Teach by Example

By Alec Fehl, author of Labyrinth Learning’s Microsoft PowerPoint 2019 & 365: Comprehensive

I’ve been in school my entire life. My. Entire. Life.

I had excellent attendance throughout elementary school, junior high, high school, and four years of college. Within a year of graduating college, I started work as a day-to-day substitute teacher. I moved into a long-term substitute position, eventually earned my full teaching credential at night, taught middle school and high school in Southern California and North Carolina, taught at private computer training centers, and have been teaching at a community college since 2002. I’ve also taught music privately and at music schools since I was a teenager. I’ve been a teacher for 28 years. I think it’s fair to say I have a lot of experience in the classroom and can recognize the habits of both effective and ineffective teachers.

The Good, the Bad, and the Just Plain Ugly

Throughout my formal student years, which extended well into my 20s, I was fortunate enough to have some outstanding teachers. Some names that stand out in my memories as being the best of the best are William Tuohy, Shirley Gray, and Bob Tamaki. I also had some teachers who should not have been teaching; they’ll remain nameless.

When I finally got my very own class of middle school math students, I often found myself asking, “What would Mr. Tuohy do?” or “How would Professor Gray engage them?” My aha moment came when I realized that I often learned the most from my worst teachers! They taught me, by example, what not to do. To quote author Catherine Aird, “If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.” These past teachers, effective and ineffective, all taught by example.

You know how teachers have that magic sixth sense? Even with their back to the class, they can tell who is chewing gum, who is passing a note, who is on their phone. Teachers see everything, right? So do students. Be the good example, not the horrible warning.

I had one teacher who came to class late every day (when he showed up at all). After the third week, the students who still came to class at all rolled in late. I had another teacher who never had a lesson plan. He’d flip through the textbook looking for “an interesting proof” to show. Students didn’t bother doing the assigned reading or homework because whatever was assigned in one class had nothing to do with the next.

I had another teacher who was 10 minutes early every day, had a warm-up activity ready when we entered, and as we worked on it, she’d pass back our work from the previous class. Students were consistently on time and engaged in class discussion.

Becoming the Good Example

Ask yourself how you want your students to act and model that behavior yourself. Be a role model. Lead and teach by example. Expect your students to mimic your behavior and make that expectation clear. Here are some tips to consider:

  • Be on time to your own class. This doesn’t mean sailing through the door a minute before class begins. Be there 10 minutes early. Show students that you budgeted your time responsibly enough to be ready to start class the second the clock strikes the hour.

  • Be prepared. Don’t wing it. Your students are more apt to complete assignments and prepare for class if you model the same behavior. Know exactly what you will present for lectures/demos, have solutions worked out, and plan the follow-up assignment. Don’t be that teacher who stands in front of the class flipping through the textbook mumbling, “Hmmm. What should we look at today?” I had that teacher. Twice. That behavior does not engage students.

  • Be timely with grades and feedback. I try to grade and return assignments within 24 hours. Remember, students need your feedback to learn from their mistakes.

  • Give students your undivided attention. Don’t check your phone, email, or social media status during class. Give your students your full attention and expect the same in return.

It’s not that hard to be a good example; it just takes some time and attention. I think you’ll find the rewards—better student engagement and performance—well worth the effort.