Teach Like a Cat

A couple summers ago I read Dave Burgess’s book, Teach Like a Pirate. If you’re not familiar, Burgess focuses on the presentation aspect of teaching. He advocates dressing up, incorporating movement, bringing a ton of energy, and lots of other strategies to enliven your lessons. You can watch an example here. It’s an inspiring read, and when you’re done you want to ramp up the energy level of your instruction.

 

That feeling lasts for about a week.

 

Then reality returns, and you realize you just can’t do that for every lesson, not even most of them, because it’s mentally and physically exhausting. Because I want teachers to have long careers impacting many, many lives, I disagree with Burgess’s approach, even as I admit that he’s right. Being a showman will lead to more engaged students. But it will also wear out most teachers really quickly.

 

So instead of teaching like a pirate, I propose you teach like a cat.

 

I have a cat. Her name is Gizmo. She has a lot of qualities that teachers who want long and fulfilling careers should make their own.

 

How To Teach Like a Cat

Be More Chill

Gizmo spends 90% of her time just chilling out. She’s almost always calm and in control. While the rest of us are running around getting dinner ready before softball practice, Gizmo is lying on the couch watching us with seeming bemusement.

 

Teachers should also spend most of their day in a state of calm. I detail why in this post, but to summarize, calm teachers tend to have calmer classes. Calm leads to more focused work. Calm people make better decisions during stressful moments. When you’re calm most of the time, your moments of enthusiasm will have more impact. And, most importantly of all, by remaining calm, you conserve your energy so you don’t burn out.

Bursts of Energy and Fun

While Gizmo is almost always calm, she has moments of energy and playfulness. She chases after a balled up Hershey’s Kisses wrapper, batting it across the hardwood floor. She swipes at me as I walk by, inviting me to play with her. She boxes with me, patting her paw against my palm over and over.

 

To keep things interesting, teachers should present fun and energetic lessons on occasion. They should provide highly engaging activities for their students where possible. While most of the day will be calm and focused work, bursts of energy and fun make learning memorable and school a fun place to be. Don’t exhaust yourself trying to make every day a Vegas show, but do look for opportunities to liven things up.

Ask For What You Want

Sometimes my wife gets home late and it’s left to me to feed Gizmo. I usually forget. But Gizmo won’t allow me to forget for long. Every time I get up, she runs to her food bowl. She rubs against my leg to get my attention. She meows. Gizmo wants three things in life: the attention of my wife, to be left alone by the rest of the family, and food. She makes these desires known in no uncertain terms. She asks for what she wants.

 

So many teachers are afraid to self-advocate. They beat around the bush, engage in passive-aggressiveness, and avoid any potential conflict. Instead of asking their principal to stop micromanaging them, they avoid the principal as much as possible. Rather than asking for money to purchase classroom materials, they assume the answer will be no and never ask. Instead of asking for a day off to attend a conference that will improve their teaching, they just assume the district won’t pay for it or won’t want to hire a sub. Teach like a cat. Ask for what you want. The worst that can happen is that someone says no. (Or, you get fired for being pushy and annoying.)

Stop Feeling Guilty

Sometimes, Gizmo horks up a furball right in the center of the living room. One time, she did it into the opening of one of my daughter’s hats. Another time, she deposited one just outside my bedroom door so that I stepped in it. As far as I can tell, she’s never felt bad about it. Not once. I’ve watched her do it. She spits one up and walks away, as if it’s a perfectly normal thing to do. Which of course, it is.

 

It’s also natural for teachers to want to take a break. I know teachers who come to work sick because of the guilt they feel over leaving their students with a sub. On some Friday afternoons, it’s totally normal to want to put in a movie because you’re beat and your students are done listening to you anyway. It’s natural to not want to check a pile of papers on Sunday night. Teachers need to be like my cat and stop feeling guilty for doing what our bodies and brains are telling us to do.

Ignore the Critics

Gizmo could not care less about what we think of her. She’s totally dismissive. Rude about it, even. Sometimes I’ll walk into the closet and she’ll come shooting out of her weird hiding place. I’ll damn near fall down trying to avoid stepping on her. I shout at her. “Gizmo, get out of the way!” She doesn’t give a shit. She just yawns and relocates to the couch or meows at me to feed her again. If we leave the piano keys uncovered at night, Gizmo will prance across them, playing a lively, if discordant, tune that wakes up the whole house. We’ve learned there’s no point in scolding her. She just doesn’t care.

