The Role of a Lifetime

Several years ago I was asked to write an article about the similarities between between teaching and acting. The article, originally titled "You Are Who You Pretend To Be," was published in the second edition of Acting Lessons for Teachers: Using Performance Skills in the Classroom by Robert T. Tauber and Cathy Sargent (Praeger, 2006). With a few minor revisions to update the original version, here's a copy of the article and its tribute to Frank Dooley, a master teacher who left an indelible mark on a multitude of New Mexico math students and basketball players.

My high school math teacher did not tolerate foolishness. His class was designed to help students learn, and he used time productively. He had a sense of humor, but his humor was geared toward the task of learning algebra. He could tell good stories, but the stories led to a math problem that needed solving. He was relaxed, but his students never wasted time. I knew to show up ready to learn or confront his disapproval. I felt compelled to do my best because I knew he would never accept a second-rate effort.

I am no longer be able to solve the algebra problems I conquered in Mr. Dooley’ class. I am certain, however, that if my studies in math had continued in college, I would have been prepared for success. After all, I had a great math teacher in high school. Mr. Dooley not only taught me to solve algebraic equations, but also to take learning seriously. He made sure I excelled at every task.

The fact that Mr. Dooley was able to make such a difference in my life — and in the lives of many other students — came from something intangible. His success did not come from the textbook he used or the teaching strategies he learned at a university. He was a successful teacher because of who he was as a person. Indeed, it may be that the secret to good teaching is found in one simple idea: Good teaching stems from good people.

Students will work hard for a teacher they respect. Students know whether a teacher is in the classroom for reasons of the heart. They know whether the teacher loves the subject and has faith in students. If students sense that a teacher is working hard for their benefit, they are more likely to put a little extra effort into an assignment. They are more likely to try to learn something new. Mr. Dooley was such a teacher. Students sensed that if they did what he said, they would succeed. Students sensed he was on their side.

When I was in high school, I thought of Mr. Dooley as a mythical figure, a character larger than life. He was the basketball coach at my high school and had already won several state championships. Even so, I now realize something I would never have imagined in high school — Mr. Dooley was just a man, a human being like the rest of us. After spending thirty-five years as an educator, I now understand that the mythical teacher who inspired me to do my best was in large part a role assumed by a man who understood the responsibilities of his profession. Teachers, like actors on a stage, assume a role to play. Mr. Dooley played his role well and, in the process, helped many students.

Success for a teacher depends, in large part, on the role the teacher plays in front of students. Can the teacher inspire students and ignite flames of curiosity? Is the teacher the type of person who challenges students to do their best? Good teachers, like good actors, know they must create a well-defined character for an audience.

Good teachers also know that teaching demands full immersion in the role they are playing. The teacher must continue to play the role in the hallways between classes, at the Saturday night basketball game, and when running into students at the mall. After all, it might not be what a teacher does in the classroom that most affects a student’s life. It might be the words a teacher speaks while talking with someone at the grocery store or in the waiting room at the dentist’s office that inspires that person to work a little harder or be a better person. Teachers might even find themselves playing a role in front of a former student several years after the student has left the classroom.

New teachers must be aware that once they enter the classroom their profession will require them to play a role. Whether in the classroom or at the department store, teachers have a deep and profound responsibility to serve the needs of their students. Teachers have an ethical obligation to find a way to inspire their students, and they must never abandon that obligation.

Success as a teacher demands that the character a teacher develops must seem authentic to students. In the same way that a movie audience can spot a bad actor in the first reel, students can detect a fraudulent teacher on the first day of school. Teachers must therefore draw on the imagination of an actor to capture a sense of authenticity in the role they play. Students know whether their teacher is dedicated to the profession or is just marking time until the bell rings at the end of the day.

Teachers, like actors, must find elements of their own personality in the role they are playing. Teachers must find the part of their spirit that wants to help students and then bring that spirit into the classroom. They must accentuate the part of their personality that is honest, caring, and full of love. They must shine a spotlight upon the part of their soul that wants to give students a bright future and make the world a better place.

As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be.” Teachers who might be distracted by circumstances in their personal lives must pretend to be focused on the concerns of the students. Teachers should hope that no matter where students end up after leaving school they will always remember their teachers as the people who never gave up on them.

