Monday, July 9, 2018

Vox Enim Praeceptor

It took me at least five years before I really knew who I was in the classroom.

Five years of teaching, experimenting, screwing up, changing, and evolving before who I am as a teacher shines through bright enough to start lighting my own way. That's not to say, of course, that newer teachers don't have a voice. They do. It's just not as strong, clear, or uniquely their own as it will grow to be.

This isn't a bad thing. Think about it in terms of music. Metallica's best album, their most clearly this genre is different now album, is their third one, Master of Puppets. The Clash's third album, London Calling, is the one that best balances what they were with what they were to become. Aerosmith's third album is Toys in the Attic, or "The one with Walk This Way and Sweet Emotion" on it, for those non-Aerosmith fans out there. Radiohead's third album is Ok Computer, which people who like Radiohead tell me is good. Of course, since they admit to liking Radiohead their taste is suspect, but let's take them at their word.

Maturity takes time.

This is where I will always be concerned about the impact of social media on teachers, especially our new teachers. I believe you should have role models, people you look up to, emulate, and copy. People you straight rip off. I do a thing in my classroom where I scowl at my students and growl that, "School is not a place for fun! It's a place for work! That's why there is no smiling here!" I 100% stole that from a principal at a school I subbed in all the time. He was hilarious, the kids loved it, and I folded it into my portfolio of bits and nonsense that makes up my classroom voice. Its grown into its own thing now, and my students will point out every single instance that I smile in class. Which, you know, sends a pretty nice subtle message because they are noticing their teacher enjoying school. Hey, lookit that, it's working on a bunch of levels.

But I found all that for myself, through trial and error, from teachers that I worked with and knew, and from books. Intake, absorb, adjust, do. Most of it wasn't preached at me from On High. Either the whole "Relationships Matter" thing hadn't quite hit the critical mass we're now at back when I was a baby teacher or I just wasn't hearing it. I wasn't getting a constant barrage of "How To Teach" tweets, memes, books, messages, Instagrams, Snapchats, podcasts, YouTube videos, and Facebook pages. And I think that matters. Information is good. Too much information is paralyzing, and it becomes difficult to sort the signal from the noise. And there's a lot of noise. "Teach all in!" "The best teachers blah blah blah!" "Be best!" That's not terribly helpful information, and it's not really that motivating unless you assume teachers a) don't know teaching is important and/or b) don't know they should be working hard to be good at their jobs. I secretly think new teachers should limit how much time they spend on social media absorbing a ton of information, but I also might be an old man who just wants kids to do it the way I did it. Totally possible.

I worry that the oversaturation will impact the teachers they become, but not in the best ways. Like, what if you run into a problem in your classroom and, instead of trying to solve it, you run to twitter and ask twitter what it would do? You'll get a ton of answer, and probably good answers. But you won't have learned to deal with that problem on your own. You won't have screwed up dealing with it. And I think that will impact your voice in the long run. I think voices will become more homogenized. When I see chats where everyone gives the same answers to the questions I wonder if that's a badly written question (totally possible), or if everyone in the chat knows the "answer", which makes it a quiz, not a chat. Those voices are converging rather that diverging, which is especially funny when you think about how many conversations are about the benefits of divergent thinking. It kinda reminds me of why Marilyn Manson was so popular in the 90s. He made his audience feel like they were all alone and he understood that. Sold out auditoriums of teens who thought no one understood them. I'm alone! Just me and everyone else in this building! I'm thinking differently, just like everyone else in this chat!

Wouldn't your voice be stronger if you didn't participate all the time? Not a complete shut-off. Nothing in education should be inflexible. (I know, I know, that's like "Only a Sith deals in absolutes." It still works.) What would your album sound like if you stopped listening to all other music while recording it? It would be more you, wouldn't it?

And if your voice is more you, wouldn't your room be more you too?

One of the big, on-going conversations in the education space currently surrounds student voice. "How are you sure your students are heard in your classroom?" "In what ways can you amplify the voices of your students?" "How impactful do your students feel their voices are in your classroom, in the school, and in the world?" These questions are vital, key, and deserving of the time given to them (provided those conversations are honest and put to use).

Let's put it out there so there's no mistaking it- This is not about elevating the teacher's voice above that of the students. Education should contain a balance in all things. Saying teachers should have no voice is drawing a line in the sand just to be contrary (pronounced- revolutionary).

It's our room too. I spend 180 days in my classroom just like my kids. I'm not going to flood it with my stuff, but I've got a few pictures on the walls (posters from the movie Pacific Rim, because on the surface it's a big dumb movie about robots punching monsters, but it's actually a deep investigation into human interaction, vulnerability, communication, teamwork, and understanding being the only way we succeed, and I feel like that's a pretty good metaphor for my room, plus it's my favorite movie). I've got some toys on my desk. And the attitude in the room is dictated by me. Its aimed, amplified, and directed by the kids, because it's there room too. But I get to start the song. I keep the beat underneath everything they're playing. My voice drives the room just as much as their's does. Not because Teacher Ego, but because We're All In This Together.