 

Many teachers care entirely too much about what others say or think about them. Be your own critic. Ignore the rest. Stop allowing others to make you feel bad about yourself. Be like my cat: do your thing, and screw what people think about it. You won’t please them all anyway. (I do recommend that you be less obvious about it than my cat.)

Sleep More

Like all cats, Gizmo loves to sleep. I’m pretty sure it’s her favorite thing to do. Teachers, like many Americans, don’t get enough sleep. It’s recommended that you get 7 to 9 hours a night. But the CDC estimates that one in three Americans don’t get that much. You can’t be your best if you’re not well-rested. Teachers, even those who stay calm most of the day, must be on. They must be mentally engaged and observant. You can’t teach well if you’re tired all the time.

 

So don’t teach like a pirate. Pirates are scary. Teach like a cat instead.

Why We Shouldn’t Admire Workaholics

On the last school day of each year, my district recognizes retiring teachers at an ice cream social type of event. The entire faculty attends. The principals of the retiring teachers stand up and tell some bad jokes, then they say some nice things about the teachers. You know.
One year, one of the principals started her speech by talking about how dedicated Judy was. “Anyone who knows Judy knows that she’s the first one here and the last one to leave every day, even after all these years,” she said. We were supposed to be impressed. I wasn’t.
There are two types of workaholics, and neither of them deserve our admiration.

 

The Addict

The first type of workaholic is the kind of person who has great passion for and is highly skilled at his job. He gets up in the morning and can’t wait to get started. He works all hours of the night because it’s a thrill. He gets a buzz off it. Rather than burning him out, the work invigorates him. It’s in his blood. When we think of people like this, we often can’t help but think of them in any way other than their association with their life’s passion. Think of Steve Jobs and you think Apple. Think of Mark Zuckerberg and you think Facebook. They’re the embodiment of that whole, “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” thing.
There’s nothing to admire about someone who spends an ungodly amount of time doing the very thing that gives him a lot of pleasure.

 

We don’t admire other people for doing what they love to do. Nobody is going to write a book about me because I spend hours watching football and eating potato chips. There will be no biopics made about some fat 35-year-old who spends six straight days playing video games. I had an uncle who loved to drink beer. Not only would he have done it for free, he gladly paid others for the privilege. There’s a name we give to people who can’t stop doing things they love to the detriment of other areas of their lives. The word is addicts. We don’t tend to admire them. How is being addicted to one’s work fundamentally different from being addicted to heroin, pornography, or gambling? Why should anyone admire a workaholic who does nothing but dedicate untold hours to something he really really gets off on?

 

To answer my own question: The only difference between workaholics and addicts is that society values the workaholics’ addiction more than the addicts’. It shouldn’t.

 

The Misguided

The second kind of workaholic is sadder than the first. These are people who do not love their jobs, but they kill themselves at them anyway. They sacrifice the best years of their lives, missing out on their kids’ childhoods, straining relationships with those who love them, and making themselves miserable for the sake of pride, a misguided sense of dedication, guilt, or the almighty dollar. Picture the Wolf of Wall Street guy.

 

There is nothing to admire about someone whose appetite for approval and recognition destroys so many aspects of the rest of their lives. Workaholics like these wouldn’t exist if society did not reward them with the very thing they so desperately want, its admiration.

 

Workaholic Teachers

Here’s why it matters for teachers. There are those who genuinely love teaching. They are passionate and skilled. For them, teaching is not really work. The long days don’t burn them out. They get physically tired, but not mentally or spiritually drained. They’re in “flow” when teaching. These teachers are rare. Many of them are excellent. But we should stop holding them up as a standard all teachers should aspire to. You can’t instill passion where it doesn’t exist, and if the only people we’re willing to put at the head of classrooms are those who live and breathe all things teaching, then class sizes are about to skyrocket. The world needs a lot of teachers. The U.S. alone has 3.1 million of them.

 

The rest of the workaholic teachers–those who either lack passion or skill– won’t make it much longer. They are exhausted. Many are on the verge of burning out. They’re under the false impression that to be any good, they must put in long hours. They’ve lost any semblance of a work-life balance. They’re giving up so much because they feel external pressure to do so. They’re leaving the profession, sharing their stories, and those stories are keeping young people from even entertaining a career in education.

 

We’ve done that to them. When we as a society admire workaholics, we send the message to teachers that they must break their backs to be valued. It’s a dangerous message, and we are now reaping what we have sown. 

The Willful Ignorance of Education Research

You may have seen something on the news about the March for Science held this past Saturday. Demonstrators across the country gathered to draw attention to and criticize lawmakers for ignoring scientific research when making policy. As an educator in America, I wonder what took them so long.

