Know Your Students

Sometimes, I’ll go into a school, get the school started with a chess class and then hand the class over to another of our instructors six months later. When I check in with that instructor and ask them how the class is going, they always say the same thing, “those students are really loyal to you.” My students, be they children, teenagers or adults, are loyal to me. It’s not because I’m the greatest chess teacher in the world but because I make a point to get to know each of my students, and this goes a long way towards teaching those students chess.

Every student you encounter may share a common interest, in this case chess, but has different interests outside of your class. Students also have varied personalities. We’ve all seen the disastrous effects of “one size fits all” teaching in the school system. Each of us has a unique personality and because of this, we tend to absorb information in different ways. However, even using a teaching approach that takes this into consideration only goes so far. To maximize the student/teacher relationship, you have to know something about your students.

When I meet students for the first time, I interview them. I do this with all my students. I do so because I want to know how my students approach life. To determine this, I ask them about their interests. What are their favorite subjects in school and which subjects do they detest? One of their least favorite subjects, for example, is mathematics because many of my young students are leaving the cloistered safety of arithmetic and jumping into the waters of algebra. Knowing this, I can use chess notation to help them make the transition. After all, chess notation is based on alphanumeric thinking, something introduced when you first learn algebra. These same anti-mathematic students often have a passion for the creative arts and approach life differently because of this passion. These students need to learn the game from a visual perspective so pattern recognition is going to be their gateway learning tool.

Of course, pattern recognition is critical for all students of the game. However, with creatively inclined or visual learners, you have to emphasize pattern recognition even more so than mathematically inclined students. Student’s outside interests play a key role in getting them to play more chess. I always ask students if they play a musical instrument or partake in sports. Of course, this is a loaded question, as they say, because as soon as the student says “yes, I play the piano,” I hit them with “I bet you have to practice a lot.” Once the student admits to putting time into practicing I mention that chess works the same way. You get better only if you practice by playing a lot of chess! The same holds true with sports, for those that play sports rather than an instrument.

In addition to improving your ability to effectively teach, knowing your students helps build their respect for you because you’re listening to them. I treat my students, no matter how young, as adults. By this, I mean that when they speak to me I listen and give them the attention they often don’t get from other adults. What they say matters to me. When my students come to class, I’ll ask them how they are and what they’ve been up to. My students will gladly provide me with a plethora of information that helps me adjust my teaching methods to help them maximize the retention of information I’m providing. More importantly, the lines of communication are open and a student who might not ask subject related questions during class feels more prone to do so because he or she feels more comfortable with me. Respect is something not automatically given to you as a teacher because you’re a teacher. Respect is earned, no matter how young your students are.

I’ve had every kind of student, from well behaved to juvenile delinquent and, in the end, earning their respect goes the longest way towards helping them learn. It should be noted that earning respect can be a slippery slope. I’ve seen many instructors fail to earn their students respect because those instructors try to be something their not. They try to be more like a student than teacher. If you’re an adult, you’re not going to gain your student’s respect if you try to behave as they do. I maintain a higher level of discipline in my classes than the schools do in their regular classes. My students know that there are certain rules that cannot be broken. However, they also know that if they adhere to these rules, they’ll have fun. Just because you maintain an orderly class doesn’t mean your students are going think anything less of you, as long as you make a point of knowing them. Because I’m strict, when I do have a moment of being goofy, it makes it that much funnier!

Getting to know your students is also helpful for other reasons. Many students go through their academic life with learning disabilities that are not diagnosed. This happens because many schools are overcrowded, teachers don’t have the time to know every student or the teacher in question is burned out. If you, their chess teacher, can discover that a student has a learning issue, you can bring this to the attention of the school and help change that student’s life for the better. Then there’s the chess benefits.

Many of my classes have a waiting list, not because I’m a great chess teacher, but because my students and I are invested in one another so they take the class year in and year out. Seventy percent of my classes are filled with students who have been with me for two or more years. This only happens because I know my students! The longer you work with a student, the better their chess education!

The same idea holds true for adult students. I teach a few well known musicians who have very demanding schedules and very diverse lives. When they signed on for lessons, I got to know them by asking questions. The same questions I use for my younger students were asked of my adult students. What subjects did you like in school? What are you passions or hobbies outside of your profession? Knowing who a person is away from the chessboard is tantamount to helping them improve on the chessboard. If you don’t ask questions and get to know your student, you’re depriving them of the one thing you’re offering, knowledge. Do note that I had to figure all this out through trial and error. Figuring out how to teach, now that’s hard work. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).