Teachers are human beings, and they make mistakes. Like anyone else, a teacher might not always be the person he or she would like to be. Every teacher should try, however, to pretend to be the person who motivates students. Every teacher should try to act the part. Even if a teacher has played the part for several years, he or she can assume the attitude of a good actor and know that this year’s students have never seen the performance. Each teacher must play the part well. Nothing more than the success and well being of children is at stake.

For me, nobody played the role better than Mr. Dooley.

Note: One of Bill Richardson's last proclamations as Governor of New Mexico was to declare November 15, 2010, as "Frank Dooley Day."

Surviving as a Teacher

Success in teaching depends on too many variables for any teacher to claim, “This is the right way to teach. This is what works.”

That said, I’m not hesitant to claim expertise in one aspect of teaching — survival. I lasted long enough in the profession to collect a retirement check, and I left with my love for teaching intact.

Based on my ability to make it long enough to retire, I have developed a few suggestions for surviving in the profession. The list is by no means complete. It is simply a list of a few things that worked for me.

For teachers who are looking for a little pat on the back and a few words of encouragement, here’s my recommendations for surviving in the teaching profession.

1. Never enter a classroom unprepared.
To various degrees all teachers confront bad behavior in the classroom, and even the best teachers must occasionally deal with a “student from hell.” However, a teacher who can keep a classroom under control is a teacher who can survive. In my experience the best classroom management plan is a good lesson plan, a lesson plan that engages students. Teachers who do this well are generally able to guard against behavior problems before they develop and put themselves in a position to enjoy the rewards of teaching.

2. Find a way to motivate and inspire students.
Teachers should do everything they can to light a fire under their students. Teachers who can inspire students are also the teachers who are inspired to remain in the classroom.

3. Never quit learning and growing as a teacher.
If something can't grow, it dies, and survival as a teacher requires the ability to avoid getting stuck in a rut. Keep learning. Keep growing. Talk to other teachers, and observe them in action. Ask how they create lesson plans and how they deal with classroom management. Attend workshops and conferences. An inexperienced teacher can learn a lot from someone with a few years in the classroom, and an experienced teacher might even learn something worthwhile from a first year teacher. In any case, all teachers should exercise their ability to change what they are doing in the classroom.

4. Bring a sense of playfulness into the classroom.
In a perfect world, learning for the sake of learning would be enough to make a class enjoyable. However, teachers might sometimes need to resort to something a little more entertaining — corny jokes or silly costumes, for example. Teachers are more likely to remain in the profession when they find a way to have fun, and the best way for teachers to have fun is to find a way for students to have fun.

5. Have faith in youth.
Teachers are not served well by remaining ignorant about the things that interest young people and letting a generation gap make them cynical about the behavior of the young. Teachers should have faith in youth and believe in the potential of youth. They should let their faith in youth translate into a faith in the future and their faith in the future translate into a faith in humanity. Teachers who maintain this faith will not find it difficult to survive in the classroom.

6. Maintain an idealism about the profession.
Teaching is a noble profession. No less than the success of each student and the health of our nation depends on how well we educate our youth. Most teachers enter the profession with an innate sense of the higher purpose of the profession, and they should not let that idealism disintegrate. Idealism about the profession feeds the spirit and helps a teacher survive in the profession.

7. Never lose heart.
“A good teacher is like a candle that burns itself out lighting the way for others.”

That age-old saying (author unknown) describes the serious problem of teacher burn out. Teaching is a difficult job, to say the least. Students, parents, administrators, community organizations, and politicians often demand more than teachers can possibly achieve, and teachers must work hard to avoid losing heart. Good teachers are one of the most valuable resource in any society — if not the most valuable resource. To keep from losing heart, teachers should learn to savor the rewards of the profession and stay focused on the needs of children.

8. Find a hobby outside teaching.
All good teachers face the problem of being consumed by their work. Evenings and weekends are spent creating lessons, evaluating student work, or sponsoring student organizations. Vacations are spent going back to school, working on curriculum, or attending workshops. If teachers do not routinely get away from their jobs they face burning out. They must therefore find something outside the profession that engages their interest. They must get away from the stress that comes with teaching. They must take time to play a musical instrument, read a novel, join a book club, go hiking, listen to music, attend a play, go to the movies, remodel a home, join a sports league, or go fishing. They should find something that allows them to turn off the problems that come with teaching, problems that might push them into losing their desire to remain in the classroom.

