Union Membership

Picketing placard design Copyright (c) 2015 Torin Finney.

Most full-time public schoolteachers in the United States are members of a union. Over the course of my twenty years in the classroom, I was part of two local chapters of the California Teacher’s Association (CTA). During that time I never had to go out on strike. I only came close once, during difficult contract negotiations over salary increases and health care coverage several years ago. I made a sign (see image above) and picketed with my colleagues every morning on the public sidewalk facing the school. After a few months of tense stalemate, the union and the district came to a tentative agreement and the strike was averted.

Labor unions for educators go way back in American history, almost to the beginning of the public school movement. Low wages, poor working conditions, and involuntary transfer between schools led to teacher frustration and action. The CTA dates back to the period of the Civil War and is among the largest teacher unions in the country. Its history includes a long string of legal victories, including protections against racial and religious discrimination for students and the establishment of tenure and retirement pensions for teachers. Other states followed suit over the decades, and today teachers’ unions have a powerful voice in local, state, and national politics.

They have also come under intense criticism, especially from conservative groups. Many elected officials on the right have pointed out the more left-leaning agenda of the CTA and other unions. Some parent organizations and advocates argue that declining student performance on state testing is the fault of “incompetent” teachers who cannot be removed from the classroom because of contractual tenure rules. Others point to the financial strength of the unions and claim that too much is spent on lobbying and not enough on kids.

As in any debate on public issues, the positions of both sides have merit. Teacher unions are indeed a formidable force to reckon with. They do protect the jobs and benefits of many teachers, and I certainly appreciated the support of the union while I was working full-time in public schools. I knew I would be paid fairly and could not be fired for arbitrary reasons. At the depth of the Great Recession I survived a “pink slip” scare when my district had to deal with severe budget cuts. But as a tenured teacher in a core subject area with many years of experience, I was in a strong position. Much of this I attributed to the strength and support of my union.

But there were limitations on what the union could do over the course of my career. I was not included during my two years teaching full-time in a private school or my six years as a part-time adjunct community college instructor. Public charter school teachers are also not covered by a union. And contractual restrictions on salary, schedule, and benefits make it difficult for schools and districts to sustain part-time faculty positions, even though many teachers are unable for a variety of reasons to work a traditional full-time (five fifths) course load.

If you are part of a union, you will have dues deducted from your paycheck every month. If the contract between the union and your district gets stalled, you will have to stand with your fellow members and go out on strike if that is the majority decision. This can be scary, as the compensation offered you on strike is far below your regular salary. Teacher salaries are still much lower than in other careers that require the same amount of education and training. The union is necessary to fight for higher wages and better conditions and benefits, but joining a union also involves sacrificing some of your individual choice for the good of the collective.

The best way to make a difference on the local level is to get involved with union leadership. I never had the time or inclination to do this, but if you do, joining negotiation committees or volunteering to serve as the union representative on your campus can be effective ways of helping yourself and your colleagues. In addition to guaranteeing that full-time teachers have fair compensation and reasonable job security, there are many others issues in which the union could exercise a positive influence. These include smaller class size, benefits for part-time teachers, flexible schedules, and greater choice in what subjects are offered on campus.

The debate over the collective bargaining power of teachers has intensified in recent years. Some states have restricted the power of the unions and strengthened so-called “right to work” laws. Others have allocated more public revenue to the growth of charter schools or private school voucher programs. High profile strikes and deadlocks in large public school districts across the country in recent years have threatened the economic and emotional stability of thousands of teachers as well as their students and families. State test scores have continued to decline since the 1990s, with blame assigned by various factions to teachers (and their unions), parents, students, politicians, or the tests themselves.

These issues are not going away anytime soon. But there is something you can do about it. Add your voice to the discussion. As a new teacher, you have a fresh perspective. This is important to the health of both the union and your school. Listen, do your research, and contribute what you can. Take advantage of the support offered by your union, your administrators, and your school district.

Remember that your most important priority is to educate your students. This includes taking care of yourself and demanding fair compensation for your hard work. The union is only as strong and healthy as its individual members. The other side of the poster I designed above read “Let’s Be Fair.” This applies to both union and school district. Hold them both accountable for the way they treat you.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Sharing Your Story

Visiting the Kanrin Maru Japanese immigration monument in Lincoln Park, San Francisco in 1996, two years before I began my teaching career. Photo copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Using anecdotes in your lectures and other presentations is an effective way of making the otherwise dry material of the social sciences more interesting for your students. Tedious memorization of names, dates, places, and events was how history was often taught in the past. “Spicing things up” with unusual or dramatic stories can help your students connect with what they are reading in their textbook. As long as proper professional boundaries are maintained, sharing personal memories can enhance student engagement.

