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Notes on Teaching: A Short Guide to an Essential Skill

Notes on Teaching: A Short Guide to an Essential Skill

by Shellee Hendricks, Russell Reich, Taylor Mali (Afterword)

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Notes on Teaching delivers utterly relevant guidance, lucid explanatory commentary, and helpful examples that will help anyone become a better teacher. Like its siblings in the Notes On series (Notes on Directing and Notes on Cooking), the book’s clear, accessible, and practical insights into the art and craft of teaching invoke the spirit of Strunk &


Notes on Teaching delivers utterly relevant guidance, lucid explanatory commentary, and helpful examples that will help anyone become a better teacher. Like its siblings in the Notes On series (Notes on Directing and Notes on Cooking), the book’s clear, accessible, and practical insights into the art and craft of teaching invoke the spirit of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and Sun Tsu’s The Art of War, giving its audience the information they need in the way they want it: brief, efficient, direct. The notes are designed to provoke strong reactions—either in agreement or dissent—that will guide anyone who teaches to acknowledge, test, and debate their own beliefs. By turns provocative, funny, and unerringly blunt (#166 “Steer clear of the grumblers”), the authors understand that HOW the information is delivered is as valuable as the information itself. The book's afterword is by Taylor Mali, a teacher and one of the most well-known poets to have emerged from the poetry slam movement, famous for his poem, "What Teachers Make." Notes on Teaching is endorsed by: Wendy Kopp, Founder, Teach for America. Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of Harlem Children's Zone. Michael Thompson, PhD., co-author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys and The Pressured Child. Jack Covert, Founder and President of 800CEOREAD and co-author of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time. Marc Tucker, President, National Center on Education and the Economy. Leon Botstein, President, Bard College. William Durden, President, Dickinson College and Former President of Sylvan Learning Systems.

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RCR Creative Press
Publication date:
Notes On
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5.34(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.75(d)

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Notes on Teaching

A Short Guide to an Essential Skill

By Shellee Hendricks, Russell Reich

RCR Creative Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2011 Shellee Hendricks and Russell Reich
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-937295-00-4


The Teacher's Role

1. Share what you know.

Classroom or no classroom. If not now, when?

2. You don't need all the answers.

The teaching isn't in the answers. It's in the immersion in the question, the conversation, the journey to the answer.

3. Cut your own cookie.

Avoid pre-packaged notions of What a Teacher Must Be. Your humor, life experiences, stories, idiosyncrasies — your ways of talking and doing — humanize the learning, give it context, and make it memorable.

Discover your singular virtues and build from your obvious strengths: your contagious energy, quirky wit, shocking honesty, penetrating questions, illuminating examples, or your uncommon sensitivity to your students' vulnerability.

4. Play the role required.

Prepare to switch hats rapidly: coach, diplomat, storyteller, artist. ... Teaching is a metajob, the most all-encompassing of professions.

5. You're the most important person in the room.

And the least important. The lessons and the tone begin with you, but everything you do is for them.

6. Practice what you teach.

Like it or not, you lead by example. What you do is more instructive than what you say.

7. You're the leader, but you're not alone.

The students will want to contribute. Let them.

8. Love them.

Veteran history teacher Jay Rogers holds new colleagues to this commitment: "You don't have to like 'em, but you do have to love 'em."

Hopefully, you do like them. But even when students' behaviors or personalities seem devoid of virtue, your obligation to care about their progress, welfare, and future doesn't change.

9. Be decisive.

Say "Yes," "No," or "I don't know." Don't dither. You can change your mind later. Nobody minds that. What they do mind is the three-minute agonizing when all they need to know is whether the papers are due tomorrow.

10. Learning should be tough, challenging, and ... enjoyable.

So should you.


Planning and Preparation

11. Know your subject.

Enough said.

12. Read your materials.

Turn off the television, unplug the phone, and just sit with your books, notes, and websites, and, as you read, jot simple comments and questions: "Key point." "Needs a visual." "Too easy?"

13. Read them again.

This time, plan what you're going to do and, far more more important, what you'll ask the students to do. The students who do — through practice, experimentation, or demonstration — will be the ones who learn.

Lessons involving debate (whether formal or conversational), field work (such as data collection), or drama (including role playing or other performances) are amongst the most effective.