9. Maintain a sense of humor.
The author Richard Carlson once wrote, “Don’t’ sweat the small stuff — and it’s all small stuff.” That might sound like clever advice. However, Carlson was probably not a public school teacher and was not vulnerable to issues that would horrify, frustrate, and break the heart of even the most lighthearted soul. Any teacher who has known a student suffering from terminal cancer or a student who fires a gun in school knows that it’s not all “small stuff.” Indeed, the only way to handle some problems is to go home, lie in bed, and weep. On the other hand, Carlson was right in one sense. Many of the frustrations teachers face amount to nothing more than little things that are best handled with a sense of humor. For example, most of the day-to-day, time-consuming, dumb requirements from administrators can be completed without taking them too seriously. After all, administrators change their stripes every year or so. This year’s administrative crusade might be abandoned next year. Experienced teachers learn to play along with “administrivia” just enough to keep administrators happy — then they do what’s right for students. In addition, most of the childish things students do to aggravate teachers should be put into perspective and handled with a sense of humor. Children often act immature simply because they are children. Good teachers know this and learn to handle childish behavior with a smile.

10. Enjoy knowing students.
Most teachers get into the profession for reasons of the heart, and more than anything else it’s the students who feed the heart of the teacher. Students nourish the teacher’s spirit. Students make all the heartache and stress worthwhile. Students are the best fringe benefit of the profession, and teachers should always keep this in mind.

Teaching in an Uncorrupted Classroom

As a teacher in lifelong learning programs, I am not required to create tests, grade papers, or fill out evaluations. Students enroll in classes simply to learn for the sake of learning. Needless to say, the classes are a joy to teach.

I had become accustomed as a high school teacher, to the constraints place on teachers from standardized testing, curriculum benchmarks, administrative trivia, and classroom disruptions. Teaching in lifelong learning programs, however, has given me a different perspective on what it means to be a teacher.

When I teach a lifelong learning class, I am teaching in what I have to call an “uncorrupted” classroom — all that matters is learning. My sole responsibility is to create worthwhile lessons that engage students.

Here's what becomes crystal clear when all the obstacles I faced to teaching in a public school are removed.

1. The best way to learn a subject is to teach it.
I have three university degrees and have been teaching history for over forty decades. I majored in music as an undergraduate and have spent decades reading about music, studying scores, listening to music, and teaching music to high school students. My experience and résumé should show that I am qualified to teach music history to lifelong learners. Why, then, do I spend so much time preparing to teach my classes for lifelong learners?

The answer is found in knowing what every teacher knows: you never really know a subject until you are asked to teach it. Time and effort spent organizing the content of a class and how to present it leads to a better mastery of the subject

I have always felt an obligation never to waste my students’ time. I want students to feel that I have a well-defined purpose in how I present information and that I am providing them with worthwhile lessons. I want students to feel I can answer questions or provide advice on where they might find answers on their own. Quite simply, I want students to believe that I know what I am doing.

I cannot achieve these objective unless I have mastered the subject I am teaching. Mastering the subject — knowing my stuff — liberates me to be flexible in how I deliver lessons. It helps me to know how to cover material efficiently.

Only when students sense that I have forgotten more about the subject than they have yet learned, I am then qualified to teach the class with integrity.

2. Students are not the only ones in the classroom trying to learn.
Experience has taught me that I often learn more from students than they learn from me. Students make comments or ask question that force me to reevaluate my knowledge of a subject or how I might change my approach to teaching the subject.

This has been true whether I am teaching high school students or lifelong learners.

For me, teaching is a process of constant self-evaluation. I am continuously monitoring what I do in the classroom and making adjustments, running my knowledge and skills through a gauntlet of questions and comments and seeing what remains when the process is over. In most cases, I come out the other side knowing more than when I began.

For the process to work, I must teach in a way that inspires the comments and questions that can help me gain a better understanding of the subject and how to teach it. Students should not be the only ones in the classroom learning something.

3. Teachers must find a way to connect the subject they teach to the lives and welfare of their students.
Effective teaching requires a teacher to make a subject relevant to the real world and the lives of their students. If not, the teacher’s lessons will fail to engage students, and everyone in the classroom — teachers and students — might as well be somewhere else.