Those boundaries are essential to establish at the beginning of the school year. Remember that your relationship with your students is a professional one. Respect your privacy and theirs. Your religious beliefs, your political affiliation, your intimate relationships, your personal finances, your dietary restrictions, your legal history, your attitude toward your family of origin, your social media accounts, your home address and phone number, and your medical records are among the many topics that are nobody’s business but your own. Some kids will try to pry this kind of information out of you. It is your job to teach them what is off limits.

Many personal stories, however, are helpful to your instruction. The curriculum material of the standards is not enough to spark interest in most students. For example, I found that discussing international diplomacy at the end of the Cold War produced more yawns than smiles in class. Names like Gorbachev, Bush, Reagan, Kohl, Havel, Walesa, and Marcos meant little to young people born after the fall of the Iron Curtain. But when I shared my own memories of living through the 1980s as a young man, many students began to pay more attention.

Try to describe the sights and sounds of the historical events in which you participated. I related how I felt when certain popular songs or fashions came out. The Nuclear Freeze campaign and the Salvadoran Civil War dominated my college years. I remember conversing with a masked refugee hiding in one of the “sanctuary churches,” terrified to show his face out of fear for his own safety and that of his family back home. As a young man of draft age, I remember feeling nervous at the time about U.S. foreign policy in Central America. I was among many who did not want El Salvador to turn into a Spanish-speaking Vietnam.

I also attended several boisterous anti-apartheid rallies on the UC Berkeley campus, where thousands had gathered in makeshift “shanties” to call for U.S. divestment from South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela. I went to see Richard Attenborough’s landmark films Gandhi (1982) and Cry Freedom (1987) when they were in theaters and participated in many group discussions about their political implications. I met Filipino activist Cardinal Jaime Sin at a gathering of pro-democracy clergy in Honolulu. I watched on live television the Solidarity marches in Poland, the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia, the protests in Tiananmen Square, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I well remember the public appearance and evolution of cell phones, personal computers, cable television, compact discs, camcorders and digital cameras, satellite communication, and the internet. I witnessed the growth of the “Rust Belt” as old American brand names were threatened by competitors in the emerging global markets of Europe and Asia. Three of my seminary classmates came out publicly to their respective synods in the late 1980s and forced our religious denomination and many others to confront the issues of LGBT ministerial candidates and same-sex relationships.

Replay news broadcasts that you watched in real time. Draw on stories from your family history. Tell your kids about jobs you have held in the past. Share travelogues and photo albums. Incorporate original art and music compositions. In economics, discuss your experience with small businesses and corporations as an owner, an employee, or a customer. Model for the class how to create a personal budget and resume based on your own record. If you are teaching psychology, talk about your own views on what makes a successful relationship. In government class, discuss the elections you remember.

Bring your hobbies to class if they enhance your lesson plans. I participated in living history reenactments for many years, and did several school presentations across southern California which included my own costuming and accessories (see my blog entry on “History as Hobby”). In economics, former careers and jobs can provide great material for helping kids imagine their own future possibilities. Places you have lived or visited always make for great illustrations, especially historical sites. Use your imagination and get creative.

The balance between sharing personal anecdotes and maintaining professional boundaries can be delicate and challenging, but it is worth your effort to make the material of your class more meaningful to your students. Consult your own school and district guidelines at the beginning of the year and work with your colleagues and administrators. Consider each situation on a case by case basis. When in doubt, leave it out. But if a personal experience can enhance your curriculum, use it. The social sciences are about people. Your students will relate to the content if they can personalize it. Model this for them.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Student Thank Yous

Despite rumors to the contrary, teaching is not a thankless job.

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching is the realization that you are having a positive impact on your students. Dealing with things like paperwork, grueling schedules, discipline issues, budget cuts, and campus politics can erode your energy, patience, and motivation. But every once in a while, you receive a token or gesture of thanks that lifts your spirits and reminds you why you entered this profession in the first place.

Over my twenty years in the classroom, I saved every thank you note I received from students in a scrapbook. I was looking through it yesterday on the first anniversary of my retirement and was moved by the touching sentiments expressed in those messages. Some were written as part of Teacher Appreciation Week and others were simply spontaneous overtures of gratitude. I have included some of them on a new Student Thank Yous page which you can view here.

