Brock came up to me after class, the way students do when they have something they want to say to a teacher. “Dad, thanks, that was really inspiring.”
“Thanks, but explain. Which part? What are you talking about?”
“When you talked about the AP Test and how we were going to score well on it and how we were going to kick its butt. I wasn’t very excited about taking it, but now I am.”
I love teaching AP English Language. It’s my favorite curriculum I have ever taught and I just started teaching it again this week. It’s a special year for me because my son, Brock, is in one of my classes. The above conversation we had only reinforced to me some things I know about teaching.
It is easy to bitch and complain about education during this COVID year. Nothing seems normal. I currently teach hybrid, with half my students in the classroom and half at home on computers. I never plan for more than a week in advance because we are currently on our third schedule change in 10 weeks. It seems like everything is always new. It would be very easy to focus on the negatives of teaching.
Nothing seems normal, except that we are still teaching. Teaching is a craft. Teaching is a skill. A lot of people think teaching is easy until they try it. Pay attention to the teaching style that happens during the next training you have at work if you don’t believe me. The actual teaching — the art of presenting something — is a skill just like welding, playing baseball, or playing an instrument.
My wife is also a teacher, and Lynette has always said that being a good teacher is being a good actress (or actor). She believes she should get an Oscar for convincing kids to be as excited about chemistry as she is. I have seen her walking around her classroom, clapping her hands, getting students to focus. It’s quite a sight and it works. She’s a great teacher.
I saw engagement in my classroom this week. I needed to go over the structure of the AP test, the format, and the logistics of how everything works. It’s a pretty boring lesson and a pretty boring concept — except it isn’t. It would only be boring if I let it be boring.
I had every students’ eyes on me. I had half of my students at home, over a computer, and they were typing questions and comments in the chat and unmuting themselves to be a part of the conversation. I had to do this lesson for the first time in my life from behind my desk, in front of computer, so I did not walk around and engage my students like I normally do, and it still worked.
I saw engagement again when I led a Socratic Seminar this week over a text I always use. It’s a great piece about failure and overcoming failure, which I have used for years. It mimics a lot of Caroline Dwek’s Growth Mindset research. On a side note, I wish I had named my “failure stuff” and written about it 10 years ago like she did because maybe I would be rich and famous. I didn’t, she did, and I know her name and she doesn’t know mine.
But I digress. My first Socratic of the year is always about letting the students talk. Again, Brock surprised me. He is a fairly unemotional student. He had several great points to add to our discussion, as did almost every other student in the class. Once again, as he left class, he came up to me.
“Thanks, Dad, that was really fun.” When students think AP English is fun, my Jedi Mind Trick is starting to work.
I can feel the learning in a room when students are looking at me, taking notes on concepts, and working on figuring out what the information is. When learning is happening, it is damn near palpable. When students are talking and expressing what they think about a text, I can feel the learning. It feels the same on the football practice field when starting a new week and going over the opponent’s formations and plays. I love the feeling of giving information to students and athletes so that it can help them as they go forward in pursuit of their goals.
The opposite is true, too: I have seen way too many Professional Development opportunities or seen other teachers read the words on a PowerPoint, butts turned to the audience, droning on endlessly about something. The audience plays on their phones, or has side conversations, not looking at the person or the presentation, counting the minutes until they can go to lunch. They drown out the monotone voice like it’s like the scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
“Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?” We all know it when we see it. Somebody is talking and nobody is paying attention.
Step 1: Fake it until you make it
I hate seeing this disengagement. After 21 years in classrooms and athletic fields, I know that people can get better at presenting information to other people. The first step is enthusiasm. And fake enthusiasm is better than no enthusiasm at all.
Step 2: Be You
The second step is to stop fighting who we are. We have to be true to who we are in the classroom. What works for me doesn’t work for others. What works for them doesn’t work for me. As a young English teacher, I wanted to be smart and high-falutin’ with words like those English professors I had or those other really smart English teachers I saw. I knew they were better than me, so the easy answer was to copy their work — I needed to become more like them.
But that wasn’t me. I now joke with my students that I know very little except for football, so I just treat my classes like a football practice. We work on our drills, we come together and work as a group, and when we don’t get something right, we reload: we get back on the line and run it again. And we do it all with some enthusiasm, whether we feel it legitimately or not.
I have taken to blasting music at the beginning of class as students walk in. “Eye of the Tiger,” “Thunderstruck,” “Kick Start My Heart,” “Sweet Child O Mine,”- basically anything upbeat that I would play during a weight room workout. It is hard to be sleepy and disinterested when your teacher is rocking out at 7:40 in the morning. It is as much for me as it is for them. It’s hard to be sleepy and disinterested as a teacher if you are rocking out and trying to sell kids on the idea that we about to do great things. Again, fake it until you make it.
I didn’t write this article to brag about my spectacular teaching prowess. I saw something good in the classroom this week from my son and his classmates. I needed to see something good this week because this has been a tough week, month, and year of school. Schools are in desperate need of some wins and some enthusiasm as they negotiate through this COVID landscape.
Perhaps the way to successfully navigate 2020 is to crank up the music and keep working on our craft. Every day, keep working the drill and keep bringing the enthusiasm, even if we have to fake it a little.