Harry Wong
Dec 2017
Vol 14 No 4

“I Don’t Teach a Subject, I Teach Kids!”

By Bill Page

[Editors’ note: Share your comments with the author and other readers in the Comments section below this article. ]

The lesson content in class presentations lies in the words and their meanings;

The context is everything else: the non-verbal cues, procedures, climate, etc.

To some teachers the above title is just a cliché, but awareness of the distinction between whether teachers teach kids or teach a subject is absolutely crucial to effective teaching. A perfect example of teaching the subject, not students is a professor lecturing in a huge auditorium using aged yellowed notes, obviously, oblivious to the presence of students.  Such a class could be taught daily without discussions, questions, and even without acknowledging the presence of members of the group.

Fixating on Content Can Lead to Ignoring the Context

 Actually, if teachers focus on the lesson content and offer no opportunity for frequent student feedback, questions, and input, they could offer a canned speech to an empty room or even to a brick wall.  It is the context of the lesson—everything else going on that makes the difference in student learning. With class schedules and bus schedules, many public school kids may have no access to the teacher, at all.  Even worse is the probability that students who most need help are the least likely to ask even under ideal circumstances much less adverse ones.  And, unless the teacher has a welcoming, encouraging attitude, few students will ask for help.

Teachers Can Not, Not Communicate

On the other hand, teaching kids as opposed to teaching the subject requires teachers to interact with kids, to be aware of restlessness, confusion, boredom, and their need for clarification and further explanation. Teachers must continuously be conscious of the students’ presence, responses, reactions, and their nonverbal communication.  As long as humans are in each other’s presence, they are communicating.  They cannot, not communicate.  For students to ask for help after a class, requires favorable circumstances especially an understanding, receptive, and friendly demeanor.

In the classroom it is impossible to avoid interaction since ignoring the other person sends a powerful message.  Thus teachers, who are aware of the distinction between teaching the subject and teaching kids, will be aware of communicating, continuously, with their students on multi-dimensional levels. Teachers, who teach kids and not subjects, care deeply whether the class indicates interest and whether each student appears to be listening with understanding.

 Lecture Is Always a Two-Way Process

 To what extent is a teacher conscious of what is really going on with each kid while s/he is busy teaching?  Interactive conditions are always within the teacher’s control.  Teachers need to show concern for student reaction, provide opportunity for interaction among students, encourage participation, and welcome feedback.  Since the goal is teaching all students, this needs to be happening with every kid, in every lesson, every time. Whew, no wonder teaching is difficult, time consuming, and tiring.

Teachers use a great variety of communication elements or clues and cues for student learning, classroom management, individual control, and preventive discipline, as well as whatever else they need to attend to during the lesson.  Lecturing to a class, as we usually think of it, is a one dimensional, or maybe a 95% teacher to 5% student communication interaction.  However, that is because we usually ignore the fact that lessons are always 100% teacher to 100% student involvement(beginning at the level of being present) whether it is an uninterrupted lecture or an entire period of student small group activity.

 Communication Doesn’t Require Words

 The human mind and brain are amazing.  While making a presentation to a class, the teacher can stare or squint, raise and lower his/her voice or eyebrows, increase the emphasis and speed of delivery, and pay attention to a myriad of responses from many students all at once.  As they choose particular words, use gestures and motions, scowl, smile, glance, wrinkle their brow, nod, walk slowly to the rear of the room, tap on a desk or use literally thousands of facial expressions, body language, actions and moves, and an array of silent signals while speaking, They are communicating far beyond the vocal message.  In other words, teachers are interacting with students while engaged in a seemingly one dimensional presentation, even if the interaction is ignoring the student signals, and even if the non-verbal part is the most influential aspect.

 Student Feedback Is Always Present

 Meanwhile, the kids, each of them independently and continuously, are providing important feedback. Even when a student is fixed intently on the presentation and not moving, s/he is sending a powerful message that impinges on the teaching. The kids’ messages to the teacher combined with the omnipresent non-verbal student-to-student communication and countless unavoidable context elements, such as heat, cold, noise, lights, view, and all of what might be considered extraneous factors, is the essence of the teaching-learning phenomena.   Additionally, the student who appears to be hanging on every word may in fact be off in la-la land.  Other may also have developed the skills of faked attention in ways normally attributed to college students.

Four Contextual Factors to Think About

 Fortunately we don’t have to analyze all the goings-on, in all of these categories, unless they move up on the priority list of distracting factors. Thus, teaching students instead of subjects is indeed crucial to the efficacy of the teaching-learning process.  Following are four elements selected as examples from the many, such as interruptions, ridged schedules, time considerations, competition, and so forth that are always impinging on the act of teaching.  These four factors and many others are always present to some degree; they are never a neutral in effect:

 1.      The whole child.

 I don’t know who came up with the concept of the whole child, but they must have been stupid; what else is there—part of a child?  When a kid shows up in class s/he brings his/her feelings, emotions, thoughts, body, personality, values, experiences, ethnicity, and idiosyncrasies.  Kids cannot be separated into parts for the purpose of instruction.

