or even teaching. Of course, I can spit out a brochure full of “best practises, principles and other sophisticated blah-blah-blahs” — so can any loser.

End of the day? The below are really the only FIVE absolute 120 per cent-guaranteed action-steps I can recommend to new (or not so new) teachers. These mottos are about the only things I would defend with my life and fingernails if called to.


File picture of a teacher speaking to pupils of Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina Chong Hwa in Setapak on their first day at school. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

Anything else — e.g., the significance of e-learning, the importance of curriculum design, the criticality of assessments and other concepts which scare the heck out of educators (let alone non-educators) — is up for grabs.

Here goes:

1.Teachers must make friends with their learners (yes, even those whose heads you want to use as punching bags). No friendship, no connection… no connection, no point. This means actively going up to a kid, shaking hands, saying how-are-you, asking them about life in general, etc. The student is a person and not a teaching project. Even less is s/he a Student Number.

I regret being unable to do this often enough, especially with large classes. For in the larger scheme of things, aren’t genuine friendships more important than high scores?

2. Teachers must stop teaching sometimes (even in the middle of “official” lesson times) and tell some great stories. If these stories are related to the subject, excellent. If not, then too bad for the subject.

Just like how telling stories of his life in Ireland saved Frank McCourt’s life as a teacher, developing a reputation for sharing warm-hearted stories of reality and pain and love and bad food may just make your job as a teacher a bit more fun.

3. Teachers must make it a habit to use images. It’s perfectly fine to stare at an image, look blank, say, “Now why did I put this there?” and ask the kids what they think. Seriously.

I reckon this is the top benefit of the Internet — easy access to good pictures.

I’m now going to wax “scientific” and remind you that John Medina’s brain rule #10 declares that vision trumps the crap out of all other senses. Say it only and they learn once. Say it and show it and they learn double or more.

And c’mon, how many of you love looking at slides with nothing but words?

4. Teachers must love their subject (and show it). Sounds common-sensical enough, but if you observe enough educators you may start to think this idea is a Nobel-Prize winning proposal.

Like fear and anger, the kids can sniff indifference or boredom from a mile off.

Question: How do you love it? Almost about the same way you learn to love people: act as if you do.

So, if you absolutely loved Organic Chemistry, what would you be doing? Perhaps you’d be talking about it the way football fans talk about a great game, or reading up all the “unnecessary” material on it, or collecting loads of websites.

If you were totally infatuated with Science, what would you be doing? You’d be consuming every one of those books short-listed for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science, you’d be drooling over the latest vids — you get the point.

Finally, in a world infected by superficiality and shallowness (disguised by phrases like “professionalism” and “corporate etiquette”), I reckon teachers are our only salvation. I recall a Tony Buzan workshop where he asked the audience:


  • Which group of people are the most inquisitive? Answer: Children

  • Who are the most enthusiastic? Children

  • The most persistent? Children

  • The most happy and enthusiastic? Children

  • The most eager to learn? Children

“And,” he then cheekily asked, “WE are teaching THEM how to think??” The tragedy of the destruction of children’s love for learning can be seen especially in the way they are asked to behave in school:


  • Children love to run—we tell them to sit still

  • Children love to sing—we tell them to keep quiet and “Listen to me!”

  • Children love to look deeply into objects and people’s eyes—we say, “Don’t stare!”

  • Children love to touch anything and everything—we go, “Don’t touch!”

So, can you guess the fifth non-negotiable?

Yes, correct: Teachers must behave like children.

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