Tie Yourself To a Tree

Every year, I read the Shiloh series to my third graders. It’s the story of a boy and his dog. Marty Preston, an eleven-year-old living in rural West Virginia finds a mistreated beagle, discovers the owner is an abusive lout of a man named Judd Travers, and makes it his mission to make the dog his own. By the third book of the series, Shiloh belongs to Marty and Judd has made some steps toward becoming a better human being.

There’s a scene near the end of that third book that holds a valuable lesson for teachers.

The Preston parents have been called away, and the kids — Marty, his best friend, and his two younger sisters — have been left home. After receiving what turns out to be a prank phone call about a body floating down Middle Island Creek, the kids rush to the bridge to see for themselves. Disappointed by the truth, Marty turns to leave. His sister Dara Lynn has, however, climbed atop the bridge’s railing and is leaning out over the water, watching it rush beneath her, the rapids wild from a recent flood. As Marty yells at her to get down, she falls in.

Panic ensues. Neighbors arrive, alerted by the kids’ shouting. Dara Lynn manages to grab a tree branch and pull herself to the bank, but in all the hubbub Marty hadn’t noticed that Shiloh, the dog he worked so hard to rescue from his abusive owner, has jumped into the water to save his sister. Marty steps into the water to go after his dog but is pulled back by a neighbor. He watches as the current carries Shiloh farther away. The dog is just too small to save himself.

That’s when Judd Travers arrives in his pickup. From the book:

“You want to get yourself killed?” he calls, right angry. And then, “What’s the matter, Marty?” Sees Mr. Ellison comin’ up the road behind me, thinks he’s chasin’ me maybe. He gets out of the truck.

I’m gasping. Point to the creek. “Shiloh! He’s in the water and we can’t reach him!”

“Marty, that dog will have to get himself out!” Mrs. Ellison calls from far behind us. “Don’t you try to go after him now.”

But Judd crashes through the trees and brush, half sliding down the muddy bank, and I point to the head of my beagle back upstream, out there bobbing around in the current. Once, it looks like he goes under. Judd don’t say a word. He’s scramblin’ up the bank again and grabs that rope in his pickup. Hobbles down the road, fast as his two bum legs will carry him, goin’ even farther downstream, me and David at his heels. Then he ties one end of that rope to a tree at the edge of the water, the other end around his waist, taking his time to make a proper square knot, and I’m thinkin’, Don’t worry about knots, Judd — just go!

Judd pulls Shiloh from the water, redeeming himself in the process.

As teachers, we have students in our class who are like Shiloh. They’re in danger, struggling to stay afloat as the rushing waters carry them away. Like Marty, we instinctively want to help. We want to throw ourselves into the current and pull those students to shore.

So we do everything we can. We build relationships with these students, investing extra time and energy on those we know need us most. We keep in close contact with their parents. We encourage and cajole, inspire and counsel. Some of us go so far as to attend their after-school events, even their birthday parties. Recognizing their need, we might buy them snacks, or books we hope they’ll love, or backpacks full of the school supplies their parents can’t afford. We give our all to help those unable to help themselves from getting carried away by the floodwaters of their lives.

And we exhaust ourselves in the process. We put ourselves in danger. We make it more likely that we too will be carried away.

Had Marty rushed into the water to save his dog, it’s likely they would have both drowned.

Shiloh was saved only because Judd took a minute to tie himself to a tree.

That is what teachers should do. Tie yourself to a tree. Protect yourself first. You can’t be any good to your students — and that includes the ones who need you the most — if you’re exhausted and in danger of burning out.

As the start of the year approaches (or has already started), put yourself in the best position possible to help others. Do these five things:

Undercommit

The beginning of any year is a heady time and the enthusiasm can be intoxicating. It’s easy to rush in without thinking. Signing up for five committees might not seem like a terrible idea now, but you can be sure you’ll regret it in November. Start by not signing up for any and only join once you can gauge how demanding your teaching job is going to be. Most committee work doesn’t make much of an impact on your students, and your main job is to impact your students.

