Teaching Styles: Guide on the Side or Sage on the Stage?

In the early 90’s California teachers were getting released in record numbers. There was a huge budget crisis, districts were raising class sizes and eliminating classrooms, which meant many of us had to go. I was a second year teacher, untenured. I received my goodbye notice in March then set out scrambling to find another position.

I found myself interviewing in the growing community of Moreno Valley. I felt I was ready for anything, but I’ll never forget the interviewer asking my about my style of teaching. He asked, “Would you consider yourself a Sage on the Stage or a Guide on the Side?”

What a great question. Simply asking the question implies so much. If I say that I am a Sage on the Stage, immediately I might be considered a micromanager. A power hungry control freak of a teacher who needs his/her students to act only on command. Or even worse, I might be seen as a showoff whose main goal in teaching is to hear ones’ own voice.

As I sat in the interview room, it seemed the more politically correct answer would be the Guide on the Side. “Guide” doesn’t seem like such a loaded word as “Sage”. A guide leads the way. A guide points out facts. Guides know what pitfalls to avoid.

I had to make a snap answer. It’s been almost two decades, and I still think about my response. I expected that in time, I would make revisions to my answer. Surprisingly, I feel still feel good about the response I gave.

Basically, I believe that there are times when a teacher needs to be the Sage on the Stage and times when the teacher needs to get out of the way and be a guide on the side. Additionally, I’ve seen very effective teachers who can work a class, create amazing discussions, and help students construct learning all from the front of the class. By contrast, I’ve seen other teachers who spend very little time in front of a class, choosing to do most of their teaching in groups. Therefore, the situation and the personality of the teacher play a great role in the debate: Sage on the Stage or Guide on the Side.

Reflecting on the question “Sage” or “Guide” is not a bad idea. My philosophy in teaching, as well as life, has always been balance and moderation. There have been times when I’ve been stuck in the Sage or Guide roll for longer than is necessary. Just asking yourself the question might lead to some meaningful soul searching and deeper understanding about yourself as a person and a teacher.

The Merits and Demerits of the Sage on the Stage

There are definite merits to the Sage on the Stage approach. The teacher on his/her stage, managing the flow of information is definitely faster than the Guide on the Side. I’ve tried to incorporate “guide on the side” strategies for my grammar lessons, but I’ve found that direct instruction works best when introducing initial concepts. I may use “guide” strategies to aid mastery of the information. However, there are dozens of grammar and punctuation skills the students are required to learn in ten months which does not lend itself to the Guide on the Side philosophy.

This benefit is also the biggest argument against the Sage approach. As more and more demands are heaped upon teachers, it is easier to get through the curriculum with this method. However, besides being exhausting for the teacher to be on the stage all day, students require time to digest and process information. Sage techniques such as lecture and group discussion tend to favor the quick thinkers. These students do most of the critical thinking for the class. Consequently, the majority of the class misses out on this important skill.

The Merits and Demerits of the Guide on the Side

I recently began a sixth grade unit on the Hebrew’s exodus from Egypt like this:

Imaging that you were a guest in someone’s house. After a few weeks, you realized that you were doing all the chores in the house, your mom was cooking all of the meals, and your dad began to pay all of the bills. You were once a guest in this house. Now, what have you become?

The students had to read the material from their social studies books and explain how the Hebrews were like your family in the story. The connections they found were excellent. The follow up discussion continued to bear fruit as one group after another pointed out new ways to look at the analogy. I was a guide on the side, interjecting hints along the way.

The follow up to this was that the students had to create the second part of my “guest” analogy. They read about Moses and the Exodus and had to create an analogy about how they were able to move out of the house where they had become slaves.

The lesson was time consuming, but very effective. As effective as it was, I noticed that there were still things that I needed to teach the students directly. Many students, having no background knowledge on the topic, needed me to put this time in history into context. Once again, I was back to being the Sage on the Stage.

Final Thoughts

The moral of this story is that the art of teaching is knowing when to be the “guide” and when to be the “sage”. Once again I return to my original point: Simply asking yourself the question “What Kind of Teacher Am I?” is enough to help make you a better teacher. Being ever mindful of the balance between the two provides the opportunity for the self-reflection we all need.

The Young Teacher’s Guide to Long Lessons

Lessons with duration of 60 minutes or more in a high school create a new set of conditions for the teacher and the students in his/her class.

It is important to understand the issues and to devise ways to overcome these issues and make use of the advantages that the longer lesson period gives the teacher.

These issues discussed below come out of my own experience in the class room when my school changed from six 40 minute periods per day to four 70 minutes per day. It also reflects the experience of the staff of my department.

The issues are in no particular order of significance but I thought it was important to raise them.

1. It’s hard work for teachers and students. It is impossible for most students and teachers to concentrate effectively on one topic for long periods such as one hour. There must be short breaks or changes in what you are doing to sustain the interest and concentration of both students and teachers.

2. Your available teaching time must become “SACRED”. Don’t let anyone have it without a fight – even the administration. Longer periods mean less numbers of periods. Therefore, one lost period becomes a significant percentage of your teaching time in any teaching week.

3. You must have a homework/study strategy for students. Since you will see the class less often, you will need to suggest when they do homework and when they do study, e.g. do the homework tonight to keep the learning fresh and reinforce quickly or do it the night before the next lesson to have it fresh in the students’ minds.

4. Lack of continuity. This occurs when students are absent simply because they lose such a large percentage of their learning time making it difficult to catch up on the missed work. Additionally, for students who are present in class, there may be as many as four days between successive lessons.

