Five Traditional Teaching Habits to Avoid

by John Barone

New teachers often base their teaching techniques on how they were taught. Unfortunately, some bad habits continue to be passed down through the years. Eliminate these five from your teaching, and watch your classroom communication improve by leaps and bounds!

1. Shh!

Why are we still shushing students to get them to be quiet? Because we learned to shush from our teachers before us. Most educators would agree that shushing is not an effective tool to get attention, mostly because it’s contagious. One shush from the teacher and well-meaning learners join in the shushing, adding more noise to the cacophony, to the point where the only noise left in the room is the shushing.

Try this instead: Use visual, verbal, and kinesthetic signals to get attention, such as holding up the peace sign, flickering lights, or fun “call and response” signals like:

Teacher: “Hear ye; hear ye!”
Students: “All eyes on the queen [or king]!”

When using a signal for attention, wait for 100% percent attention before continuing with the class, using other tools such as proximity, narrating the attention (“I’ve got about 90%, almost there”), praising those who are quiet, or my favorite, “When it’s silent, I’ll know that you are ready.”

2. Talking Too Much

In most classrooms, the teacher talks a lot more than the learners, and often unnecessarily. Too much “teacher talk” makes it difficult for students to understand, remember instructions, and remain focused.

Try this instead: Give instructions using as few words as possible. Teach more by asking than telling. Allow advanced learners to switch roles with you to teach a portion of the lesson. Establish procedures that can be cued by a non-verbal prompt. For example, replace, “Students, you may put away your books, clean up your area, and line up for lunch,” with telling the learners once that two claps means it’s time to follow these steps.

3. Answering Questions That Learners Can Answer

Learners ask hundreds of questions of teachers daily, and the traditional expectation is that students ask and teachers answer. Answering queries is certainly an important part of the teacher’s role, but many teachers are often too quick to answer the questions themselves, taking away the opportunity for students to answer and adding to the already dominating amount of teacher talk in the classroom.

Try this instead: When a student asks a question, pretend it’s a tennis ball and hit it right back to the student:

Student: Why do we have to wash our hands before lunch?
Teacher: Why do you think that’s important?

Another approach is to offer a second student the option to answer:

Student: Why do we have to wash our hands before lunch?
Teacher: Who can share why it’s important to wash our hands before meals?

Or turn the question into an assignment:

Student: Why do we have to wash our hands before lunch?
Teacher: That’s a great question! Tonight’s homework will be to write one to three paragraphs on why we wash our hands.

Allowing students to answer questions addressed to the teacher reduces teacher talk and provides opportunities for learners to think critically and creatively and to share their knowledge and wisdom with the rest of the class.

4. Giving Multi-Step Verbal Instructions

Most of us have experienced being in a classroom where the teacher says, “Take out your textbooks and turn to page ___.” Immediately after, we hear a chorus of, “What page? What page?” And this is only with two steps to remember! Students often have difficulty retaining multi-step instructions due to working memory, attention, and other issues.

Try this instead: When giving sequential instructions, add a check for understanding to make sure all learners know what to do before proceeding. Try to keep the number of steps low, or give them one at time, proceeding with the second step only after the first step is completed. Write the instructions on the board to provide a reference for students who have difficulty remembering the steps.

5. Echoing Student Answers

A common teaching habit that is a huge time-waster is the repetition of students’ answers by the teacher:

Teacher: “How did the Holy Family know to flee to Egypt?”
Student: “An angel warned Joseph in a dream.”
Teacher: “Yes, an angel warned Joseph in dream. That’s right!”

When you total up all of those needless repetitions, you’re losing a great deal of valuable learning time. In addition, your repetition can “steal the thunder” of the student who shared the correct answer.

Try this instead: When a student gets an answer correct, affirm it with a simple one- or two-word exclamation rather than repeating the answer:

Teacher: “How did the Holy Family know to flee to Egypt?”
Student: “An angel warned Joseph in a dream.”
Teacher: “Yes!”

Some teachers see echoing as necessary to make sure a student’s answer is heard by the other students. It’s better to invest time in teaching students to answer in a “loud playground voice,” and use techniques such as backing away from the student who is answering to increase his or her volume.

The longer we’ve used a traditional technique, the harder it is to break bad habits. The first step is becoming more aware of your use of these habits and then slowly replacing them with more effective methods. Your motivation to work on them will increase when you begin to experience more success in the classroom!

John Barone

John Barone

John E. Barone has an extensive background in child and adolescent development and teaching students with neurological differences. He currents serves as Director of the Learning Resource Center at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory.​

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