As in any other vocation, a teacher’s sense of purpose and validation must come in the act of serving others (see my blog entry on “Teaching as Vocation”). But it does feel good when the people you are serving show their appreciation. This is especially true with kids. I was more than an instructor to many of them, particularly those who came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Sometimes I was social worker, clergyman, mentor, father figure, or friend. Reviewing my scrapbook reminded me of the importance and effectiveness of all those roles.

Save the notes and drawings from your students. They will help you in times of struggle and doubt. The few who make the effort to thank you are speaking for many others who don’t. Believe in what you are doing. You are making a difference.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Bastille Day

Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

Today marks the day 230 years ago that ordinary citizens of Paris took to the streets to storm the infamous Bastille prison. Long a symbol of royal despotism in France, the Bastille held valuable stores of gunpowder in its vaults. The mob killed the guards and governor, seized the powder, and later tore the hated dungeon apart brick by brick. Three tumultuous years later, the centuries-old Bourbon monarchy was replaced by a new French Republic.

July 14 has become as important a day in France as July 4 is in the United States. The national holiday is celebrated by huge crowds with parades, parties, and a spectacular fireworks show from the Eiffel Tower. Today France is the sixth largest economy on earth and a leader in the 28-member European Union. People around the world still admire the French revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Today also marks the one year anniversary of my retirement from full-time classroom teaching and the inauguration of Mr. Finney’s History Tutoring here in San Diego. I hope you find my blog entries and postings on Instagram helpful as you strive for success in learning.

Raise a glass today to the heroes of 1789 and the birth of modern Europe’s first republic. Vive la France!

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Independence Day

Historical flags displayed in my classroom from 2001 to 2018. The “Betsy Ross” flag with its circle of thirteen stars was first designed in 1777.

Happy Fourth of July! We are only seven years away from America’s 250th birthday. I still remember with fondness the historic festivities of the Bicentennial in 1976 when I was a teenager in Virginia. President Ford danced with Queen Elizabeth at the White House. Tall ships, elaborate fireworks, exciting parades, rousing speeches, television specials, and living history demonstrations all captured my young imagination.

In the 43 years since then, our increasingly diverse population has grown by 50% and our role in the world has expanded significantly. Our identity as a pluralistic nation continues to evolve, fed by the hopes and dreams of both newcomers and each new generation of Americans. The principles of equality and human rights articulated in the Declaration of Independence continue to inspire millions around the world.

Independence Day marks the halfway point of the calendar year and the last major holiday before the new school year begins. Whether you have the entire summer off or just today during your summer school session, I hope this day is fun and relaxing for you and yours. Put on something red, white, and blue, find your way to some fireworks, and join in the celebration!

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Preparing for Tests

Tests and final exams are standard methods of measuring your mastery of a subject in school. Although they may take many different forms, they usually represent the largest portion of your course grade. Whether they are multiple choice or matching questions, project presentations, essay prompts, or maps and diagrams, it is crucial that you perform well on tests. Coming up with a successful strategy for studying will ensure satisfying results.

Objective style tests typically come with some kind of study guide. Pertinent topics and vocabulary you will need to know should be included. If your teacher does not provide one in advance, ask him or her to give you a copy or post something in the online classroom. Verify which sources you need to review (chapters in the textbook, handouts, completed homework, etc.) and focus your preparation on them. Many of my most successful students color coded their class notes and went over the topics with dependable study partners.

Some questions can be answered in more than one way. Read every question carefully and always choose the best answer based on your intuition and knowledge. This strategy applies to state tests and AP/IB exams as well as those in your regular subjects. Answer the questions that seem easier at first and then return to the more difficult ones. Take your time. Breathe. Trust in your preparation and the work you have given in class all semester.

For essay questions, read the prompt carefully and flesh out your response completely. Present a strong thesis backed up by multiple points. Support your argument with whatever sources you can muster from memory or those provided during the test. If essay writing is more stressful for you than answering objective questions, get a head start on the essay before you return to the multiple choice. Let the teacher know if you need more time to finish. Most teachers will accommodate your request. They want you to succeed.

In your history class, keep track of personalities and patterns in your notes. Organize your notes, graded homework, and study guides according to unit and topic. Try to make connections between the people, places, and events. A multidimensional or interdisciplinary approach will bolster your retention and understanding. Look for links between history content and what you are learning in your other classes, especially in English. Demonstrating that you have done so will impress your teachers, especially on tests.

