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Lessons I learnt from teaching in a polytechnic

After teaching for more than a decade at a polytechnic, I have decided to make a career switch. Here, I would like to share my thoughts on the things I learnt about teaching.

The author (second row from front, middle) with her polytechnic students in a photo taken in August 2019.

The author (second row from front, middle) with her polytechnic students in a photo taken in August 2019.

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After teaching for more than a decade at a polytechnic, I have decided to make a career switch. Here, I would like to share my thoughts on the things I learnt about teaching:


"Those who can’t, teach” — I don’t know who came up with this but it is quite rubbish. If you have ever sat in a class where someone couldn’t teach, you will know that teaching is not something anyone can do.

There’s an annual rating exercise at my polytechnic which gives a pretty in-depth analysis of what students think of their lecturers.

The top performing folk always have a few things in common — a wicked personality, the talent to be able to turn something dry into something interesting and the ability to connect with 25 young people who would rather be at Zouk or at home sleeping.

It always amazes me that some of the most intelligent folk who are at the top of their game, cannot explain something simply (using an easy analogy) — that’s the heart of what is required of teaching.

Being able to think on your feet and take questions like you are in a press conference without missing a beat are also important requisite skills.

I have concluded that the best teachers don’t stand and deliver, they don’t even think their role is to tell anyone anything.

They are masterful guides who know when to stand back and when to hold your hand when you are stuck. This is why I feel we should keep paying good teachers a lot of money because they are responsible for good lawyers, doctors, leaders.


Everything starts with good teaching material. In my diploma class, we have a small group of people who have talent in crafting lesson materials.

These people help the other lecturers shape their own material. Even if a module has run for years successfully, every year, we try to improve it — add more interactive quizzes, or games — to cater to a changing audience who have only ever known the digital world.

It never fails to amaze me each time a well-crafted lesson runs beautifully. What’s a well-crafted lesson?

It has clearly defined goals, excellent resourced material and creative activities that keep a tough audience engaged (heard of playing Jeopardy to teach news values?).

When all of these come together, it is a joy to behold. I often hear from my younger son about how boring some of his lessons are.

My suspicion is that the teaching team just wants to deliver information. In this day when that can be done with the click of a mouse, that philosophy will sink everyone involved, including the teachers.

We can teach the most difficult concepts using games, using puzzles, using debate or discussion — to me, this is where the deepest learning takes place.

I have had the privilege of seeing this happen in my classes so I know it works.


Life is one big bell curve and I understand it is important.

The smartest, hardworking kids deserve their 3.9 GPA and for them to be obsessed about their grades makes sense to me.

Then, there are those who struggle to pull a 2. Are they necessarily less smart?

True, there are those who are weaker – it takes them a much longer time to understand concepts. But these kids shouldn’t be confused with the other kind — the super street-smart, quick foxes who are capable but pull in Cs.

There are many reasons — they don’t show up, they don’t hand in work, they do the bare minimum. There is always an underlying reason for that — in my experience, there are family and financial issues bubbling away in the background.

But these guys dig in. In class, their light shines brightly.

I never worry about kids like these — they always make good in the end. So playing the long game and not being so hard pressed about As is something I have learnt along the way and this philosophy has worked for my own sons.

Yes, there was a lot of hand wringing on poor or average grades, but in resisting the micromanaging and allowing them to learn at their own pace, they’ve shown me that time, space and freedom (with guided poles) produces interested learners who can go the distance.


If the job is simply to go in, deliver the lesson and get out, this would be a pretty easy job (and this is admittedly why some do it). But for so many others, it never is.

Teaching is the business of dealing with human beings and by extension it becomes complex: Kids with dyslexia or learning difficulties; kids whose parents are going through a nasty divorce and kids who are struggling to stay afloat in a social media obsessed world.

My colleagues have had to deal with crying kids, fights, angry outbursts and disengaged young people. We have to forget the lesson for a minute, reach out and pull them back in.

There’s no extra money in the bag for that, but that just comes with the territory and many good folk do it so well, every single day.

Oh and all those extra sweet treats, cards, pizzas and cakes we buy? Well that definitely comes under this category of going further.

If you have a teacher like that, you are lucky. If you are a teacher like that, bless you.


At the end of every semester, I have students who write gushing notes to me. I accept praise as genuine because when a kid takes the trouble to write it, it means something was true to him or her.

Some are more insightful and say that they could see how much I loved my job, how my enthusiasm was infectious and how they appreciated they could be who they are with me.

Of all the things I have learnt from teaching, the most important is to kneel, so you are level with them.

Inhabit their world. Ask them about their songs, their stories on love, their fears.

And do not judge any of it — because when you use your own moral or religious paradigms to cast judgement, that’s the fastest way to turn off the conversation. Even the most hardened student softens when he or she likes you.

Besides, young adults are still forming, still morphing and their experiments, good and bad, are all part of the process of becoming a fully formed adult.

Because of my kneeling, I have had the most insightful, incredible conversations with my students on everything from Tinder to binge drinking, parents, social media and their own fears about “adulting”.

I always come away amazed at how little I know about the world young people inhabit today. Theirs is a very different time from my own simple, easy one.

In taking the time to talk to them, I have discovered that every kid has a story but you need to stop and listen.

And it is a reminder that as teachers, we cannot write anyone off. Not until they themselves choose to give up.

As long as they are in the system, in school, in your class, they are valuable and they are worth fighting for.


Crispina Robert is a mother of two and a former journalist. Until recently, she was a media studies lecturer at a polytechnic.

Related topics

teaching education schools polytechnic parenting

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