It would be asinine to say, “Don’t worry that you haven’t eaten in three days, or that your parents are separating, we have to get through the second act of Macbeth, today.  Kids have other things going on in their lives, but they can’t do much about them when coerced into a predetermined teacher lesson.  Every kid has worries, and some may take priority over what the teacher thinks is important.

Being concerned with the whole child doesn’t mean teachers must attend to the student’s problems.  It means that a teacher’s responses can make a difference in kid’s learning.  A teacher can’t do much about a kid with an unreported headache or stomachache, but getting clues of physical discomfort, s/he can acknowledge the message of pain and maybe suggest the kid’s putting his/her head on the desk or that all students do so to avoid attention.

Three stages of dealing with the problems going on with individuals during a lesson include: First, sufficient sensitivity to receive their subtle messages of having a problem.  Second, acknowledging the problem.  It’s one thing to know; it’s another to let them know you know.  Maybe Teachers can’t do anything about the problem, but if students know they know, it might help. Third, actually taking personal action might the most helpful thing a teacher might do, and might be worth more than the lesson.

 2.  Self-talk

 We are all always talking to ourselves—yes, and answering.  Our minds speak to us telling ourselves things.  When the teacher is emphasizing a point, the kids have thoughts like, “this is stupid,” “I wonder what’s for lunch,” “If I get caught passing this note, I’ll be in trouble.  There is no such thing as kids not paying attention—to something.

Every time I hear Dr. Phil say, “What did you tell yourself that made you think that behavior was okay?” I wish I had learned about the power of self-talk sooner in life.  I believe that all of life is just a conversation with yourself interrupted by dialogue in relationships and in the media.

Beyond our control, the mind is always paying attention.  It gives in to whatever stimuli are most powerful. When the teacher communicates an important point, it is in competition with other factors.  That means that it may be extremely difficult to get information across to some kids, especially on a one shot basis, a single modality, and a single teaching method.

 2.  The Importance of Empathy

 Empathy for the vulnerability of kids at the mercy of anyone with the power to embarrass or hurt them emotionally is essential.   Teachers without deep-felt empathy for every kid unwillingly stuck in their class should resign immediately. Don’t wait for a replacement; the kids are better off without whatever you are contributing to their lives by your knowledge of the subject matter.

Students have built in radar for spotting teachers without genuine concern for their feelings and having their feelings exposed in class.  Objective evaluations of lack of achievement, compliance, and deportment are detrimental to them.  The saying, “Kids don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care,” is truer than many teachers are prepared to accept.

 3.  Don’t Forget the Context

 The context in which learning occurs is crucial to learning any content to be taught.  Content and context are two sides of the same coin.  According to contextual learning, student learning requires that new information makes sense within their memory, experience, and prior knowledge. Any course content must relate to each student’s current environment or thinking.  The content presented searches for connections that make sense with existing knowledge—and the search is by each individual, not the class.

Here are some questions to consider, contextually, for whatever content is being taught:

Does it relate to their lives?

Is it likely to fit in some way to what students are expected to know already?

Are examples presented to show their context?

Will most students see a possible future use?

Do students have an opportunity to analyze, discover, and discuss possible use?

Are students expected to share ideas and participate in sharing and communicating?


To assist authentic, lasting learning of any content, classes should include:

What and why the class is taught and what students are expected to learn.

Sequence in new lessons that builds on previous lessons and old knowledge.

Integrates other skills such as critical thinking, reading, writing, and math.

Relates lessons to life outside of school.


4. At-Risk Kids Have to Have Contextual Input; Others Might Get By

When teachers teach in their fields of expertise, it is likely that they are so familiar and so focused on the content, curriculum, and the scope and sequence of the course that it may require explicit effort and frequent reminders to ensure that the context of teaching be adequately and fairly represented.  This effort and reminder is probably more important for the “bottom kids”.

The top and middle students usually have a better base for contextual understanding of course material.  In addition they frequently find their own examples, make transfers, and relate content to context.  But, the kids who struggle with content tend to focus even harder on that content.  They need teacher help and input in the whys, relationships, examples, facilitation of understanding, and discussing the context—the other side of the learning lesson.  As Dr. Phil reminds us, “No matter how thin you make a pancake, it always has two sides.”  Don’t forget the context side—it’s hiding underneath the content!

With joy in teaching, Bill Page,;



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This entry was posted on Saturday, October 1st, 2011 and is filed under *ISSUES, Bill Page, October 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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