14. Plan from the finale.

Identify a goal for each class and express it in as few words as possible. Aim for a structure in which every lesson, every activity, every assignment is a necessary step towards that goal. The proof is in the doing: either your students will be able to maintain a conversation in Mandarin with a native speaker, build a working car from parts, or balance a chemical equation ... or they won't. Once you've got the goal in sight, you can map out the journey.

Of course, if you don't know where you're going, any old activity will get you there.

15. Identify essential questions.

Every subject worth learning has fundamental questions at its core. Think of physics: What is matter made of? Biology: How do we know something is alive? A good question is one for which students will still have answers twenty or forty years later. (For more essential questions, see Appendix II.)

16. Come prepared.

Students work hard for a teacher who works hard. Successful preparation depends on practical details: accurate estimates on timing (plan for everything to take twice as long as you think it will), materials at the ready, technology tested before class....

The stakes are high. Sweat the details.

17. Don't over-prepare.

Stuffing the agenda with the whole phylum Arthropoda or history of Australasia undermines absorption, reflection, and spontaneity. In a 45- or 50-minute session, you can focus on, at most, one big idea.

18. Prepare to be unprepared.

Sure, you plan to fill the time, but what will you do if you finish early? And what will you do if you run over time?

Anything can happen. Anything will happen. A question, quip, interruption, or interaction can blow your carefully laid plans in an instant and take the class in a new, unexpected direction. There can be excitement in that, or disruption. If you've planned from the finale (see 14), you'll have the ideas you need for the best next step.

19. Picture success.

Even before you meet them, envision your students, under your patient and expert guidance, reaching their goals. Learning specialist Denise Marmelstein explains her success with even the most challenged students: "I picture them three years later, after they've received the help they need."


First Class Meeting

20. Shake hands.

At the start of a new course, respect and disarm students with this basic courtesy, seldom neglected outside a classroom. Use it (or a culturally appropriate substitute, such as a bow) with all ages. It presumes partnership: "I plan to work with you, not against you, or for you." Shake to be polite, signal cooperation, and seal an agreement. Demonstrate that no one is harboring weapons.

21. Learn names quickly.

Every time you use a student's name, you enhance your direct contact with her, the kind that makes her feel known, recognized, personally cared for, and specifically responsible. Anonymity breeds anarchy in large or unruly groups. Knowing names enables you to personalize praise at the first crucial opportunity, or to zap misbehavior with stunning efficiency.

Rehearse. Ask for names as you call on people the first day and refer frequently to the attendance sheet. They'll appreciate your effort even as you stumble.

22. Introduce them to the course and to each other.

Names alone divulge little. Have language students write and share brief biographies about themselves in the third person. Have history students cast a sentence from their personal history in objective and subjective styles. With a large group, don't sacrifice this learning opportunity in the interest of saving time; use pairs or small groups to let them reveal themselves, at least to each other.

There's always time. Make time.

23. Know your students.

To teach them well, you must know them well. Don't make hasty judgments about people based on outward and early appearances; there's always more to know than any particular moment reveals. Past reports and test scores also pigeonhole people. Review student files only after forming your own impressions.

If you think you're not prone to drawing quick conclusions, try this: make note of your initial impressions of each person, and compare it with what you later learn and understand about him. Your notes will rarely match. (See 129. Ask first, tell second.)

24. Tell your story.

When did your interest in the subject emerge? How did you develop it? Why did you decide to teach it? No need to recount your whole life story; just trumpet your love for the subject.

Researcher E. J. Sass found that teacher enthusiasm motivates students at all grade levels more effectively than does the students' love of the material, the design of the course, or anything else.

If you find yourself teaching a topic that you don't particularly like, find something in it that you do like, or can pretend to like. (See 71. Be an emotional leader as well as an intellectual one.)

25. Say why.

Students face many compulsory subjects and deserve to know why they must study algebra if they have no interest in becoming financiers, physicists, or engineers.

Teachers too rarely quench this thirst for "why?" They even greet such inquiries as impudence at times, but the students aren't being rude — they're frustrated.

Answer the question. Seize the opportunity to excite students about what they will learn: "If you've ever dreamed of building a house or a rollercoaster, you might find algebra useful. Let's demonstrate what happens if you try to build one without it...."

Not every topic has an immediate application, of course, but how will any of you know if they have an interest in the material unless you expose them to it? Besides, every subject can be a vehicle for learning how to think, and for learning who the students are — or could be.

