Advice for Teachers – 7

Here is my translation of chapter 7 from Sukhomlinsky’s book, 100 Pieces of Advice for Teachers:

7. A teacher’s time and the interdependence of various stages of schooling
This piece of advice is addressed mainly to the teachers of primary school classes. It is upon your work in the primary school that the budget of time available to middle school and upper school teachers depends. If we carefully examine the process of instruction in the middle school and upper school, we find that the most merciless consumer of time is the constant and fruitless ‘catching up of the tail’. No sooner has the teacher given an exposition of new material, than it turns out that a portion of the class has not grasped it. Instead of thinking about how to take the next steps on the path of knowledge, the teacher has to deal with those students who have fallen behind. (Sometimes the proportion of students who have fallen behind is so large that the teacher has to conduct supplementary lessons with almost the whole class.) This consumes much of the teacher’s time both at school and at home.
Why is it that so much of a teacher’s time is taken up with this seemingly unavoidable work of catching up so many students who have fallen behind?
I feel like giving the following advice to all primary school teachers. Remember, dear colleagues, that the budget of time for all teachers in the middle and upper school depends on you. You can give them the opportunity to be creative. Among the many tasks facing the primary school, the most important is to teach children how to study. One of your main concerns should be to establish a balance between the volume of theoretical knowledge that children are required to master, and their practical skills and abilities.
Remember that falling behind in the middle and upper school is mainly due to an inability to study, to acquire knowledge. Of course you need to be concerned about the children’s general level of development, but teach children first and foremost how to read and write well. Without the ability to read fluently, thoughtfully and expressively, understanding what is read, and to write fluently and without errors, there is no chance of successful study in the middle and upper classes, of study that does not call for the teacher to constantly ‘catch up’ those who have fallen behind. Teach all children in the primary school to read in such a way that they can think while reading, and read while thinking. The ability to read has to be brought to such a level of automaticity that perception and comprehension of the text significantly precede pronunciation aloud. The more significant this anticipation is, the more refined is the ability to think while reading, and this is an exceptionally important precondition for effective study and for intellectual development in general. I have been convinced a thousand times that successful study in the middle and upper school depends first and foremost on the ability to read thoughtfully: to think while reading and read while thinking. Therefore primary school teachers need to study how to develop this ability in every student. Thirty years of experience has convinced me that students’ intellectual development depends on their ability to read well. A student who can think while reading will cope with any work more quickly and successfully than one who does not have the ability to read fluently (and this is not as simple as it appears at first glance). In the intellectual work of students who can read fluently there is no cramming. Their reading of the textbook or any other book is different to the reading of a student who cannot read and think simultaneously. When fluent readers have read something they can perceive the subject as a whole and its component parts, with their interdependencies and interrelationships.
A student who can read and think simultaneously does not fall behind, and if students do not fall behind it is easy for teachers to work. Experience confirms that if reading has become a student’s window on the world of knowledge, there is no need to conduct the supplementary lessons that take so much time. The teacher now has the opportunity to conduct individual discussions with students, and these discussions are not lengthy; just brief coaching sessions, giving advice on how to acquire knowledge independently, and avoid falling behind.
Successful study in the middle and upper school also depends on how fluently and thoughtfully a student has learned to write in the primary school, and how they develop this ability further. Along with reading, writing is a tool for acquiring knowledge. Success and the economical use of time depend on the condition of this tool. I advise teachers of primary classes: set a goal for every student to be able to write fluently and semi-automatically by the time they complete primary school. Only then will they be able to study successfully, removing the constant need to catch up those who have fallen behind. We should aim for students to write while thinking, so that the writing of letters, syllables and words is not the focus of their attention. Set yourselves a more concrete goal. Tell the students about something, and have them write down their own thoughts while they are listening to you and thinking about what you are saying. Children should start practising this two years before they finish primary school. If you are able to achieve this goal I assure you: your students will never fall behind. Having the ability to acquire knowledge, they will spare the time and health of teachers in the middle and upper school.

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