Sometimes, when students are not motivated to learn, their lack of motivation comes from being unaware of how the subject is relevant to their lives. Teachers must therefore be abled to explain the wisdom of learning the subject. If students are not motivated, the teacher must work hard to find something that
will motivate them.

Even when teaching the self-motivated students I find in lifelong learning programs, I must choose information about music history that is worth knowing and make clear the reasons it is worth knowing. I must present the information in such a way that students understand the wisdom of learning it.

Explain a subject well, and it will engage the attention of the student. Explain the wisdom of learning a subject — even if it is only learning for the sake of learning — and students will do all they can to master what they are taught.

I should say that I am not an idealist on this issue. I spent a long time teaching in a public high school, and I know all too well just how hard it can be to motivate some students. Even though motivating certain students might be impossible, it’s still the job of the teacher to do everything then can to find something that works.

4. Teachers must have faith in their students and believe that every student can learn.
All good teaching stems from the belief that every student can learn. Indeed, I cannot be an effective teacher if I stand in front of classroom believing that some students will just never be able to learn what I am teaching. Whatever it takes, I must find a way to reach every student, to present the subject in a way that students who are having trouble will eventually understand what I am teaching.

Considering the types of students I teach in lifelong learning programs, it might seem that I don't need to pay much attention to this element of teaching. I suspect, however, that when I try to point out the main themes in the exposition at the beginning of Beethoven’s
Symphony No. 3, some students may not be able to hear what I am talking about. I suspect that when I point out how those themes are developed and how everything that is happening in those themes relates to what Beethoven is trying to say metaphorically throughout the entire symphony, some students might not be able to understand those metaphors.

Nevertheless, I will keep working at finding a way to explain the subject so that it makes sense. I will search for new ways to explain it. I will ask other students if they can explain it.

Whatever happens, I will never give up. Whatever it takes, I will find a way to help
all students learn what I am trying to teach.

5. A teacher's ability to inspire students is more important than the factual knowledge the curriculum requires.
Music students need to be taught the correct way to form an embouchure, hold an instrument, count rhythms, and phrase musical passages. However, if music students do not spend time alone, practicing their instruments, a teacher’s lessons are a waste of time. In the end, students are responsible for their own education. The job of a teacher is to guide them and do what is necessary to inspire them to learn on their own.

I often think about this element of teaching while preparing to teach lifelong learning classes. Although I must try to know all I can about the subject I am teaching, it is more important that I teach in a way that students are motivated to spend more time learning the subject on their own. I must make the subject so interesting that what students learn from me will not be enough.

Lifelong learning students generally come to class motivated to learn, but will I be able to keep them motivated? Will I make them want to return to class next week? Will I make them feel the class is worth their time?

In the end, if I have not motivated students to learn more on their own, I will have done little that really matters.

And what does all this mean?

I understand that my experiences with lifelong learners are not the normal situation for most teachers. I am simply trying to make a few comments about what it means to teach in an ideal, or uncorrupted, classroom.

I am also hoping to shine a light on how easy it is to corrupt the environment necessary for good teaching — and therefore learning — to take place.

The type of teaching I have described above can easily be corrupted by the actual situation confronted by most teachers in the public schools. In a public school, a single student’s bad behavior can subvert all the work a teacher has done and keep thirty other students from learning. Overcrowded schools and classrooms make it difficult for a teacher to determine the individual needs of students. Constant interruptions by administrators, teachers, students, parents, and community members break the flow of well-developed lessons. Inflexible benchmarks geared toward standardized testing and dictated from outside the classroom often keep a teacher from adapting to the various abilities and needs of their students. Paperwork for teachers can be so overwhelming that time for creating good lesson plans is lost to administrative requirements. Teachers then easily spend more time serving administrators than students.

The problems I confront teaching lifelong learning classes are obviously much different from what I faced as a high school teacher. However, I believe that what I have learned teaching lifelong learners applies to much more than teaching self-motivated and mature students.

What I have learned teaching in an uncorrupted classroom should be relevant to all teachers. At any grade level, teachers should know their subject well and be willing to keep learning. Teachers should be able connect what they teach to the lives of their students and believe that every student can learn. No teacher should ever give up trying to motivate and inspire students.

I have also learned that public schools should do more to eliminate the things that corrupt the learning process. Public school administrators should do more to reduce the demands made on teachers that take time away from preparing good lessons and serving students. They should do more to trust the professionalism of teachers and allow them to adjust their curriculum and lesson plans to fit the needs of students. They should do more to create an environment in which good teaching can flourish.