Read more: Do Not Join That Unpaid Committee

Make a Plan

Decide now when you will commit extra hours to the job and stick to it right out of the gate. If you’re coming in an hour early, don’t also stay an hour late. Draw some lines in the sand for yourself and don’t cross them. Build in time now to detach. Pick at least one weekend day when you will nothing related to your job.

Read More: Make a Plan

Say No Early

Saying yes is habit-forming. The more you agree to take on extra work, the more likely you’ll be asked again in the future and the harder it will be for you to say no. Humans are remarkably consistent and salespeople regularly take advantage of it. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of the “yes ladder” sales technique, then you know how hard it can be to say no after you’ve said yes to five other questions. At the earliest opportunity, say no to your boss. Your future self will thank you.

Related: Why Teachers Should Object

Focus On What Matters

Your job is to teach the kids in front of you to the best of your ability. There are 100 things you can do as a teacher that have very little to do with student learning. The hour you spent on that pretty bulletin board just so parents would be impressed (maybe) for six seconds at open house could have been spent in better ways. Same goes for a number of tasks that could be done by students. Don’t peel the cellophane off 25 workbooks, neatly write student numbers on the covers with a Sharpie, and place the books into student desks when students of any age can do those things themselves. Think hard about how you use your time and save it for the things that matter the most.

Read more: Slash Your To-Do List

Learn

I write about all the above and much more in my books Exhausted (which will explain why you’re so tired after teaching and will offer the solutions you want) and Leave School At School (which could also be called “Optimizing Your Teaching”). I’d also recommend Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, which will help you understand why you keep doing things that you later regret, Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, which will get you thinking hard about what you’re focusing on and how you’re using your time, and Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, which will help you decide what to care about (and it’s funny).

 

Wanting to help others is noble. No one can question Marty’s intent to rush into the water to save his dog. But good intentions can lead to horrible outcomes if we don’t think through the likely consequences. You aren’t much use to someone who’s drowning if you are drowning right next to them. Protect yourself first. Time yourself to a tree.

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When Teachers Should Work For Free

Regular readers of this blog know that I believe professionals should be paid for their work. I believe it even more strongly for teachers because unlike their counterparts in business, teachers will never earn a promotion or a pay raise based on their willingness to donate their labor. While others may put in 60 hours of work each week, many of them do so with the belief that they will personally benefit from such a sacrifice at a later date. That’s why I bristle when people who aren’t teachers make the argument that everybody puts in extra hours, so teachers should quit whining. Teachers’ extra hours are different because those hours are almost always given selflessly, which is why asking teachers to donate them is exploitative.

That said, there are times when teachers should be willing to work for free.  Here are four.

To Set Up Their Classrooms

Let me be clear. Teachers should be paid to set up their classrooms. They aren’t doing it for fun, they’re doing it because their work, which is done on behalf of the school district, requires that it be done. The logistics are tricky for the district, though. Should teachers who spend 20 hours Pinterizing their rooms be paid more than minimalists who only spend 3? Might not some teachers, those without kids or who dislike their spouses, perhaps,  just spend eight hours a day for an entire week, tinkering around in their rooms, so they can pile up the dough? It’s easy to see why districts don’t offer an hourly rate to teachers for this work.

Districts could, however, and should, offer a flat-rate. Respectful employers should negotiate a dollar amount to give every teacher, knowing that every teacher will be spending some time setting up their classrooms. They never will because they don’t have to and they know it. They know that no self-respecting teacher is going to show up at the school open house or the first day of class without having most things in place. District leaders also know that they will not be blamed if teachers do exactly that and say, “Well, the district won’t pay me to come in, so I don’t.” That makes the teacher look bad, not the district. If it makes you look bad in front of kids and parents, you will work for free, and so you will continue to do so. It isn’t ideal, but it’s understandable, and there’s probably no fixing this particular practice.

