Advice for teachers – 6

Here is my translation of chapter 6 from Sukhomlinsky’s book, 100 Pieces of Advice for Teachers:

6. How do I find the time? There are only 24 hours in a day.

I have taken the words in my heading straight from the letter of a teacher from Krasnoyarsk. It is true. There is not enough time. This is the scourge of educational work. It not only affects our school work, but even our family lives. Teachers are human beings like everyone else, and need time for their families, for the upbringing of their own children. I have precise data showing that many graduates from high school avoid teacher training courses because they believe educators do not have any free time, in spite of their long holidays.
I have some other interesting data: 500 teachers, whose children had embarked on tertiary education, were asked: ‘In which tertiary institutions and in which faculties are your children studying?’ Only fourteen answered ‘at a pedagogical institute’ or ‘at a university, training to be a teacher’. Then they were asked: ‘Why did your child not want to become a teacher?’ 486 people responded: ‘Because he/she sees how difficult our work is. We do not have a moment’s free time.’
Is it possible for teachers to work in such a way that they have free time? Sometimes this burning question is even expressed like that. In fact the situation has developed where a language or mathematics teacher, in addition to having classes for three or four hours a day, has to prepare lessons and mark exercise books for five or six hours a day, and take on extracurricular work for another two hours or more.
How can we solve the problem of time? This is one of those all-encompassing problems of school life, which, like the problem of students’ intellectual development, depends literally on everything that happens at school.
The most important thing is the very style and character of educational work. One history teacher, who had been working in the school for thirty-three years, conducted an open lesson on the topic: ‘The moral ideal of a young soviet person’. Those present included participants in a district seminar, and the district inspector. The lesson was conducted brilliantly. The visiting teachers and the inspector, who had intended to take notes during the lesson, so as to offer a critique, completely forgot about their notepads. They sat with bated breath and listened with great interest, as did the students.
After the lesson a teacher from a neighbouring school said, ‘You certainly teach with heart and soul. Every word had a lot of thought behind it. How long did you spend preparing for that lesson? It must have taken some hours.’
‘I have been preparing for that lesson all my life,’ answered the teacher. ‘And I could say that of every lesson. But the time I actually spent preparing for that particular topic, my actual ‘planning time’, was about fifteen minutes.’
This lesson throws light on one of the secrets of teaching proficiency. In our district I know about thirty teachers like that history teacher. They do not complain about the lack of free time. Each of them would say, about each of their lessons, that they had prepared for it all of their lives.
What form does this preparation take? It is reading: a constant, daily friendship with books; the unceasing flow of a murmuring stream that feeds a river of thought; reading not for tomorrow’s lesson, but to satisfy an inner need, a thirst for knowledge. If you want more free time, and for your preparation time to be more than a boring session with the text book, read scholarly literature. For you the text book should be just the alphabet, a mere drop in the ocean of your knowledge about the subject you are teaching. Then you will not need several hours to prepare for lessons.
The high level of proficiency of the best teachers is a result of constant reading that feeds the ocean of their knowledge. If the knowledge of beginning teachers is ten times more than they are required to pass on to their students, then by the time they have been teaching for fifteen or twenty years that ratio has increased to 20:1, 30:1 or 50:1, thanks to the reading they do. With each year the knowledge in the text book represents a smaller and smaller drop in the ocean of their knowledge. We are speaking here not only of a quantitative growth in the teacher’s theoretical knowledge. Quantity is transformed into quality. The broader the teacher’s background knowledge, the more they are able to develop the foundation of teaching proficiency: the ability to divide their attention while giving an exposition of material at a lesson. The teacher may be explaining trigonometric functions, for example, but his attention is focused not on those functions, but on the students. He is observing each student’s work, and the difficulties they may be experiencing in understanding or memorising the material. He is not only teaching, but encouraging intellectual development in the process of instructing.
The problem of time is closely connected with a number of other elements of educational work. All may be viewed as streams that feed the river of a teacher’s time for work and creativity. I would like to give some words of advice about how to keep these streams alive and flowing.
(To be continued in the next post.)

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