By Michael Egan
To make their lessons engaging for students is a challenge that teachers constantly face. Perhaps the best advice I ever received came from a surprising source, it was in a conversation with a highly successful salesperson that I had a lot of contact with when growing up. When I asked what the secret was the answer was simple, first know your product and second know your customer.
If you take the time to watch a successful salesperson in action there is a skillful mix of salesperson engaged with customer, both engaged with product, customer engaged with product and giving the customer time to think before bringing it all together and clinching the sale.
I recently spent a couple of hours with the highly engaging maths teacher Eddie Woo. Engaging smile, professional demeanour, a presentation broken down into chunks of about 19 minutes, an audience split 50/50 in terms of any interest in maths. He sold it, we were engaged and we learned.
A common pitfall for beginning teachers is to go in to class like a comedian doing a stand up routine: 100 per cent enthusiasm, the constant centre of attention, using all the tricks and bells and whistles to work the room. You can get away with this for a while but it is not sustainable. Knowing your product and knowing your customer works in the long term. If you look at the Australian Institute for Teaching and School leadership (AITSL) teacher standards these are pretty much the first two standards.
Standard Two is to know content and how to teach it. Pre-service training can provide a solid foundation for this but the best teachers never stop reviewing the how to teach part. They experiment with different methods, technologies and strategies. They derive joy from this aspect of their profession and this helps make them engaging.
Standard One is to know students and how they learn. To make lessons engaging for students the teacher has to first be engaged with the students. Gathering an awareness of the physical, social and intellectual development and characteristics of students, understanding how students learn, catering for students with diverse linguistic, cultural, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds is just the start.
Utilising strategies for teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and differentiating teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities, as well employing strategies to support full participation of students with disability round out the many considerations a teacher must make in order to engage.
Teachers can immerse themselves in a theoretical understanding of these aspects but the real learning here comes on the job and with the assistance of highly skilled mentors.
The teacher cannot of course do all of these things every lesson. Like the successful salesperson they rely on repeat business and build on relationships, building trust and increasing engagement over time. For this reason the beginning teacher finds Term 2 easier than the first and the second year easier and more comfortable too.
That highly successful salesperson who inspires my approach to teaching was my father.
I never got the opportunity to compare my teaching data with dad’s sales figures but I suspect he would have smiled knowing that we both ended up in jobs we loved and were determined to do well.
Michael Egan is Principal of La Salle Catholic College, Bankstown.