One of the key things my favorite teachers did a couple centuries ago when I was getting kicked out of their classes for farting or mouthing off was to show me they were real people. To me, that meant they laughed at funny things kids said, at least sometimes, or were unafraid to admit they were wrong about something or to answer personal questions we nosy kids asked, such as what Mr. Huck’s nickname for his wife was or how often he wore the same pair of corduroy pants before washing them. Real-people teachers also showed us they were serious about being the “life-long learners” other teachers always told us we should try to become. They lived it. They weren’t posers. They didn’t pretend they already knew everything, a hopeless, transparent attempt to intimidate us into docility with bogus wisdom. Their showing us, without making a big deal about it, that they were always trying to learn something because they couldn’t help it or just for the sake of it made us feel like real people, too, modally equal even if closer to the beginning of the learning progression than they. Real-people teachers made their excitement and curiosity plain. They assumed we were as eager to learn as they were. They never lectured us about the importance of education; they never guilt-tripped us into paying attention; instead, they got truly excited about Edgar Allan Poe or a weird interpretation one of us snot-nosed miscreants spewed while squinting at a cubist Picasso. They just modeled. That reached some of us, maybe all of us.
In the classroom, I often forget this, especially when feeling overwhelmed, which is rare for teachers, I know. (If you’re not a teacher, you might not get that that was a joke.) But I try, especially when feeling overwhelmed, to remember a moment when a teacher’s spark ignited something unexpected in me. Most often, some memory of deciphering the love a teacher showed for anything saves me, if only for a second. Love seems to be increasingly disarming in our world; that sounds cliche. But I think it’s true, for whatever reason, so it can be a good weapon against a lot of things we bitch about daily, such as disintegrating adolescent attention spans, social media (everyone’s favorite public whipping boy and private plaything), standardized testing.
I believe one of the best things teachers can do is show students they love to learn (as long as that’s true), regardless of what it is or whether it relates to the subject matter they teach. It might even be better if it’s “irrelevant” (which is impossible because whatever anyone does it’s still human, as are all disciplines) to the subject of the class. My students know I love lots of things that aren’t directly related to Language Arts, but they also know that there’s nothing that’s not related somehow to Language Arts. So I tell them stories about and show them pictures of my dogs, videos of bird hunting with my wife and our mutts, and they know I have a life outside of school that’s filled with love for lots of things about which I can’t learn enough. I can’t say, exactly, what kind of effect sharing this stuff with my students has on them, but I feel that most of them are truly interested and that they don’t mind terribly spending time in my classroom, despite the fact that they are working hard most of the time and I’m not just doing stand-up or show-and-tell. I like to think they see me as a real-people teacher who sees them as people, too. I do. I love them all.
Every second February I’m lucky enough to go to a week-long school to study bagpiping with ten of the top players in the world, truly an overwhelming experience. The first couple of times I did it I kept it on the down-low because I was afraid some of my students, colleagues, and parents might think I was screwing off. “Personal reasons” was my answer to anyone asking why I’d be gone for a week in the middle of the third quarter. Now, I better understand its relevance to what I do with kids. It’s truly important to me, and — I believe — models for my students what I loved about my favorite teachers.
The week is suffused with an intense struggle to learn as much as possible in a short amount of time. And it’s the one, biennial time I get to play music with anyone other than myself (it’s too expensive to go to every year). I relish it because it comes during a time in the school year when it’s easy to be worn out and feel uninspired, and it’s like an injection of love for life framed by study. Coming back to school after this feels better, despite the backlog of stuff from being gone and the cost of catching up. It’s more than worth it. Each time I go, I learn a lot about teaching from the Scottish and Canadian instructors, each of whom has a different style and focus, and I can reflect on whose approach helped me the best and think about how to incorporate aspects of that in my own teaching. It’s good.
This year I decided to show my students a bit of what the week was about for me, so I made this short video. They watched with genuine interest and some asked unexpected questions. Take a look, and let me know if you have any questions.