January 30, 2007

Classroom Presence?

“People are attracted to other people who make them forget how lousy their lives are.”

I’m sure someone else said that before I did, but I don’t know who, or when. I was talking with one of my students the other day when it dawned on me that we are naturally drawn to those who brighten our days and make us feel good inside. This seems really obvious, until we consider how important it is to our classroom presence. Think about how much time you spend with your students. They often spend more time with their teachers than they do with their parents, and not by their own choice. I believe that teachers have a responsibility to their students to reflect on their classroom presence in regards to my brainstorm statement and make an effort to be attractive people, positive influences, and role models to the students, even when the students do not return the same consideration.

I’m not in a great mood every day. Sometimes my students can tell, sometimes they can’t. But I make a daily effort to put on a happy face and act in a manner that improves and brightens their day, instead of darkening it. They usually smile back.

This week marks the beginning of the second semester. One of the high school courses I teach is semester long, so I had a whole new group of students who knew nothing about my class, my classroom presence, or me. I introduced the class, I introduced myself, and tried to make them feel comfortable and at ease. The following day I read and explained all of the classroom and computer rules using humor and personal stories. Some laughed, some smiled, but all paid attention if for no other reason then to try and figure out just what I would say next.

Later that same day I greeted a different returning group of students as they entered the classroom with such joy and exuberance that one of them told me she thought I was crazy. I responded that I was one of the sanest people she’d ever met. (I’m not sure she believed me.)

High school students, and now graduate students, enjoy coming to my classes because I make an effort to make each and every class meeting a special event. I share my enthusiasm, and love for learning and living with everyone. But not all teachers put this type of effort into their classroom presence. Some teachers simply show up and teach the stuff. Some of those teachers get positive results; many do not, and do not understand why.

Students need to be sold on the material they are required to learn. Very few individuals really want to learn Algebra. Most students will attend class, complete homework, and take tests because they see it as a necessary step towards achieving a goal. But they don’t always like it. Few teachers see themselves as salespeople. However, selling our curriculum to our students can be a huge factor to their success not only on the standardized test, but their ultimate success in life as well.

One way we can sell our “snake oil” is through excellence in lesson planning and content delivery. It really does matter how much a teacher plans their lessons, designs their assignments, and refines their assessments. Taking the time to design the perfect presentation, the most accurate lecture notes, and testing instruments that really do measure the students’ understanding make the difference between a master teacher and miserable teacher. Miserable teachers make for even more miserable experiences for the students (we’ve all been there).

It helps if you love the subject matter, and are willing to share that love with your pupils. If you hate science, don’t teach it. The students will immediately know that you are indifferent to the material and they will have no reason at all to get plugged into your lesson. We must also be clear on the importance of not just enthusiasm for the subject matter, but also our personal mastery. You gotta know what you’re talking about up there man.

Even more important than the finest pedagogy, we teachers must love teaching. It must be fundamentally and critically important to us that our students “get it,” what ever “it” is. We should be happy, overjoyed, and even ecstatic when our students walk through our doors to spend an hour (or more) in our presence. We should wield our powers of instruction like Thor swings Mjollnir, his magical golden hammer impacting our students with the finest knowledge, and the power of wisdom.

Like it or not, the students are watching our every move, and listening carefully to each and every word we speak not only to them, but to everyone we encounter while they are around. Our words and actions have a major influence on our students. Even the little things that we think they miss, they get. It’s not easy to be on stage all that time, but that is the teachers’ job. Many teachers feel so self-conscious about this responsibility that they choose to live away, sometimes far away, from the campuses on which they teach. The pressure of being watched 24/7 and potentially bumping into a student at an unfortunate time can be daunting. Sometimes it’s just easier to avoid the “big show” between hours of 3pm and 7am and on the weekends.

While privacy is very important to our survival as teachers, we need to remember that we are in fact the role models for this generation. Actors, athletes, and politicians, all wave off the moniker, but not teachers. Teachers embrace the status symbol with both arms because we understand the importance of the lives and the futures of our students, and we care about the future of the planet. It’s so easy to be pessimistic about the world in 2007. But I believe that we teachers owe it to our students to focus on the positives all around us, and to share our optimism.