In government and economics, staying on top of concepts and vocabulary is key. Some economics tests include graphs and equations as well. If you have done your homework, you can build on theoretical foundations and show your understanding of real life applications. Supply and demand are at the core of the marketplace. Follow business news on your phone and pay attention to current events. The same is true for political science. Keep on top of the positions of both major parties on crucial issues in the public debate. Watch both conservative and liberal news channels. The more material you have, the better your responses will be on tests.

Be proactive in your preparation. Keep up on the material week by week. Turn in your homework on time and read all the required chapter sections as you go. Ask for help from the teacher and other classmates on a regular basis. Do you own work. Avoid procrastination and “all-nighter” study sessions. Get a good night’s sleep before a test. Eat a full breakfast and get to school early. Bring the pens, pencils, paper, and other supplies you need. Take all the time you are given during the test. If you finish early, go over all your answers before turning it in.

Save all your graded work and study guides until the end of the semester. They will help you when you prepare for the final examination. Most social science finals are comprehensive, so you will be responsible for everything you have learned during the term. Continue to organize your work as you move through each quarter. Always pay attention in class. Write your name on everything you submit. Remind the teacher to return your work before the test if you have to. Take charge of your own learning.

If you do poorly on a test, ask the teacher if you can make it up. If that is not an option, offer to complete an alternative assignment to be counted as extra credit. Most teachers will appreciate your desire to do well and rectify your mistakes. If you demonstrate a desire to succeed on a regular basis, your teacher will take notice. Your goal is to finish the class with the highest grade you can achieve. Adopting sound and organized test preparation practices will help you achieve that goal.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Religion and the Social Science Curriculum

The First United Methodist Church of San Diego first organized in 1869 and celebrates its sesquicentennial this year. The current sanctuary in Mission Valley was completed and opened in 1964. Photo copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

The study of religion can add a valuable dimension to academic programs in both the humanities and the social sciences. Religious history, theology, art, liturgy, organizations, and architecture have each played a large part in the development of our modern world. Religious conflict and cultural pluralism continue to shape politics and economics at home and international trade and diplomacy abroad. A sound understanding of the major world religions will help your students better understand the complex patterns and dynamics of U.S. and world history as well as government, geography, and economics.

Many people assume that religion can only be taught in private schools. At first, I was among them. I began my teaching career in the theology department of a Roman Catholic high school, where I taught Old and New Testament classes, the history of Christianity, and comparative religions. I was hired in part because I possessed a seminary degree and had a book published by a religious press. When I moved to the public school system after two years, I thought I would not have further use for this background. I soon discovered to my surprise that the state social science content standards also included topics related to world religions.

World history standards for grade 10 highlight Judeo-Christian and Islamic influences in the development of western democratic thought. The origins, teachings, and spread of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Hinduism, Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism are all part of the California Social Science Standards for grades 6 and 7, as are the Crusades, the characteristics of Mesopotamian, Greek, and Roman mythology, and the indigenous religions of Africa and the Americas. Even religious texts such as the Bible, the Quran, and the Bhagavad Gita can be referenced as historical sources in class.

American religious history has its own category in U.S. History state standards for grade 11, including key events such as the First and Second Great Awakenings, the Disestablishment Clause of the First Amendment, and the role of religious reformers in the Antebellum and Progressive Eras. The establishment of churches and synagogues in America is part of what is covered in the story of national development, as well as new Christian denominations in the 19th century and other faiths brought through the Ellis and Angel Island immigration stations in the first half of the 20th.

The caveat in public schools, of course, is that religion can be taught but not preached. Classes in my first teaching assignment began with a Catholic prayer as well as the Pledge of Allegiance, and students of all faiths were required to attend mass several times a year. This made sense for a school run by the local diocesan office of education. In the public schools where I spent the remainder of my career, however, religion became a purely academic subject. Students of various faiths could form their own extra-curricular clubs, but the practice of religion was no longer appropriate on a school-wide level.

Religion may be taught in public schools as long as no particular tradition is favored. The focus must be inclusive and balanced with respect to the variety of religious pluralism. Many public schools offer comparative world religion courses as humanities or social science electives, but the emphasis is on critical study rather than personal spiritual or moral development. Tread carefully and deliberately as you design your lesson plans. Misunderstanding can lead to conflict. Be clear with parents that you are teaching material from the state social science content standards. Be willing to offer alternative assessments, but stick to the standards. Your state teaching credential grants you the right and the duty to do so.

