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.

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’ addictions 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 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.