This is an updated version of the first article written on this blog, which was originally posted on February 11, 2007. It was edited and updated on June 9, 2016 to reflect a maturation in my approach to teaching as well as writing. You can read the original along with a handful of comments here.
A Matter of Priorities
During my first two years of teaching, I discovered that I had a whole lot of information, but the students just weren’t listening to me or learning from me. It was not, mind you, because I was giving them wrong information. It was, however, because I had placed my priorities in the wrong order. When we have the proper perspective, we end up teaching far more than we ever imagined we might.
When I first got into the business of education, my priority was to educate children. So my philosophy could be summarized as:
Not bad, but it didn’t work. There was a lot lacking.
“Nobody cares what you know until they know that you care”
The reason I wasn’t impacting my students was because I had not earned their respect. Of course! “Nobody cares what you know until they know you care.” Although I knew it and had heard it many times, I misunderstood. My understanding was that this meant I was to primarily focus on building (appropriate) relationships with the students, and then giving them all sorts of information. So my priorities were something like:
- Be Relatable
Now that is a good step, but there were still a lot of things missing from my strategy.
“Why should we listen?”
When children know what they are supposed to do, they will generally do it. When they know why they are supposed to do it, they will do it more often. When they buy into it and really want to do it, they will do it to the best of their ability every time. So the problem is more than simply getting them to understand why they are supposed to follow directions.
I had the last two elements figured out. We have to be able to relate with our students and they have to be able to relate with us before we can effectively educate them. This doesn’t mean we need to be their friends. In fact, it is unwise to try to befriend our students. But if we can get to the point of knowing that they know that we care about them and making sure they understand what to do and why to do it, we are way ahead of the game. But if we simply stop there, we are missing out on so much potential.
Defining a framework for educating people
I’m convinced that anyone who loves what they do will be effective one way or another. However, I no longer believe that we can motivate anyone to do anything. We can encourage them, and encouragement tends to look a lot like motivation. Encouragement is the bridge between personality and reliability. Regardless of how high your standards are and how dry your sense of humor, genuine encouragement will go a long way toward reaching students. So here is how my basic framework for educating people looks now.
- Radiate Passion
- Be Positive
- Be Relatable
To radiate is simply to give off warmth. That comes from loving what you do. When you radiate passion, the passion turns to joy, which in turn increases passion. It becomes a self-recharging cycle.
In my first two years of teaching, I would go home at nights and cry. It made me miserable. Oh yes, I loved the fact that I was a teacher, but I didn’t love the fact that I was not impacting lives the way I had envisioned that I might. After my understanding of classroom management changed, I began to see results quickly. I began to see the proverbial light bulbs coming on and learning began to ensue. It was, and still is, a most incredible feeling. To know that they had learned something new that they did not know before is simply amazing. They have a skill now that they didn’t enter the school year with. What an awesome thing! What a great privilege and responsibility!
Have you ever heard Ben Stein? He is incredibly funny and a wonderful financial writer. But for the uninitiated, his delivery is relatively lacking in energy. “Dynamic Speaker” would not be an appropriate description for him. When you are working with a group of children, regardless of age, then you must be able to make them enjoy the time they spend with you, or else run the risk of their losing interest and resorting to negative behaviors. Anecdotal evidence abounds as well that confirms the positive learning benefits of being in a good mood (Laughing and Learning, for instance).
I want to clarify that our role as educators is not to entertain children at the expense of instructing them. Simply that while we are instructing, we can use entertaining and engaging methods of content delivery. Keep in mind that children running out of your classroom as soon as the bells rings is not a good sign.
As I mentioned before, I no longer believe in motivation for the sake of motivation. Over the past few years, I have become a huge proponent of encouragement as the only means to spurring people on to growth. A lot of that encouragement can come from the passion and positivity with which we approach our work. Of course, this all comes after you are able to get them quiet, which has a lot to do with classroom management techniques. My ideas about that issue have been discussed elsewhere on my blog.