Monday, August 3, 2009

Loving your Subject

My great former principal, Fran Fenical, used to say that if you were interviewing a teacher and they only mentioned how much they loved their subject the whole time and they never mentioned kids, then she knew that was the wrong person to hire. I agree, however, if a teacher only loves kids and not his or her subject they will also be lacking something. You must be passionate about your subject too and find ways to enthusiastically communicate that passion to your students. Sometimes they won’t get it right away, but if you can come with that enthusiasm and that passion day after day for whatever it is you teach, then your kids will eventually want to learn from you.

Learning can’t thrive as a grim responsibility. You have to find the joy and excitement in it. Sometimes the testing and standards regime get this wrong when certain schools, in an effort ensure that scores raise, will enforce programs in which each teacher follows the same rote lessons every day. I believe the “life is in the details.” In teaching, excitement is in the details with the beautiful perception of a subject that is by definition individualistic. You can’t get that from a generalized teaching system or materials.

Think about the writing in textbooks. There is no "voice" or style. We lose students when we present them with these lifeless materials. See Neil Postman's The End of Education on my bookshelf at the bottom of this page for more on this. This is where the standardized testing, teaching and learning movement falls down.

I can understand why someone looking at it from the top might think everyone should be learning the same things and there is some truth to that, but I don’t believe we should or can be learning the same things in the same way. It seems like what we learn and teach and how we learn and teach are becoming more and more conflated recently.

You may not love all parts of your subject, but you need to use those parts you are passionate about to drive your teaching and bring in the rest of it. If you don’t have that, you will just be going through the motions, and teaching and learning won't thrive that way.

Education is about transcendence. Students are going into something in which they will come out greater than their former selves. They are transcending their former selves. That’s scary for many kids. They’re fearful of stepping out and getting judged. If there is no enthusiasm involved, then they won’t take risks.

If you’re working with struggling students, many of them have already learned by high school to hate school. Classes where teachers and students are just going through the motions and not seeing the beauty and the joy of learning itself cause this apathy. With that, the students lose their own passion and reason for being in school. Many feel that it’s just this dismal chore that their parents yell at them about and it becomes a completely negative experience.

I like to start class on the first day with the most exciting things about my subject. Many teachers start off with rules and the syllabus, handouts, grading blah, blah, blah...and kids are already bored. Then you’re supposed to grab their attention later? You’ve already lost them. Start with the best you have. Make them think deeply about something that matters. This sets the tone in the class. It’s not about grim responsibility or threats; they will see the main point is the learning and the intrinsic good in learning itself, not that it will get you a job or help you sound smart at parties, but the pure joy of understanding the world in a new way.

Methodology will only take you so far. Infuse your methodology with passion and flexibility, then embrace your own idiosyncrasies and those of your students. This will add life to to your classroom.


  1. Your post has inspired me for this upcoming year - thank you.

  2. I found your blog via Goodreads and having been a teacher myself for 20 years was interested in what you had to say. I enjoyed this post and agree with you wholeheartedly about infusing your teaching with passion & flexibility. Teaching in an ideal world should be about helping students to think independently and creatively and not just to learn facts which they can regurgitate in exams. In an ideal world, teachers would be facilitators, helping pupils to research whatever they wanted to research in whatever way they wanted to without the constraints of narrow-minded syllabuses and restrictive exams - & then pupils really could experience the joy of understanding the world in a new way, and teachers could have a totally new experience of the joy of teaching as well. That would be my ideal...

    Helena Harper, Author of "It's a Teacher's Life...!"

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  4. Kerri,

    Thanks for the correction! I'm glad you're inspired. So am I! I don't know why, but despite the budget and the swine flu, I'm looking forward to this year more than any I can remember in a long time. I think the reading and thinking about teaching for this blog and the book I'm working on has something to do with it. Let's have fun this year!

  5. Helena,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree with you. I know education is a conservative field and many teach in the same paradigms we've had for the last 100 years or so. I think we're on the cusp of some kind of dramatic change in schools though. I would be surprised if education looked the same 5-10 years from now. Will it be better or worse? It's up to us "bend the arc of history" as Obama likes to say.