They Need Us to Inspire Them

I heard it again from a very passionate pre-service middle school teacher the other day: “I love history!  I can’t wait to share my passion with my students!”  This is a great attitude for a new teacher to have when being prepared to enter this challenging profession and it’s nice to see teachers model their passion and their own love of learning.  I had the same feelings about math and science.  My eyes were opened to the wonder and I couldn’t wait to open my students’ eyes!

I heard this exact line in early 2005 from one of my classmates in college.  She was a history buff who loved reading period literature and, even back then, was blogging about the things she’d learned or loved (did we call it blogging back then?).  Her mock lessons were fascinating and eye-opening and her facial expressions while presenting them were almost enough to keep an audience on its toes.  Two years after we graduated, I saw her at a district professional development session and almost didn’t recognize her.  The smile was gone, the passion was waning, and the surety of sharing her expertise was wilted to nothing.  It became apparent that her dream had not coalesced and the last I heard she had returned to college to pursue higher education in order to teach at the college level.

The problem was that the passion that she felt and the excitement that her colleagues showed weren’t applicable, and certainly less transferable, to middle school students.  It’s not her fault, but it happens very often.  “Why don’t they care?” is a pretty common question/complaint from teachers, both young and old, new and veteran.  The answer is pretty simple: despite the giddiness that adults feel when approached with such knowledge and discovery, we have not given these kids a reason to care.  I know that seems harsh and almost insulting to our craft and our love of our subjects, but it’s the simple, honest truth.  Our students are not automatically tuned in to the pleasure of learning or the passion of innovation.  It’s part of our job to lead them to it.

My coworker designed beautifully crafted lectures that were loaded with showmanship and excitement.  Strike one.  She also created assessments that were perfectly aligned to standards and let them use the notes from those lectures to answer the mostly-short-answer questions.  Strike two.  Finally, she crafted a final project where students were asked to pick the most interesting time period that they had studied, write a report about what might be considered pop culture at the time, and design a period costume.  Strike out!

Here’s why I’m being so strike-happy with my poor colleague: every one of those things are either fun for adults or fun for adults to watch and brag about.  However, her students complained about all of it, all the time.

Another, more modern example comes from a colleague whose students loved his teaching style.  He was passionate about science, loved to interact with middle school kids, gave them to freedom to find things out through inquiry and investigation, and used performance assessments to gauge competency and proficiency.  It was everyone’s favorite class.  Then came the arrival of the SMART Board.

It was exciting to get such an awe-inspiring and hyped piece of new century technology installed in their classroom, even the students were sharing stories about what they’d seen in other rooms and what the possibilities might be.  The energy was palpable.  Two weeks later, that energy was gone.  I have spent some time on this story here, where I discuss the promises and punishments of technology in the classroom.  The ending isn’t a happy one, however, and ends with the teacher frustrated that his students lost interest in his class so easily.

The first post of this series, “They Need Us to Understand Them,” is the prerequisite to the ability to inspire.  Rarely does a new teacher walk into a classroom, just start teaching, and hold the attention and inspire the hard work and dedication from a class of preadolescents for an entire school year.  Personally, I’ve never met one of those mythical educators.  If you are one of them, please contact me.  Otherwise, I hope that the remaining chapters of the book I’m working on and the ideas within lead to some meaningful reflection and collaboration among colleagues and students to learn how to inspire and motivate our kids.

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About Kris Nielsen
Kris L. Nielsen has been a middle grades educator and instructional leader for ten years in New Mexico, Oregon, and North Carolina. He is a graduate of Western Governors University’s Master of Science Education program, with emphasis on child development and instructional technology. Kris is an activist against corporate education reforms and has had his writing featured in several online magazines and blogs, including those of the Washington Post and Diane Ravitch. Kris currently lives in New Mexico with his young son and beautiful wife.

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