Education Researchers Are Like Teeth

There may be no more thankless job than education researcher. They’re kind of like my ten-year-old daughter’s teeth. She knows her teeth exist and that they do some important stuff, but she really doesn’t pay much attention to them unless someone (her mom) forces her to.

To be an education researcher is to work for years in obscurity, conducting studies, publishing papers, going to conferences, writing books,  and lecturing (I guess. I don’t know what the hell they actually do). If you happen to uncover something consequential, something that could tip the American education system on its head and lead to real, sustained improvement in student outcomes, you get the pleasure of seeing your work completely disregarded.

Can’t Read? Screw You and Your Future!

We have a rich history of pissing all over the work of these dedicated academics.  Why, just a few months ago, my state, Michigan, passed a Third Grade Reading Law that requires the retention of third graders who are more than one year behind in reading as measured by the state test (which doesn’t report a grade level equivalent, so who knows how that’s going to work). Legislators did this despite the fact that hundreds of studies have found no academic benefit to retaining students, and a handful indicate that retention leads to higher drop-out rates.

You’re Tired? Screw Your Stupid Adolescent Sleep Cycle

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends delaying start times for middle and high school students. From this article:

Studies show that adolescents who don’t get enough sleep often suffer physical and mental health problems, an increased risk of automobile accidents, and a decline in academic performance. But getting enough sleep each night can be hard for teens whose natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. – and who face a first-period class at 7:30 a.m. or earlier the next day.

Only 15% of American high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later. The median middle school start time is 8:00 a.m. Meanwhile, my third graders, who don’t need the extra sleep, start at nine o’clock every morning. Research suggests that flipping this around would help a lot of kids. But it’s the way we’ve always done things and basketball practice and busing and parents won’t like it, and blah, blah, so screw helping kids and screw the research.

Move! Move, I Say!

If you haven’t heard of John Hattie, you will. School districts really like this guy because, like Bob Marzano, he does “meta-analysis,” which, as far as I can tell, is throwing a bunch of research studies other people did into a pile and performing some fancy math Jiu-Jitsu that spits out a number that’s supposed to tell you what works and what doesn’t. Whatever. Anyway, Hattie ranks about 1,000 different factors that contribute or don’t to academic achievement. At the very bottom of his list is depression, with an effect size of negative .42, which is really terrible, not unlike depression itself. Right above that is mobility at negative .34. Mobility means moving around, changing schools.  You know, the same thing reformers want kids to be able to do through expanded school choice schemes.

Stop Moving! Sit! Sit!

Want kids to learn more stuff? Make them sit in classrooms more, right? And what better way to capture more classroom time than to take away kids’ recess? With greater consequences attached to state assessments, many schools eliminated or curtailed recess time for students, especially following the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. Shockingly (he said sarcastically), research does not support such a move.

Research shows that recess in the primary years contributes to physical fitness, improves students’ classroom behavior and focus, facilitates social development and competence, and leads to more learning and achievement.

[Is Your School Cutting Recess? Fight back with research! This book will help.]

 In Computers We Trust

Here’s a blunt headline: Researchers: Don’t expand virtual schools as isTurns out sitting kids in front of a computer and telling them to learn stuff doesn’t work so well. But that won’t stop policymakers from expanding virtual schools. They’re cheap, after all. Reformers like cheap. I mean, they really like cheap. Damn the researchers and their blunt headlines.

The Train Keeps Rolling

Oh, those poor education researchers, toiling away to prove their little theories, only to have them roundly ignored in the places where they matter most.

And yet somehow, despite policymakers’ and school leaders’ willful ignorance, the train keeps rolling. Students learn. They go off to college. They get jobs. The American economy grows. The stock market rises. 401(k)s go up in value. People retire. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, what’s to worry about?

I’m pretty sure my daughter wonders the same thing every time her mom tells her to brush her teeth. Her teeth are fine. They’re white. They’re straight. They don’t hurt. They chew stuff. She eats. She gets bigger. So what if she ignores her teeth?

I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve only scratched the surface. What are other examples of policymakers and school districts ignoring research? Sound off in the comments or on Facebook.

The Simplest Way to Impress Parents

At the end of every school day, I tell myself one thing: smile.

No matter what has just happened. No matter how the day has gone. No matter if I want to scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” I tell myself to smile. A smile is the simplest way to impress parents.

I wish I could claim credit for this, but I stole it from another teacher. When my daughter was in first grade there were a few occasions when I was able to pick her up from school. The parents of the children who didn’t ride the bus all stood around awkwardly at the front of the building waiting for their precious ones to emerge.

