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 him in action 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 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.

Teach like a cat. Ask for what you want. The worst that can happen is 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 natural 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 rip. 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, discordant tune that wakes up the entire 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 be any good if you’re tired all the time. Get your sleep.

Don’t teach like a pirate. Pirates are scary and they die early deaths. Teach like a cat instead.


I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort starts in July, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to join!

17 Replies to “Teach Like a Cat”

  1. You might enjoy a book I just finished – The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*uck. I am doing my best to give my limited amount of F’s to what matters most to me and to my kids! Thanks for the great article!

  2. Thank you. I really enjoyed reading it πŸ™‚ I’ve never been much of a cat lover but that doesn’t mean I can’t become a ‘catlike teacher’ πŸ˜‰

  3. I worked as an educational assistant for 12years while I was a busy mom of three AND was finishing college online to enter the masters program to studen teach and FINALLY get that coveted license (thank goodness for my husband!). I have been a fifth grade teacher for fifteen years, and although I am naturally a positive, energetic person, I agree that we can’t have a dog and pony show going all day long! It wears me out and overstimulates the kids, neither of which is very helpful. I tried to be a pirate for awhile after I attended a workshop by Dave a Burgess, and it works sometimes but not all of the time. Thanks for great encouragement!

  4. I identified with this article so much and you truly did make me laugh out loud! I have cats, which made it especially hilarious. Your message is so true, though. We are always encouraged to just knock ourselves out day in and day out. If we’re really in it for the long haul, we have to pace ourselves. (I’m about to start my 19th year). One thing that REALLY irritates me about our profession is the lack of time given to teachers to prepare. I try to explain it to those outside of the profession like this: We are like actors in a play. We need to prepare-gather materials, think about what we are going to say, research topics, etc. But we are lucky if we get 45 minutes to prepare for a 6-hour play. How is that even possible? Those who’ve acted in a play would not dream of skipping rehearsal and just go straight to performing in front of an audience-but that’s what teachers do day in and day out (or spend time at home doing it-like myself). When it looks like there might be a glimmer of hope for some time to research, think, plan, gather materials-administration decides that our time would be better spent in a meeting collaborating with others. We all know that this often ends up in a fruitless endeavor. Teachers need TIME. Truly-if I was given the option of more time, more money or more materials-I would pick more time. Give me a substitute for half a day once every grading period to work BY MYSELF. Let me determine what I need to work on. Giving me time would allow me to go home at a decent time and recharge my batteries. This makes me better for me, my family, and my students. Time is my most precious resource.

    1. YES!!!!! I’m tired of meetings about meetings and meetings to plan meetings, and those teachers who love meetings so want to snatch up that rare coveted work time to meet and discuss the important details of… not having enough time to work. πŸ™„

  5. At least you didn’t say to teach like a parrot – scream at students, repeat yourself constantly, and pull out your own hair.

  6. I am so glad to read your article! I read “Teach Like a Pirate” as professional development last year. Today was my first day and I got all fired up and did the Play-doh thing. It backfired because I teach 13 and 14 year olds and there was inappropriate banter and inappropriate things modeled with play-doh. In addition I am exhausted and can’t imagine keeping this up everyday. I tend to agree with you idea that if you want to stay in teaching for the long-haul you need to adjust the pace. It doesn’t mean you can’t use props or ask good questions….you just don’t have to act like a buffoon!

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