To Make Your Job Easier

As much as I wish it were not true, there is no way to do this job without putting in some time outside of your contractual hours. Having done this for 18 years now, 15 of them at the same grade level and with the same district, I have a ton of advantages that many teachers don’t enjoy. I’m familiar with the curriculum. I have a library of lessons that can be counted on. I’ve found efficiencies through trial and error. I am able to leave school at school almost every night by focusing on what’s most important, constantly asking myself why I am doing what I am doing, utilizing technology, and taking practical steps like getting rid of homework and focusing on written feedback instead of grades in writing (I write about these strategies and others in my book, Leave School At School).

Even so, I still come in 45 minutes to an hour before school every day. There are just too many things to do. Not coming in early would add considerable stress and make the job all but impossible, which is why one of the dumbest things unions do when they are in the middle of contentious contract negotiations is tell their teachers to work to the contract. Teachers hate doing this because it makes their job even harder than it already is. Being unprepared makes everything more stressful.

Work for free when doing so makes your job easier.

To Have a Say

I have served on three interview teams and I wasn’t paid for any of them. These were full days, requiring me to drive 30 minutes each way without any reimbursement and listen to new teacher candidates earnestly share why they would be the best hire. This was time given to my district to help them select the best people to educate the kids in their community.

I have also served on a district committee to evaluate a new reading program, and I know a number of teachers who joined a team of fellow teachers, district leaders, and community members when the district went through restructuring. While all of this work was performed on behalf of their employer, it was all consequential to teachers. I want to have a say in who my colleagues will be, which reading program I’ll be forced to use, and how a transition to a new building will be handled.

Teachers should be willing to work for free to have a say in their work conditions.

To Personally Benefit

Money is not the only form of compensation. Teachers might choose to work for free if they personally benefit in other ways. If you are passionate about something, then working for free won’t bother you because you’re doing something you love and your “pay” is the joy you feel while doing it. I work with a teacher who is passionate about Make a Difference Day. Most years, she spends hours coming up with and implementing ideas to make this day special for the whole school.  She derives immense pleasure from it, more satisfaction than any amount of money would give her (well, maybe not any amount).

I am an unpaid member of the district’s technology team, but that doesn’t mean I’m working for free. First, I like technology and use it a lot in class. It’s made my teaching more efficient, relevant, and fun. So I benefit in those ways. Second, I like knowing and having some influence on what direction the district is heading in with respect to technology and I enjoy bringing staff concerns to the district. Third, I benefit because members of the tech team receive piloted devices and programs. I had one of the first Chromebooks in the district and I have one of a handful of SMART boards in my classroom. I’m being “paid” in other ways, so I’m willing to work for something other than money.

Be Careful

The danger comes when teachers see their entire job this way. When you claim that teaching is your passion, you’ll be willing to take on countless extra duties without pay. If teaching truly is your calling, you’ll feel no resentment over serving on every committee and attending every after-school event. Rather than exhaust and demoralize you, you’ll get a charge out of it.

The problem is this: While you may enjoy donating your time, many of your colleagues do not. And when enough teachers are willing to work for free, working for free becomes an expectation and those who don’t do it suffer unfair reputational harm.  No teacher should feel like they have to work for free. Years of selfless teachers giving away their time has led to a culture of exploitation. Districts don’t even think twice about asking teachers to work for nothing.

So be careful. Although your motives may be pure and you really want to do whatever it takes to help kids, the consequences of working for free can hurt your colleagues and it already has hurt the profession as a whole.

 

Related Articles:

Teachers’ Extra Hours Are Different

American Teachers Should Work Less

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

 

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Firing Teachers Won’t Make Kids Smarter

If there’s one belief among education reformers that’s as stubbornly persistent as a two-year-old’s questions, it’s that if only schools would fire more teachers, kids would start getting better at reading and math. This enduring illusion seems so impervious to the contradictory evidence that one is forced to conclude that its adherents, for all their reasoned arguments, have more in common with religious zealots than sober academics.

In the course of  20 minutes of web surfing today, I ran across two articles that lazily suggest that the solution to our nation’s education problems is simply to fire more teachers.