The teachers walked the classes out, one after another, kind of like “The Locomotion,” but without the annoying song.  I looked forward to seeing my daughter, but I also looked forward to seeing Mrs. Herrera. Mrs. Herrera taught one of the other first grade classes, and every day when she stepped from the shadow of the school and into the daylight she had a bright smile on her face. She engaged happily with her students and smiled as she handed them over to their parents.

I probably picked my daughter up twenty times over the three years she attended that school. Mrs. Herrera smiled like that every single time.

I’ve never taught first grade, but I imagine it’s like teaching third grade, only with more exhaustion. I am sure there were many days when Mrs. Herrera did not feel like smiling. But smile she did.

What Parents Will Think

As a parent, I was impressed that after whatever she went through during the course of the day, she chose to end it positively. Her smile sent a number of messages:

  • I like my job.
  • I like kids.
  • I can handle whatever you throw at me.
  • I’m relaxed.
  • I don’t easily blow my top.
  • You can trust me to be patient and kind with your child.

It turns out there is science to back up my positive thoughts. First, smiling makes us feel better. Research has shown that you can boost your mood by smiling, even if you don’t feel happy at all. Second, smiling is contagious. Participants in one Swedish study were shown pictures of several emotions. When the picture of someone smiling was presented, researchers told the participants to frown. Instead, most of them imitated the smiles they saw on the pictures. It took conscious effort to not smile. So when Mrs. Herrera smiled, most parents couldn’t help but smile back. All this smiling helps forge connections between people, even if they’ve never spoken. We like people who make us feel better, and smiling makes us feel better.

Seeing Mrs. Herrera’s smile made me like her more.

There are at least 50 parents on the blacktop at the end of my school day. I want every one of them to see me smile. I want them to wonder how I can go though an entire day of doing a job a number of them have told me they wouldn’t have the patience for and still end it in a good mood. I want them to think the same positive things I thought when I saw Mrs. Herrera. I want them to smile back. I want them to be impressed.

All it takes is a second to remind myself to do a very simple thing. But like many simple things, it can make a big difference.

 

 

 

 

How to Handle Your Celebrity Status

I went to Walmart the other day to pick up some adult beverages and help destroy local businesses. As I quickly weaved around an Easter display, I heard:

“Mr. Murphy!”

It was a student from my school. Not one of my students. I didn’t even know his name. But he quite obviously knew mine. He wanted his mom to know it was me.

“Mom! Mom! That’s Mr. Murphy! He’s a teacher at my school!” the boy shouted, just in case someone in the store didn’t know I was there.

Like it or not, we teachers are celebrities. Not huge ones. Not even on the level of a local weatherman. But celebrities nonetheless. Sure, my most rabid fans might be nine-year old kids, but so were Justin Bieber’s, Aaron Carter’s, and Miley Cyrus’s (and look how well they turned out).

If a student sees me anywhere outside of school, it is, for some odd reason, a cause to get very excited. It is as though they can’t wrap their heads around the fact that I have a life apart from work. I don’t really get it, but I bet real celebrities don’t quite understand people’s overreactions to them, either. I’m sure Katie Holmes has no idea why people want to take pictures of her walking out of a store holding a shoe bag.

I admit that, like many Hollywood stars, I do not always relish my celebrity. Sometimes, I just want to buy my six-pack and get out of there. But I try to remember that to some kids, I’m kind of a big deal. And I shouldn’t act like Al Kaline.

Think of it this way: If you ran into one of your favorite actors or athletes at the supermarket, how would you hope they would respond to your enthusiastic approach?

You wouldn’t want them to blow you off, act annoyed, be rude or short with you, act as though you were an imposition, or try to get rid of you as quickly as possible.

You’d want them to smile, say hi, sign an autograph, take a picture, and act as though they genuinely appreciated your adoration. You’d want them to be open, gregarious, even giving. You’d want to be able to tell your friends what a great person your favorite celebrity is. Mostly, you’d want them to understand and appreciate the rare position they find themselves in.

There aren’t many people in the world who have fans of any age. Most of the people in that Walmart will never get the kind of reaction I got from that kid from anyone, including their own spouses and children. We’re members of a lucky few.  We should try to be grateful for it.

So the next time some kid excitedly shouts your name across a Walmart and runs up to you, tugging his indifferent and somewhat baffled mother along, stop what you’re doing. Turn to him and smile. Ask him how he’s doing. Tell him it’s good to see him.

Then go home, drink the beverages, and bask in the glory of your fame.