Religion appears all across the curriculum. From the role the Bible played in spreading literacy on the American frontier to the conflicts over war and slavery between Quakers and other groups in the 19th century, many topics arise in class that tie in religious themes. The various faith traditions introduced by immigrant groups are as vital a part of the national “melting pot” story as are their cuisine, language, dress, and culture. Many landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases have dealt with issues of religious doctrine and practice. Faith still motivates political activism on both the right and the left.

When I taught world religions, I had students of various backgrounds bring artifacts and stories to class. We took field trips to local houses of worship, including a Hindu temple, a Jewish synagogue, and a Protestant chapel. We compared theological traditions and liturgical practices and discussed how they influenced political and cultural relationships. In my history and economics classes, the attitudes of different religious groups toward the environment, the role of women, the treatment of labor, and the growth of business and trade were great topics for Socratic Seminars, class projects, and DBQ essay assignments.

Religion plays a large role in the lives of many of your students. A careful study of diverse religious traditions will increase your cultural literacy and sensitivity as an educator. If you decide to pursue formal studies at an accredited institution of higher learning, there are many excellent choices. My Master of Divinity degree was completed at the interdenominational Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, a renowned center of religious pluralism adjacent to the University of California campus.

When I was there, there were nine separate seminaries and several affiliate centers for religious study. GTU students were enrolled at a particular school but were encouraged to take classes at all of them. Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians learned alongside Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and secular humanists. My church history course included a series of lectures with faculty and students from all the schools as well as a smaller weekly seminar at my school of affiliation. For someone like me who did not come from a particularly religious background, studying at the GTU was a rich and rewarding experience.

This was in the time before the internet. The new digital world in which we live offers far more opportunities for learning than what I had at my disposal then. Take advantage of these vast resources to develop the religion element of your state standards. Like rhetoric, etiquette, Latin, and Greek, theology and religion were once part of a “classical” education. Now they have been largely discarded from today’s course offerings. I think this does our students a disservice. As long as state standards include religious topics, their study should be included in what the kids get in class.

Learn as much as you can about world religions (to read my World Religions Topic Summaries, click here). As you do so, be aware of your own biases. Get to know the cultural and religious backgrounds of your students. Respect those who are believers and those who are not. Hold to your own personal beliefs, but avoid favoritism in class. Teach rather than preach. Give your students the forum to explore various ideas and come to their own conclusions. Empower them to be critical thinkers. Their ability to do so will serve them well in our complex and challenging world.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Testimonials Page

“Everybody is talking about Mr. Finney’s Testimonials Page!”

Happy Summer Solstice! With the longest day of the year upon us, you will have more time to check out my new Testimonials Page. Click here to read letters of recommendation from some of my former administrators. Testimonials from former students will be uploaded soon. And don’t forget to follow me on Instagram!

Whether you are still teaching or enrolled in summer school, traveling, catching up on summer reading, or just resting before the next school year, I hope you have a summer filled with relaxation and inspiration!

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Continuing Education

Perfecting your craft as an educator is an ongoing part of the teaching profession. This involves on the job experience in the classroom as well as supplemental courses and training. Earning a clear teaching credential usually includes additional coursework to augment the preliminary certification granted at the college or university level. After you secure your first regular teaching position, you are expected to keep up with the rigors of the job by enrolling in workshops and classes in order to improve your knowledge and performance.

Most of this continuing education will take the form of campus or district in-services on new technology, educational theory and practice, guest consultants, or training in new skills and procedures. Whether you are working with college prep kids, honors students, English learners, special needs children, or all of the above, you will need to stay current with the latest trends in meeting the needs of the young people you have in class. Your school and district will let you know of the requirements and opportunities presented to you as an employee.

Beyond your school, however, lie many other venues for continuing education. If you do not already possess an advanced degree, returning to graduate school will bolster both your confidence and competence. Most districts also place you higher on the salary scale when you earn additional credits or diplomas. Check your district’s compensation guidelines and remember to submit the proper paperwork and certifications to your district office.

Secondary level social science teachers are wise to pursue a Master’s degree in their chosen field. Graduate level work in history, psychology, sociology, political science, ethnic studies, women’s studies, regional or cultural studies, philosophy, religious studies, anthropology, archaeology, geography, economics, public policy, museum curation, or even business will strengthen your curriculum and your standing with your district, administrators, colleagues, students, and their families. Choose the program that best answers your needs and inspires your passion as a teacher.