Zachary Wright, in an article on Education Post called When Students Aren’t Proficient in Reading or Math, It Isn’t a Shame, It’s Violence, calls teachers a bunch of whiners:

“Teachers, I am one of you, and I say this with all the love, honor, and respect I can muster: Stop moaning about accountability standards…Stop griping about the unfairness of performance metrics. When a teacher speaks out against accountability, the truth is, at their core, whether they admit it or not, they care more about themselves than their students. Full stop.”

This is, and I say this with all the love, honor, and respect I can muster, idiotic thinking. Let’s be clear about what accountability standards are at least supposed to mean. They mean judging and then either punishing or rewarding (but usually punishing) teachers. In the wettest of reformers’ dreams, they mean firing a few hundred thousand teachers every year (I don’t have a source for that number but a few hundred thousand would represent about 10% of teachers, a number that the most passionate reformers would likely still find too low.)

Arguing that teachers shouldn’t complain when those accountability systems rely on unfair metrics is like arguing doctors should just shut up when the government decides to set up a system of rewards and punishments based on how healthy their patients are. It’s like telling dentists to zip their lips when people who know zilch about dentistry decide that some of them need to be fired because too many of their patients don’t brush their teeth. It’s like asking prison wardens to pipe down when the state decides to evaluate them based on recidivism rates. Submissively accepting such illogical systems means being okay with people who are good at their jobs potentially losing them. That’s dumb.

As far as teachers who speak out against such unjust systems being only concerned about themselves, wrong again. Everyone with a child in today’s education system should be concerned about accountability systems that are based on unfair metrics for the simple reason that they will result in good teachers being fired or driven from the profession. Teachers, more than anyone else, are aware of this, which is why they have an obligation to fight back against such systems. We are supposed to be there for our students, and our students deserve teachers who are evaluated fairly so that the public can have some assurance that the right people are doing the job.

People who argue for greater teacher accountability always seem to do so from a belief that not having a strong evaluation system means that schools will be saddled with bad teachers, but they rarely seem as concerned that unfair systems will misidentify good teachers as weak ones and force them out of the profession. With many good teachers leaving on their own, that’s not something we can afford. It may, in fact, represent a larger threat to student learning, given that teacher shortages make it challenging for schools to replace “bad” teachers with better ones.

A second article, also on Education Post but written by Brandon Dutcher and titled, “It’s Not Real School Accountability If No One Is Held Accountable” positively drips with reformer frustration. It’s actually kind of fun to read. Dutcher writes:

“Despite years of ‘high stakes’ student testing, very few of the nation’s 3.14 million public-school teachers have ever lost a job, had their pay reduced, or otherwise faced meaningful consequences because of these test results.”

You see, we’ve been trying this for a while now. Accountability systems aren’t new. They just failed. Even Bill Gates admits it. Still, the reason for that failure can be interpreted one of two ways: Either teacher accountability failed because it’s a stupid idea with very little chance of succeeding or it never really had a prayer in the first place because despite reformers spending billions of dollars to treat educators like guinea pigs and to buy off legislators so they would adopt tougher evaluation systems and dismantle pesky tenure protections, the damn school districts didn’t take advantage of their new authority. They just kept rating teachers highly anyway!

Now I’d argue that either way, the idea is a proven dud. If you can’t get the people with the authority to implement your fancy evaluation system the way you want it implemented, then that’s just a different form of failure. But it’s worth it to ask, what if it did succeed?

Dutcher writes:

“Here in Oklahoma, the majority of students lack proficiency in math, science, and English language arts. So how many schools have been closed? How many grown-ups have lost their jobs or had their pay reduced? Who’s being held accountable for the damage?”

One can almost hear him stomping his feet. Dutcher, and many like him, envision a world where schools, almost all of them in low-income communities, would be closed if students had crappy test scores. He wants the adults in those schools kicked to the curb. He wants those effers held accountable.

Okay. Then what?

Those kids are going to need new schools and those schools are going to need more teachers to teach those kids. Where does Dutcher think the schools will find them? Is Oklahoma, with its embarrassing teacher salaries and lack of job protections, holding scads of would-be-fabulous teachers in some type of strategic teacher reserve? Does Dutcher think such an accountability system would lure all those Oklahoma teachers who left for Texas back to the Sooner State?