If I'm funny, my room gets funnier because my kids reflect what I put out. I'm not In Charge of everything about it, but we set the tone and then adjust based on the kids. It's a conversation. It comes from my Teacher Voice, and how I use it.

Teacher voices are so important, in the classroom, in our schools, and in the world.We should use them.

And here is where I get to drop the other caveat into this conversation- Hi, I'm a straight, white guy. So it's reeeeaaaally easy for me to say "Use your voice! Your voice matters! Say what you think! Woo!" Because straight white guys can pretty much get away with saying anything at this point. Go ahead, argue with me. Then check out who is still president after saying [ERROR- List Exceeds Character Limit and Good Taste]. An extreme example that makes the point better than anything else I could say. I'll find others later. The power structure currently in place make it much more risky for some teachers to use their voices than others. That's not to say they don't use them, or that they need me to help them use their voices, just that when it comes to sticking your neck out I'm not really stretching that far and others are.

Part of using our Teacher Voices is knowing when to shut up too. So much of teaching is shutting up and listening so you can hear other teacher voices. Now, earlier in this I talked about new teachers not listening too hard to too many voices in order to develop their own. This is different that that, teaching in complicated, and you are able to keep up. Yes, shut out voices who are trying to dictate your voice. Also, shut up and listen to unique voices and learn something. See? That's not hard, just kinda complex.

And yet another part of using our Teacher Voices is to move the conversation forward by pointing out when the conversation is being purposefully stalled or directed by a small group of people who think their voices carry more weight. (Again- Hi, straight white guys. Lookin' at us.) Who is shutting down conversations? Who is reacting personally to things that aren't personal? Who uses their voice to rejoice when they think a dissenting voice has been knocked down? Teaching is a conversation, but you can't talk to someone lecturing, stentorian, down from the mount. Push thinking and allow your thinking to be pushed. Stop being so damn sure all the time.

When we talk about teaching we should talk about how difficult and complicated it is, without fear. Yes, I'm concerned that if I tell parents teaching is a challenge then they'll think I don't know what I'm doing. But that's not fair. Teaching is freaking hard and complicated and that narrative should be ok to share. And not in the "Oof, you gotta work with middle schoolers! That must be tough!" way. But in the "I'm working with 31 individuals, guiding them towards one specific goal among many specific goals, while honoring ancillary goals and bonus learning along the way, while also keeping in mind all the things happening in each of their lives that makes this more difficult." That doesn't make me a superhero. Being a superhero isn't presented as complicated, just hard. Teaching is a complex art, and the narrative should reflect that, but the only way it will is if we use our Teacher Voices to talk about it. Don't simplify, don't dumb it down. There's a difference, too, between dumbing teaching down and making a complex thing simpler for ease of explanation. One reduces it to catch phrases, the other drops the professional language and speaks plain.

We change hearts and minds when we step up and acknowledge this is hard and constantly in flux. Not just amongst ourselves, but in the public narrative of teaching. Yes, this job changes all the time. Yes we make mistakes, but we learn from them, just like our kids do. I'm still a professional. I'm still good at my job. They blew up so many rockets to get to the moon. Because it was hard, and complicated, and with every explosion they learned something, and they had a PR flak out front explaining what happened, what they learned, and what will happen differently next time. We don't have a PR flak, but we do have Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and blogs and friends who aren't teachers and and and. Don't dumb down your teaching stories. Don't focus on just the end result cool stuff. Talk process. Talk growth and failure openly and honestly.

The Teacher Voice is a powerful, valuable tool. It communicates ideas, facilitates conversations, helps build in-roads. Like any tool it can damage and destroy if misused. Like any tool it can do the bare minimum it was created for, or it can be wielded with creativity. In classrooms. In schools. In the world.

Find your voice. Use it that it might strengthen and grow. Let it evolve. Let it be who you are. Teach like you.*

*I rarely mention this because it doesn't come up much, but that's the whole core of the "weird teacher" thing. There is no way to teach like a weird teacher because you're already weird, you just gotta find your weird and run with it as hard as you can.

**a blog title in Latin? How pretentious. Shut up, I like it, it works.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.


  1. I think it is very hard for a new teacher to overcome their student experiences, the examples they learn about in education classes, and their peers in their schools to become their own teacher. It takes experience and reflection to separate what works for you from what works for someone else but not you.

    1. That's a good point, I didn't talk about all the in-person and experiential influences they (we) get. Especially student teaching, that has a lot of sway.

  2. You have some good points - I connected with the convergent thinking on social media… I’d push that it’s not just that there is convergence, but that there is convergent of a dominant voice type… and that voice is not the voice of equity.

    1. 100% and I'm glad you pointed that out bc I didn't hit it hard enough.

  3. Agreed that maturity provides a filter to determine whether "advice" or the current buzzword or educational trend is valuable, or to what degree. Took a 6 week sabbatical from social media this summer (ok I peeked a bit but chose not to engage). Return rested and with a clarified BS filter. Thanks for the perspective Doug.