You may also choose to earn a Master’s degree in the field of education. Most colleges that offer teacher credential programs also have these kinds of programs specially designed for teachers. This kind of training will help you in curriculum design, dealing with classroom management and discipline issues, interacting with students and their families, and helping those with special needs. If you are eventually interested in working as a school administrator, a Master’s or doctoral degree in education might be the best way to go.

Special weekend events are offered all year to add specialized training to the arsenal of teaching skills. I attended a CUE (Computer-Using Educators) Conference in Palm Springs, California in the spring of 2010 with my colleagues in the Digital Arts and Humanities Program and garnered many new ideas for multimedia and interdisciplinary learning. I also participated in many other staff retreats and seminars over the years that were held off campus and provided an entire weekend to build teamwork and competency in new areas. Take advantage of all these events and attend as many as you can.

Reading is another important part of continuing education. Visit the education section of your local bookstore or online sellers. Follow educational sites on social media and subscribe to teaching periodicals. Sign up for training in the latest software for use in schools. Ask your colleagues for help with new technology and ideas. Spend time visiting and observing other teachers at your school. Be an early adopter of new grading programs. Try to move away from paper and embrace digital classrooms and curricula.

Whatever you do, stay current in your craft. The world of technology changes at an astronomical rate, and your students will have the latest gadgets and programs. Keep up with them as best you can. Incorporate software programs into your teaching. Read the latest books on teaching. Follow the advice and guidance of your administrators. Seek out your colleagues in other departments as well as your own who know more.

As in the business world, international diplomacy, and the garden in your own yard, whatever does not grow will wither. Do what you can to grow as a teacher. Both you and your students will benefit from your efforts.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Teaching as Art

Teaching credential programs generally include courses on topics such as educational theory, child psychology, language acquisition, and curriculum development. Some also focus on the use of technology in education, classroom management, and working with English learners and special needs children. The science of education has undergone great advances in the last several decades, and these developments have been incorporated into teacher training programs.

What cannot be taught in an academic program, however, is the art of teaching. Each educator must develop her or his own personal style in the real life laboratory of the classroom. This task is organic and evolves over time. It must be refined in every new teaching setting. Your distinct personality shapes how you teach, and your students will remember you more than they will your subject. Embracing your own way of teaching is key to creating a successful learning environment.

I participated in a lot of theatrical productions as a kid, so my teaching style naturally included role play, mimicry, costuming, and music. As a visual artist, I also spent a lot of time decorating my classroom board and walls with the calligraphy, artwork, posters, and photographs that I thought would capture the interest of my students. Engagement in the material is vital in learning the detail-heavy social science curriculum. To this end, I tried to enliven the human element of historical narrative and the contemporary relevance of political and economic theory.

Draw on your hobbies and life experiences to enliven your subject. My high school math teacher was with Patton at the Battle of the Bulge and used to regale us with World War II stories to illustrate and explain equations. My chemistry teacher was an avid amateur geologist and shared his rock collection and slideshows of national parks with us. My government teacher was fond of wordplay and employed literary witticisms to entertain as well as educate. Whatever you have done or like to do can be included in some way: sports, fishing, travel, fashion, organizations, the arts, or other careers you have pursued. Use your imagination in coming up with creative instruction.

Even your classroom rules and the way you enforce them can be creative. In my first school I developed a three-strike system which I called “hammer time” and devoted a section of the front board to its artistic representation. Many of the students found this amusing, but the clear boundaries also kept them in line and discouraged disruptions. I created a similar infrastructure at my next school under a different name. In my last school, one of my students found my aphorisms so engaging that he created a meme around my treatment of cell phones in class (see image below).

Teaching involves many artistic endeavors. There is the art of diplomacy when dealing with parents, students, colleagues, and administrators. Achieving a balance between listening and initiative is an essential element of the profession, but one which is unique to each individual teacher. Then there is the issue of classroom setup and decor. The visual aids you decide to hand on your walls, the way you arrange your desks, and the supplies you make available all reflect your personality. Celebrate yourself in the way you educate.

Of course, teaching is about the kids. But the kids depend on you to teach them in a memorable way. The impression you make upon them as a person will color the extent to which they understand and like your subject. This is particularly true with college preparatory and special needs children. These are students who struggle with academic tasks for a variety of reasons, and anything you can do to help them move forward is important. Honors students enjoy an engaged teacher as well, even if they already like your subject as they enter your class. Give whatever you have to offer. In your class, that is more than enough.

Graphic design created in 2011 by student artist Juan Romero.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.