No, but he does have a solution (prepare to be shocked, he wrote sarcastically):

“True accountability is accountability not to bureaucrats but rather to parents. Happily, we’re now seeing examples of this voting-with-their-feet accountability. The Oklahoman reported this year that “41 percent of students who attend a virtual charter school in Oklahoma left their previous school because they were victims of bullying.”

Virtual charter schools! The same virtual charter schools that, according to this Detroit News article, have been a “spectacular failure.”

“A study by the RAND Corp. and New York University released earlier this year showed that online-only schools tend to attract and harm our most vulnerable students. The study found that Ohio students with low test scores who attend cyber charter schools fell even further behind. High achieving students perform better, but still achieve lower results than they would have if they had enrolled in traditional schools.

In the “National Study of Online Charter Schools,” Stanford University found that cyber charter students received the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of instruction in reading than their peers in traditional schools.”

I wonder if Dutcher wants to hold the computers accountable.

The central problem with calling for a more punitive accountability system for teachers is that the job is already pretty damn unattractive in all of the places where that accountability system would bare its sharpest teeth. Click To TweetWhy would anyone teach in a district where it would be more likely they would be fired because of the test scores of their students, a metric over which they have only some influence?

Look, I wish it were as easy as reformers like to pretend it is, but teacher evaluation reform is this century’s Prohibition. It’s the cure that’s worse than the disease.

At the very least, a medicine ought to remedy the malady for which it was created, even if there are some nasty side-effects. But with teacher evaluation reform, America got a double-whammy. According to the Rand report, not only did students at schools within the Gates program’s purview not do any better than their peers at other schools in the same areas, but teacher accountability systems have wreaked havoc on the profession. Since accountability gained traction in 2009, teacher stress has increased, with 73% of teachers reporting that they are often under stress and 46% saying they experience high stress every day (the numbers are even higher for elementary teachers). In 2013, 55% of teachers reported low or very low morale and 69% said their morale had declined. (Source) Roughly 6 in 10 teachers in a 2017 survey said their mental health was “not good” for at least seven of the previous 30 days. (Source) Not surprisingly, we have teacher shortages in many of the very geographic areas where reformers would most like to see more teachers fired.

Those numbers can’t just be ignored. In schools where at least 75% of students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch, teacher turnover averages more than 22 percent annually. Recent data from the District of Columbia Public Schools reveal average teacher turnover rates of around 25 percent, but in those schools with free-and-reduced lunch rates higher than 80 percent, turnover was closer to 40 percent each year. In New York City middle schools, 66 percent of educators exit within their first five years. The typical Chicago public school loses over half of its teachers in their first five years. 

For those reformers who want more teachers working in these schools gone, you’re already getting your wish. They’re leaving on their own, in some cases because of the policy changes you wanted. To suggest that these teachers, the ones who knowingly (and largely altruistically) go into the most difficult schools and attempt to teach the hardest to reach kids, need to do so with the sword of Damocles resting precariously above their heads isn’t just stupid. It’s cruel.

And would-be teachers know it, as evidenced by teacher shortages not seen since the 1990s. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs declined by 35% from 2009, the year when the Gates accountability experiment started, to 2014. (Source)

Reformers’ plan to improve education only works if you can replace bad teachers with better ones. But the very system they would like to institute to make that happen is driving good teachers from the system and preventing young people from even signing up. If you’re going to propose a solution, that solution should have at least some chance at succeeding. But with a quarter-million teachers already leaving every year and not all of them being replaced, just where do reformers think they’re going to find people to teach our neediest kids?

Oh, that’s right. They’ll use computers.

 

 

Do Not Join That Unpaid Committee

The start of the school year is closing in fast, which means that in mere weeks (maybe even days) you will be welcomed back, told how important your job is and how appreciated you are, and then, before such words have even dissipated into the ether, asked to give away the most important thing you have, your time.

