Saturday, September 12, 2009


In order to teach and teach well you have to have a kind of cockeyed optimism or force of will. As Walt Whitman exhorted in Leaves of Grass, “By god man, you will not go down! Hang your whole weight on me.” Sometimes you just have to believe in your students and yourself against all odds and empirical evidence.

You have to be the optimistic one. Some days in class, you may be the only one. Especially when the kids are tired or if you have a tough class with kids who aren’t successful in school. Sleep deprived kids in a morning class may just want to endure it. Sometimes, it’s simply all on you to provide that spirit.

I don’t think many of us are used to being that person. Some of us have to reach down and find that optimism. It may feel like you’re putting it out there and no one is reciprocating, making you feel ridiculous. We’ve all seen the cliche of the extremely excited teacher (see Hamlet 2 if you haven't yet) who is not connecting to the students and looking clownish.

As a teacher, you have to risk becoming the clown and act in relentlessly spirited, optimistic and good natured way on the side of your kids. You can't simply protect yourself. Not only in the classroom but outside, when you see kids on the street or in the hallways, stop, talk to them. Some of the best teaching happens in these situations, when you have a moment with a kid alone and you can give a word of encouragement or a compliment. You must show that you care and that what happens in the classroom IS important, you notice, you think about them, worry about them and you ultimately believe in them. They will respond.

I’ve heard a lot of kids talk about teachers who they think are fake or going through the motions. When they catch them “offstage,” they’re just empty, or don't have time. That reaffirms the idea that everything kids do in class is arbitrary, fake and false, so everyone continues to go through the motions.

While you have to be that strong person, that leader, you don’t want to dominate the classroom. You have to be humble as well. You can’t just be Mr. or Mrs. Onstage Superstar all the time. You have to be that spark, then let the kids go and create the opportunities for them to shine. They can't do that if you're the only one doing the thinking and performing all the time.

Sometimes that’s hard when you get a really difficult class. Day after day it seems like you are the one dragging the class along like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill. However, if you stick with it day after day after day, the kids will respond. Maybe not all of them, but even the ones that don’t will respect you for it and at least have an example in their mind of someone who doesn’t give up.

You never know what seed you’re planting. A kid could change a month after your class, a year, a couple years and perhaps a piece of what you did helped them. Just keep plowing.

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