Beyond Content: The Softer Side of the Classroom

 

Good teacher word cloud

There is so much more to being an effective educator than lesson planning and content knowledge. Educators never get enough credit for the time and energy it takes to create an environment for learning. Knowing the subject is only half the battle. In their book, The First Days of School: How to be an Effective Teacher, Wong & Wong (2009) describe how that the first opportunity to build effective habits for effective teaching is during the first days of school. In a nutshell, to be effective the educator must understand classroom management and have lesson plans that promote and produce learning (p. 4).

This blog is less about lesson planning and curriculum building, and is more about the softer skills of being an educator:  self-awareness, classroom management, engagement with students, and understanding how to convey a message so that it sticks. This is of particular concern for sexuality educators, for no matter where we practice our craft, our audience will bring with them their socio-cultural perspective.  Newman & Newman describe this concept as consisting of “norms, roles, beliefs, values, rites, and customs,” (2011, p. 44).

We have to remember, that no matter how comfortable we are as professionals with sex-related topics, that culturally, “sex is surrounded by an army of social norms, religious restrictions and moral taboos,” (Heflick, 2011).

The topics we are asked or prescribed to teach are presented to classrooms or training rooms with people who come with their own cultural experiences, personal stories, family and religious values. For this reason, it is necessary for us a professional sex educators that, as we plan to impart knowledge, we must be mindful that only paying attention to the transfer of knowledge may have an adverse impact on how we may be perceived by our audience.

As we walk our professional selves into any classroom, we bring sum of our life experiences with including our own ‘stuff’ around sex and sexuality. The following information may help with acquiring or developing the soft skills of teaching:

Self-Awareness

Be self aware.  Given that we know that topics around sex and sexuality stir emotions in people, it is important to understand how these topics impact us. Consider that self-awareness is a skill that helps us to judge our own performance and behavior so that we are able to appropriately respond to different situations. Self-awareness helps us tune into our feelings as well as the behaviors and feelings of others. This also includes being mindful about how you show up in very personal ways, including attire and your use of language.

Manage the Learning Environment

Managing the learning environment does not mean that the educator needs to always be in control or rule with an iron fist. However it means that we have the responsibility to ensure that we create an environment for the effective transfer of knowledge. To do so, we may consider that to effectively facilitate learning, as professional educators we must:

  • Know our audience and prepare training materials appropriately
  • Apply principles of learning
  • Manage and use time effectively and efficiently to respect the time of others
  • Be prepared to manage difficult students or participants
  • Be able to use and manage the use of equipment necessary for the learning experience

Be Prepared to Teach

No one likes to be taught by a teacher who is not prepared to teach. We need to know our topic, prepare the location (classroom, conference room, etc), practice what we have planned to teach, and have a Plan B. We have to remember that not everything goes as planned. Having a back up plan will always come in handy, and not having one may prove to be disaster. We each have times where we forget a flash drive at home or forget to email the documents we need.

Conveying a message that sticks

There are so many concepts in area that we could teach.  We have to be clear on what our enduring message is and to create an environment that allows for this message to be conveyed. Heath & Heath have developed a simple framework to create and present messages that stick. In their book, Made to Stick, they describe crafting presentations that are simple, provide an unexpected opportunity to learn, provide credible information, concrete messages, invoke emotions, and in the end tells a story.

For sexuality educators the pressure is on. When we step into a classroom, it is likely that at least some of audience is on pins and needles just because of the topic. That anxiety may show up in a variety of ways:  over-enthusiastic participants, quiet and withdrawn students, a student who presents as oppositional because what is being taught is outside of their socio-cultural experiences. In our role as sexuality educators we may be ready to teach and change the world, but if all we have in our toolbox is a command of the content, then we are likely to lose at least some of our students.

References

Heath, D. &. (2014, 3 15). Made to Stick. Retrieved March 15, 2014, from Heath Brothers: http://heathbrothers.com/books/made-to-stick/

Heflick, N. (2011, April 9). The big questions: life, death, and free will. Retrieved March 15, 2014, from Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-big-questions/201104/why-is-sex-so-taboo?