Your boss will want you to join a committee (or three), be a team leader, or serve on a school improvement council. In some cases, you’ll be asked to do this work for nothing.

Say no.

You’ll be tempted to say yes. It’s the start of the year. Optimism is high. The summer worked its rejuvenating magic and you and your fellow teachers are bursting with energy. You can practically taste the positivity.  Idealism runs rampant. You’ll do whatever is necessary for this school, for these kids! The job ahead of you is hard, but together you can do it!

Say no anyway.

Say No For Yourself

You are going to be overworked. You will be stressed. There isn’t enough time in a week for teachers to do everything they know they should be doing, and that’s if you do nothing other than teach the kids in front of you. By Halloween, you will be exhausted. You will resent whatever extra work you agreed to in that heady fog of feelgood at the start of the year. You’ll dread sitting through an hour-long meeting after school when you should be at your kid’s soccer game. Jumping off a bridge will sound preferable to the prospect of filling out another stupid survey that the state has mandated and the principal has pawned off on your team.

Teachers complain about not having enough time and then they give it away for free. Teachers complain about how much they’re paid and then work for nothing. Do not allow August exuberance, guilt, fear, or the opinion of others to cause you to do something you know you shouldn’t do. And don’t be a martyr. We have enough of those in education already.  The work you do is difficult and tiring. It makes zero sense to voluntarily take on even more of it, and even less sense to do so without pay.

Say No For Your Students

There is only so much time in a day, a week, a school year. The more of it you spend in one area, the less you have in another. If you want to help your students, spend more time on things that will help your students and less time on stuff that won’t make a difference in the classroom. Most committee work does not affect the students under your care.

George Couros says that teachers shouldn’t be classroom teachers, they should be school teachers:

““School teachers’ can do all of those things that classroom teachers do within their own classrooms and subject matter, but when they walk out of their room, every child in the school is their child.” 

Teachers should be careful with this mindset. It’s easy to go from smiling and encouraging every student you encounter to signing up for every committee because you tell yourself that every committee is doing good work that will, in some way, benefit some kids somewhere inside the school eventually.

The best thing you can do for your students is fully commit to them. That means saying no to anything that won’t make you a better classroom teacher. Burning yourself out with extra work won’t help your students. Resentment over being stretched too thin is not an attitude you want to carry into your classroom. Being overwhelmed and stressed out won’t make you more effective.

An hour spent in a meeting is an hour not spent planning better lessons. Or reading your students’ writing and providing feedback. Or communicating with parents. Or reading the latest research on best practices. Or anything else that might make a direct impact on your students. You cannot do it all, even if all of it benefits kids.

Say no for your students.

Say No For Your Profession

In too many schools, teachers who give away their time resent or look down their noses at those who don’t. They see them as selfish or lazy and feel aggrieved that they are working so much more than some of their colleagues. That’s a script that needs to be flipped. Instead of assigning virtue to those who help perpetuate exploitative practices, let's honor those who stand up to such practices. Click To Tweet

You are a professional. Pros get paid. The reason teachers get asked to donate their time is because they’ve always been willing to donate their time.  The asking won’t stop until the answer is consistently no. You can’t blame an employer for trying to get employees to donate labor. Blame the teachers for continuing to give it away because they are undermining the teachers who want to be treated with the respect employers afford their workers in other fields. Put bluntly, they are the problem. When every teacher says no to unpaid extra work, only two things can happen:

The committees disappear because there’s no one on them, or teachers are paid to do the work.

The only way to change the way teachers are treated is to change the way we respond to the treatment. Click To Tweet Saying no to additional, uncompensated work is good for your colleagues, it’s good for teachers you don’t even know, and it’s good for those who won’t step into a classroom for years. Saying no gains respect and it’s good for the profession.

Do yourself, your students, and your profession a favor. Say no to unpaid extra work, and get your colleagues to say it, too.

