Sandra Benedetto: 10 Tips for Teaching H.S. Students and/or Training your Dog

1. Don’t stumble out of the gate. You need to set the correct tone from your first meeting. You can’t play it by ear; if you do, you’re screwed. Your dog will run around willy-nilly and eventually so will your students. When I was a student teacher in 2006 I bought a book called How to be an Effective Teacher the First Days of School, in which authors Rosemary and Harry Wong scared the crap out of me with statements like the following: “What you do on the first days of school will determine your success or failure for the rest of the school year.” This is true, and still kind of makes me want to throw up. The best way to ensure that you give off the right vibe on the first day of school is to over-prepare.

2. Leave them alone. I don’t mean that you should leave your students alone in the classroom all period, I think that’s a fireable offense. What I mean is that you should let them discover things on their own. This is challenging for me because I like to be helpful. However, they’re not going to learn and feel empowered if I do everything for them. One of my college professors always said, “If you’re working harder than the students, you’re doing it wrong.” In her case, I think she used that philosophy to justify lazy teaching, but the idea is right. The same goes for our dog, who is struggling with separation anxiety. She needs to have some autonomy and learn how to calm herself down since we won’t always be there to do it for her.

3. Identify their cheese. Squirrels trump just about everything for our dog, but they’re elusive and unsanctioned; just like naptime for high school students. However, cheese is a close second and, unlike squirrels, is attainable. She knows that she’ll get cheese if she’s compliant with our commands, especially when it was a tough decision (i.e. there’s a squirrel RIGHT THERE in that tree!). My students might be motivated by praise, competition, the opportunity to use what they’ve learned in real-life contexts, or feeling like they’ve made measurable progress. I’ve heard that some teachers never use chocolate or extra credit as incentives, but those teachers might be magical unicorns. In my experience, treats work. Our awesome dog trainer, Shawn, says that in order to be successful as facilitators we need to be the source of all things good. I like the sound of that.

4. Channel your inner Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me. In other words, don’t let bad behavior slide. This is tough for me, as my husband (aka ‘the bad cop’) will tell you. Our dog is so dang cute that even when she chews on her leash I have to fight the urge to Instagram it. We really should have nipped that in the bud from the beginning. It’s equally difficult with students. They’re so eager and sweet, and I’m so concerned with creating a positive environment for them, that I tend to overlook minor misbehaviors during the first few weeks. Over time these small transgressions grow into legitimate classroom management issues and the damage is done. I’m not doing my students any favors by being too lenient. They find comfort in boundaries and routines that are consistently respected.

5. Channel your inner Morgan Freeman in Unleashed. Missed that one? Me, too. But apparently he plays a compassionate man who adopts the Jet Li character who was raised to believe he was an attack dog. My point is: be patient and understanding. The dog isn’t bad; she’s just acting like a dog. Your students aren’t bad; they’re just acting like teenagers. They might be distracted or tired or overwhelmed or confused about your expectations. Teens have a lot going on and can use some allies. I’ve never regretted showing individual students compassion, but I have regretted being short with them.

6. Aoi mfflak di hur xanfi ponn!!!!! Dogs don’t speak English, as I’ve annoyingly reminded my husband one too many times – they respond to your tone of voice. Similarly, I’ve realized that my tone and attitude have a significant impact on my students. Whatever my mood – whether it’s apathetic or energized, depressed or light-hearted – they feel it and mirror it right back. When I raise my voice to be heard, they raise their voices and the energy in the room becomes a bit more chaotic. I strive for calm. My larynx strives for calm. Speak softly and carry a big stick, right? Our dog loves sticks.

7. Be more entertaining than Facebook, Snapchat and Candy Crush. This, to my knowledge, is not possible. If I had a nickel for every time our dog was playing with her phone during class . . .

8. As 90’s R&B Singer Monica Said, Don’t Take it Personal. There will be times when you get the feeling that your dog would just as soon go home with the ComEd guy as with you. There are days when I suspect that my students would rather chew thumbtacks than learn French. If it’s because your lesson sucks and you’re just as bored facilitating it as they are participating in it, it’s time to re-work the lesson. But if it’s “just one a ‘dem days” where a spike in barometric pressure turns your students into zombies, carry on and try not to sob, “They hate me, I’m the worst teacher that ever lived!” into your pillow that night.

9. Develop an alter ego. That sweet pup face keeps me in check. I’m not going to eat all of the Girl Scout cookies, sleep until noon, or do lines of coke on the coffee table with her looking at me like that. I wouldn’t do some of those things anyway, but you get my point. At school, I also have to be the kind of person that my students need me to be. I have to be organized, quick-thinking, on time, clean, polite, calm, articulate and assertive. Without sacrificing authenticity, you have to develop a persona that students and dogs can look up to.

10. Channel your inner Morgan Freeman in Shawshank Redemption. Do you need a reason to channel Red? He was awesome. But there is a message here, too: enjoy the prison of responsibility that you’ve built for yourself with dog ownership and teaching, because someday you’ll be free and won’t know what to do with yourself and will probably want to end it all (but please don’t).

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1 Comment

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