26. Dive into the subject.

Start with housekeeping only if you want to signal pending tedium and forfeit the opportunity to, well, teach something. Reviewing your lateness policy line by line will demoralize everyone. If you kill the impetus on Day One, what's your plan to get it back on Day Two? Whatever it is, do that on Day One.

27. Start with the known.

Begin with a question that reveals to students (and to you) how much relevant knowledge they already command. Connecting new knowledge to old is a neurological requirement for learning. As Thoreau intuited, "We hear and apprehend only what we already half know."

Continually remind people they're already more connected to the subject than they might realize. The more complex the material, the more useful the link to familiar experience.

28. Engineer early success.

During the first class, assign a doable task that portends mastery: a sketch, a proof, counting to ten in a new language. Once students get a whiff of tangible accomplishment and the good feeling it brings, they will want more.

29. Send it home.

Pack up students with their first day's work, and the suggestion to keep it for posterity. Their creation will mean even more to them as time passes, serving as an early reference to help measure progress and, in the longer-term, as a window on their past.


Setting Expectations

30. Reflect what you expect.

All teachers are mirrors to their students. How you see them influences how they see themselves, so assume desire and ability to learn even when they're not readily apparent. Shun the stereotype of students as miscreants who would rather throw rocks at cars — preferably teachers' cars — than go to class. That prophecy threatens to fulfill itself.

Be an optimist. Your slightest encouragement ("Your hard work paid off!") could strengthen a world-changing dream, unseen to you. The smallest negative ("I don't think this is for you") could kill an embryonic idea or aspiration.

If your expectations are high, students rise to meet them; if low, they fall to meet them. (See 71. Be an emotional leader as well as an intellectual one.)

31. Involve them in setting goals.

Ask: "What do you want out of this class?" Have students write down their answers. If you set all goals, they won't be invested. For those who struggle to identify why they are here, ask why others might want to be in the class.

Encourage specificity and — once again — doing. Don't settle for "I want to get an A." Look instead for "I want to understand why people buy the things they do," or "I want to see my opinion piece in the school paper."

32. Tell them that their education is their responsibility.

Teaching, as theorist Paulo Freire frames it, should not be like banking, with teachers making deposits into passive students' minds. Students must be active investors in their own progress.

Make it clear: "The success of your education depends on you. Grab every opportunity to learn, particularly when circumstances are less than perfect, as they always are." (See 179. Respect technology.)

33. Don't tell them they've achieved what they haven't.

Don't deny students a good education in the name of self-esteem. Deceive people about their own progress to make them feel good, or lead them to believe they've mastered something they have not, and you will quickly and rightly lose their trust. And waste their time. Instead, see 82. Keep them in The Zone, 144. Have them evaluate their own work, and 149. Reward effort.

34. When you believe that someone can't be taught ...

You are right. He can't be taught. Not by you. Your firm belief in each person's eventual success is compulsory. If you don't believe in a student's ability to learn, he is unlikely to believe in it himself. As master educator Ted Sizer points out, "None of us learns what we think we can't learn." And by telling people, "Of course you can do this!" you infuse them with the necessary belief in themselves. (Recall 8. Love them.) Whatever their aptitude, they can improve with practice and your attentive guidance. (See 147. Glorify practice.)

35. Champion failure.

Foster a sea change in education by explicitly introducing "failure" as a worthy goal, not a taboo. Failure is not a signal to give up or a cause for dejection or humiliation. It's a healthy sign of working at the frontier of one's ability or understanding. It's a spur to persevere, to acknowledge what doesn't work ... yet. As former Harvard Professor Tal Ben-Shahar says, "Learn to fail or fail to learn."

Practice failure by devising a nearly impossible performance task at which students will surely fail, such as naming all the countries of the world at a rate of one per second. As students stumble one after the other, center the lesson around accepting public failure gracefully with deep bows, broad grins, arms raised in Olympic triumph.

Or profit from failure another way: deliberately break something. Have students disassemble an appliance, or sabotage a circuit so that it has no chance of working to specification. Explore all the ways to make it fail. Such "failure" deepens understanding of what it takes to succeed. (See 94. Embrace confusion, and 148. Reward awareness of error.)