Action! What Teachers Can Learn From Theater Training

By Todd Squitieri

Todd Squitieri holds a BFA from New School University and an MA in Applied Sociology from William Paterson University. He has taught in over 5 countries, and currently resides in Da Nang, Vietnam where he is writing a book about his experiences, called How to Teach Without Going Insane, soon to be released at Kindle stores near you! Follow him on his journey:  www.ToddSquitieri.com.

Action! What Teachers Can Learn From Theater Training

 

When I was studying musical theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA), we were often instructed on the best practices for walking into an audition room and captivating casting agents with our charm, our glow, and our dazzling performances. Here are some lessons that apply directly to teaching:

  1. Smile when you enter a room
  2. Wear colors that show off your face and personality
  3. Enunciate
  4. Provide a beat or a second of time before you launch into your piece
  5. Provide a beat afterward before ending the piece
  6. Thank the audience for their time

In the theater conservatory, we were also provided with lessons on selecting monologues for the audition room. Use them when planning your next lecture.

  1. Find a piece with a lot of action
  2. Find something where you are trying to get something from someone (introduce tension or conflict)
  3. Find something two minutes or less.
  4. Find high energy/ high stakes pieces
  5. Find something with a range of emotion
  6. Find something that isn’t overdone
  7. Find something that shows off your talent and your “type”

 

If you keep your emotions flat, you won’t resonate with students and they won’t find you or the topic “fascinating.” Keep it short and be emotive so that students fully understand what you are communicating, while staying riveted to your performance. A rollercoaster of emotion is part of the theater student’s repertoire, what they are trained to deliver in audition rooms and ultimately, in the rehearsal space and eventually in performance. Theater people are trained to captivate, to strike even when the iron isn’t hot, when the world is totally indifferent and uninspired. They are trained so that no matter what kind of a day they are having, good, bad, or ugly, they can always revert back to their training to see them through. And so it is with the teacher who wishes to enthrall and inspire.

I mentioned “finding something that isn’t overdone,” as one of the primary strategies of an auditioning actor. When you teach, it’s hard to bring the same energy to every lesson. Finding novel lesson material can be useful in this regard. Be on the lookout for new stories, surprising facts, shocking headlines, funny memes, and other real-world connections to your material. Even content that feels old can be freshened up by talented edutainers. Instead of teaching that next math lesson straight from the book, do some role-playing, with you and some students acting out a few word problems. Keep it short, introduce some conflict, make it emotional and action-packed, and the novelty alone will be sure to keep students’ glued to their seats.

Finally, like actors, teachers should play to their strengths by showing off their talents and considering their “type.” In the theater industry, there are shorthand phrases that we use to refer to “type.” There’s the “character actor,” who plays doctors, professors, pizza deliverymen, and often odd or strange looking characters. Robin Williams comes to mind as being a prominent character actor of the last century. We also have the leading man, who is usually the handsome, debonair type who tries to attract the leading lady, or the young beautiful woman and “the damsel in distress.” Brad Pitt is often considered a leading man, while Heather Graham is considered a leading lady.  

While many people don’t want to admit it,  the way you carry yourself does have a lot to do with the way you are perceived, but many different “characters” can find success in the classroom. Some students respond well to the big goofball clown, while others thrive under the direction of the academic-and-widowed school librarian-mage type. Still others are motivated by the exotic beauty with blond hair and blue eyes who smiles at them electrically and lets her students know that they can do no wrong (as long as they’re doing the work). Some students respond best to charismatic and authoritative leading-man types.

Being an edutainer is a lot like being an actor. In fact, let’s face it: it is acting. You have to smile, emote, and keep the energy up even when you don’t feel like it, even in front of a skeptical audience. This is work and don’t let anyone tell you differently. It takes practice and discipline to be “on” all the time, and it is exhausting. It takes a lot effort for a person to take all of that energy and bring it to the classroom every day.

It’s a pretty remarkable character, the edutainer, almost like a fairy tale character in his own right, providing salvation for those students who just don’t believe in themselves or what they are doing, or why they are doing it. It is this performer, this artist, who is likely to be recalled fondly in the timeless stories we tell ourselves as humans striving for greatness.