5. Work ethic is difficult to develop. Points 2 to 4 above support this point.

6. Strategy for absent student. It is important to ensure that absent students do not get left behind. What I did was to keep in my diary a detailed account of what I achieved in each lesson. I made sure I kept any handouts for absent students. I wrote the names of all absent students on any handout ready to give to the absentees in their next lesson. With the longer period, I was able to spend a little time with them to bring them up to date.

7. Strategy for absent teachers. With the longer lessons, a teacher’s absence had a greater impact on the class. Therefore, it is important to plan an effective lesson to cover that absence.

8. Detailed planning and full use of time is essential. It is easy to “waste” time. Plan some extra, short activities for any unexpected spare time that comes in a lesson, e.g. quiz or problem solving activity.

9. Group planning will be essential. If you are part of a team of teachers allocated to the same year level and/or subject, Team Teaching could ease the burden of long lessons and add variety to help maintain student interest and concentration. Students enjoy a change of teacher from time to time.

10. I always seemed to be rushing to cover the course when long lessons were first introduced. This is why you must plan minutely how to use every minute of the long period. What I did was to plan to complete the work program for the term or semester at least a week ahead of any planned assessment.

11. You need to divide your lessons into short segments to survive. Each segment allows you and your students a respite and a chance to “recharge your and their batteries”. Have a basic structure for each lesson. Your students should be aware of this structure. Publish it on your board each lesson.

12. Teach skills first and foremost. Good basics enhance a student’s chance of being successful in all areas of your course, especially in the more challenging areas of problem solving and critical thinking.

13. Student Mentors. Encourage older students to form study groups of four or five to work together out of school. In class, use your talented students to explain ideas to the class as a whole or to individual students. This is good for their personal development. Students often learn much from their class mates as they tend to “speak the same language”.

14. There is time to teach students skills that need extensive time to develop, e.g. develop a logical decision-making process, experimental procedures in Science, developing an argument in History.

15. You can teach a whole topic in one lesson and use subsequent lessons to consolidate. You can give an overview initially, showing where the topic is leading.

16. Students must become more accountable for their learning, homework, study and examination technique. Teach these skills in class in short bursts over time. Revisit these skills as often as you can to reinforce and develop.

17. Learn to work smart – use every available tool or idea you can, e.g. multiple intelligences, listening skills, variety of teaching strategies.

18. Help students learn to think, write and speak using the language and the terminology of your subject disciplines. Give short, subject vocabulary tests/quizzes to enhance these skills and to add another segment to your long lessons.

New Teacher Tips on Teaching ESL Students From Kenneth Beare’s ESL Guide

ESL guide for About.com, Kenneth Beare talks about his work as an ESL (English as a second language) teacher and educational writer.

Dorit: Kenneth, thanks so much for participating in today’s interview. What is your background in ESL?

Kenneth: I worked as an ESL teacher for 20 years. I started teaching in Germany in 1984 and continued in New York City for the New York Association teaching Russian immigrants of the former Soviet Union vocational English, as well as in Italy in the 90s.

For the past ten years I’ve been developing English language teaching materials for special courses administrative purposes. I haven’t been teaching for the past five years. I also work as a content creator and consultant for English language development products.

With regard to my work at About.com, I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time. Since 1997, I’ve developed thousands of pages of curriculum free of charge for ESL teachers and students to use.

Dorit: Your answer actually leads me to my next question. What are some of the primary needs and concerns of ESL students and teachers who visit your site?

Kenneth: 60-70% of the students want to improve their communicative skills in speaking. They also come with a more traditional mindset when it comes to learning English and love the traditional quizzes on a wide variety of topics.

The ESL teachers are using industry specific dialogues such as specific situational content at the dentist office which has become a huge hit. ready to go lesson plans are also very popular with teachers. I also have requests for EFL learning and teaching resources and I will point people to those resources.

Dorit: How do you see the development of online language teaching and learning?

Kenneth: I’ve been involved in a number of startups and I’m amazed by the lack of entrepreneurial spirit with regard to online language teaching. Teachers need to be aware of how their online personalities come across. You have to engage and help and create a relationship. That is where I see the future of online language training moving.

On the other hand, students expect teaching to be traditionally taught online. With regard to my online content development, I’m not sure if what I’m doing always makes sense pedagogically. We will be at a turning point ten years down the road as people grow into the technologies.

Dorit: Yes, it’s certainly is interesting food for thought. What are you thoughts about teaching needs common to both EFL and ESL teachers?

Kenneth: Often the meeting point between EFL and ESL is when teachers teach vocational materials involving shared materials and setting similar instructional goals. Language chunks and standard phrases, and particular jargon to various areas are all part of this development of global English. The cultural consideration of the status of English should also be taken into consideration as English is used more and more as a lingua franca. It is also important to take other issues into consideration such as needs analysis as students recognize their own particular learning goals. For example, are they learning English to successfully perform in a job?

The needs analysis is very important and that dictates your curriculum, your teaching purpose and finally, determines success.

Dorit: The same needs analysis is also important for teachers, right?

Kenneth: Yes. You need to have instructional objectives in order to achieve goals and in different cultural classrooms, teachers need to think about this. Adding materials and completely going off on your own shows on one hand that you are a motivated teacher but too often, teachers do not set appropriate cultural standards for the needs of their students. For example, do students need and want to learn about British culture in an EFL setting?

In high school, a lot of students wanted English learning material on a global level that opened itself to contextual communication such as discussing what is happening in Iraq now.

Dorit: Well we’re out of time for now but I’m sure your information will be very helpful to ESL and EFL teachers and students if it hasn’t been already. Well, thanks so much Kenneth for your time and participation in this interview. I always enjoy speaking to passionate teachers and educational writers like you.

Kenneth: Thank you, Dorit.