36. Set no limits.

Dare them to do what they think they can't do. When assigning a project, aspire to shouts of "That's impossible!" A month later, rejoice in the genuine and earned exclamations of "Look what I did!" (See 77. Test your own success.)

37. Encourage them to surpass you.

Students will delight in the challenge of knowing a subject more deeply than you do. Confident teachers restrain themselves from representing a height of brilliance forever beyond student reach. Advance their ability to grow without you. (See 82. Keep them in The Zone, and 102. Don't feign knowledge.)


Classroom Rules

38. Establish the rules together.

Draw up a contract. How do we as a class want to behave, apart from any institutional rules? What are our protocols and penalties? How will we govern speech? Do we raise our hands? Pass the conch shell? Just call out? Are we permitted to move about? Under what circumstances? May we jump in when someone stumbles?

A good place to start: George Washington's 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. Laugh at his absurd ones; adopt the sensible as your own.

What we all learned in preschool still applies: Say please and thank you. Keep your hands and feet to yourself. Share. These rules apply equally to teachers and students, adults and children. Distribute them for all to read and sign.

39. Be on time.

A person is rarely just a minute late. And keeping thirty people waiting for even two minutes wastes sixty minutes — a whole hour — of people-time.

40. Heed a speedy opening ritual.

Even before the bell rings: notebooks out and open, pen or pencil in hand, unnecessaries beneath the desk, problem on the board underway.

41. Raise hands.

For the avoidance of chaos, of course, but hand-raising is also a diagnostic tool for you, the teacher. Use it as a subtle check for understanding ("Who's getting this? Show me one to four fingers.") Gauge confidence, interest, and urgency by the manner and speed with which hands or fingers go up. This is not to say the fast hand always gets the call. The slow hand might be more thoughtful or in need of encouragement.

When students lead the discussion, teachers, too, must raise their hands.

42. Write down your questions and comments.

Not every impulse merits immediate expression. Save it for an appropriate time.

43. Speak out against bullying or rude behavior.

None of us tolerates that here. When someone drops a tray in the lunchroom, and you applaud, laugh, and point, you become more popular with no one.


Excerpted from Notes on Teaching by Shellee Hendricks, Russell Reich. Copyright © 2011 Shellee Hendricks and Russell Reich. Excerpted by permission of RCR Creative Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"I can't believe how much teaching wisdom is stuffed into this short (and beautiful) little book.  So much truth and inspiration!"  —Wendy Kopp, founder, Teach For America

"This deft little book gives professionals—new and old—a quiet moment to ready themselves for the rollercoaster ride of teaching—and will spark great ideas for the classroom."   —Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO, Harlem Children’s Zone

"Notes on Teaching, with its comprehensive collection of pithy and perspective-altering advice, is the perfect reminder to leaders that to teach is to lead and to lead is to teach."  —Jack Covert, founder and president, 800CEOREAD, and coauthor, The 100 Best Business Books of All Time

"[This book] is the help you had hoped to get from your teachers college but didn't. It is the mentor you wished for but never had. It is pithy, funny, practical and—mainly—wise." —Marc Tucker, President of the National Center on Education and the Economy

"Notes on Teaching is like eating potato chips: You can’t read just one note. What really makes me mad is that so much of what I regard as my special knowledge as a school consultant is right here, available to everyone, almost for free. Damn!" —Michael Thompson, PhD, coauthor, Raising Cain and The Pressured Child

"Chock-full of incisive advice and words of wisdom presented in numbered (184 to be precise), easy-to-digest suggestions, this book is a source of inspiration and guidance that teachers can turn to again and again."  —School Library Journal (August 2011)

"In the face of the immense criticism teachers have been getting as public employees and scrutiny they are under in this country, now is the time to rally around teachers, to help them succeed in their never-ending quest to reach each student in some small or big way. Notes on Teaching can do just that." —www.800CEORead.com (July 2011)

"This work is best for beginning teachers . . . but even veteran educators may stumble upon new ideas or find reinforcement of their current methods of teaching." —Library Journal (July 2011)

Meet the Author

Shellee Hendricks is an international educator who currently teaches at the Benjamin Franklin International School in Barcelona. Russell Reich is a writer and the creative director and coauthor of the Notes On series. He lives in New York City. Afterword by Taylor Mali, a teacher and one of the most well-known poets to have emerged from the poetry slam movement, famous for his poem, "What Teachers Make."

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