Kids, L. W. (2011). Thinking skills: self-awarness. Retrieved March 15, 2014, from Self-awareness fundamentals: http://learningworksforkids.com/skills/self-awareness/

Newman, B. M. (2012). Demvelopment through life: a psychosocial approach (11th Edition ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Wong, H. K., & Wong, R. (2009). The first days of school: how to be an effective teacher. Mountain View, CA, USA: Harry K. Wong Publications.

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5 responses to “Beyond Content: The Softer Side of the Classroom

  1. I LOVE that you address self-awareness in this post. I remember looking very closely at instructor body-language, tone of voice, use of humor, and comfort level to extract how I should feel about a topic related to human sexuality. My teachers first addressed menstruation in the 5th grade by going over the science and mechanics of it. While I paid close attention to the straight information, I looked to the instructor’s manner to answer the questions I was too afraid to ask: namely “is this okay?” and “is this a big deal?”
    We ask educators can consciously or unconsciously convey whether or not something is okay, or whether or not something is a big deal. With the example of menstruation, a teacher who is awkward and uncomfortable might accidentally convey to students that menstruation is awkward and uncomfortable. If we approach sexuality education from the perspective that we are, ultimately, answering the questions “is this okay?” and “is this a big deal?” our self-awareness becomes paramount.

  2. I love that you mentioned the book The First Days of School: How to be an Effective Teacher, Wong & Wong (2009). Any educator should read this book because it is extremely helpful to any new teacher. In fact, my school district gives every new teacher in the district a copy of this book regardless if it is there first year teaching or if they have transferred into the district with twenty years experience.

    Another thing that you mentioned, I noticed to be a common theme among many of the blogs – self-awareness. I agree that this is extremely important when it comes to classroom management. You have to be aware of your surroundings, your audience, the time allotted for Q & A. You don’t want to walk into a classroom, as you said, with an iron fist. Iron doesn’t bend that easily unless it gets heated, and you certainly don’t want a heated audience.

  3. The concept that I most identified with in your post was the idea of the teacher coming to class prepared to teach. I specifically remember an overwhelming feeling of guilt in my stomach from the last weekend of class when we discussed teacher preparedness. Even for teachings as simple as coaching a soccer practice, I know that I have shown up with the attitude that “I know about this, I’ll just wing it.” What a disservice to the youth (or any client) especially for topics as essential as those in sex education. As the SIECUS article relays, there is a great advantage for students when the teachers “know about this” stuff. AND, there is so much to be said for the knowledge-filled teacher who comes prepared, with rationale for activities, age-appropriate examples, and does not have an, “it’s acceptable to provide my students with sub-par instruction,” attitude. (<– this is my translation of my initial thought, as stated above).

    It is almost ironic that these elements of teaching can be viewed as "the softer side" of teaching, when these are the skills take so much focus, presence, on-your-feet thinking, and energy. In a sex education classroom, the (especially younger) students have enough to worry about, without having to second-guess whether or not the teacher put her fair share into the lesson.

  4. When reading this post I thought of the quote, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” When I reflect on my past education the most powerful lessons weren’t the ones that made me think, but the ones that I had an emotional reaction to. There is so much more to education than content and I really appreciate you reminding me of that. In the whirl of classes and constant learning, I often forget that the content is only a part of the whole equation.

    Being aware of the social norms and taboos that surround sexuality is so vital. After several classes with so many people who are comfortable discussing sexuality I forget that not everyone has this comfort level. Knowing that you need to understand the impact of not just knowledge, but how your teaching is influencing and mixing with all other aspects of a student’s personality, values, and experience is so crucial. It takes a lot more than just reading facts and figures to teach, the softer side is so important. I’ll definitely be more cognizant of this when developing lesson plans. Thanks for such a great post!

  5. This post reminds me of what my mom once said about her middle school french class. She said that teaching isn’t picking apples, it’s planting a seed and then watering it every day. Knowing information and then spewing it out doesn’t form the deep roots that make a strong tree.

    I think this post is a very good example of my mom’s advice. Having self awareness is especially important when teaching about sex. I think the intention of our SAR learning is to heighten our self awareness around different areas of sexuality. It’s also countering the “leave your baggage at the door” mentality by inviting that baggage into your awareness and being able to unpack it. It would be impossible to teach about sexuality without being aware of your own attitudes around the topics. And as Kira mentioned, self awareness is a constant practice in posture, tone, and gestures when standing in front of a group of people.

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