I understand that we cannot turn our public schools into lifelong learning programs. However, what I have learned teaching in those programs has confirmed my belief that we can do much more to get out of the way of our teachers and let them teach. We can do more to liberate teachers from the distractions that do not serve the needs of students. We can do more to get rid of the things that corrupt the process of teaching.

In regard to improving public schools, I propose that less is more. Fewer administrative demands made on teachers will lead to a better learning situation for children.

Making a Difference

Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves…. We do ourselves the most good doing something for others.

– Horace Mann

Teachers merit great admiration for having the courage to place themselves in the trenches of public education and do something every day to serve children. Teachers are indeed a special breed and deserve nothing but the highest praise.

And their work is not easy.

Considering the extraordinary demands placed on teachers, I find it remarkable that teachers achieve as much as they do. At times, I wonder how anyone can do the job.

As an illustration, let me offer a description of my own experiences as a teacher. Although I am no longer teaching in a public school classroom, the memories of the pressure that accompanied the job will remain with me forever.

Upon driving into the parking lot every day at 7:15 a.m. (or earlier) I always took a deep breath and braced myself for the stress that would define the next ten hours.

Throughout the day I found myself juggling several tasks at once. Before school I tried to complete administrative paperwork while students surrounded my desk. Every student needed something from me and every one of them seemed to talk at the same time. As students asked me questions, I sat at my desk with piles of paperwork in front of me, paperwork that included various types of administrative trivia: forms for students needing special accommodations, surveys or inventory for administrators, and progress reports for parents and counselors.

While trying to process several demands at once, my mind was also reviewing my lesson plans for the day. I'm not sure how I kept everything straight. I kept yellow sticky notes scattered around my desk with reminders of everything I needed to get done, but in the constant confusion I often couldn't keep track of the sticky notes.

And the stress never let up. During the school day I found myself standing in front of each class facing thirty-five adolescent personalities, each one needing my attention and an affirmation of their self-worth. While trying to provide students with their individual and group needs, I was forced to deal with constant interruptions from intercom announcements, students needing to leave class and a steady stream of people knocking on the door — students, teachers, and administrators. I often felt forced to teach between the cracks.

Finding time to go to the restroom was a luxury. I would try to go between classes, only to have my walk down the hallway interrupted by many of the students, teachers, and administrators I passed on the way. Again everyone seemed to need something from me, and if they asked me for something as I walked down the hallway I might later forget what they wanted because I didn’t have a sticky note to write it down. Sometimes I never made it to the restroom before the next class began.

If I wasn't in my classroom helping students during the all-too-short lunch period, I would find myself nursing a sandwich and a bag of potato chips in the teacher’s lounge while I listened to other teachers grumble about administrators and the educational system in general. I would then return to my classroom for my afternoon classes, awash in the gloominess of the teacher's lounge.

For me, the so-called planning period placed in our daily schedule never seemed long enough to complete the unfinished administrative tasks that had built up during the day. My planning time was almost always occupied by completing paperwork or going to meetings with special education facilitators, counselors, administrators, or parents. Too often, I had no time to plan lessons for my own classes, much less get any papers graded.

Quiet time to gather my thoughts at school was nonexistent, and during my evenings at home I was often too tired to do much more than take a nap in front of the television before I began grading papers or creating a lesson plan for the next day. Teaching was not a job I could leave behind once the workday was over.
What I have described about my day at school does not include the interruptions that stemmed from breaking up fights in the hallway, confronting students possessing drugs or alcohol, leading students through fire drills and bomb scares, and even trying to keep students safe from someone firing a gun. (Yes, that happened at my school.)

From what I have heard in the professional development workshops I have been leading over the last 18 years, my experiences as a classroom teacher seem to be shared by all public school teachers.

It has been estimated that
40 to 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first three years, and I understand the reasons people leave. Teaching is a demanding and stressful job — to say the least — and I have not even mentioned the sometimes unruly students that often magnify the stress. I have also not mentioned the inadequate salary that has forced many teachers to seek part-time jobs so they can pay the bills and support their families.

None of this, however, is meant to discourage young people from thinking about a career in teaching. Many careers have a high level of stress, and many jobs are ultimately full of frustration. Teaching, however, can often be quite a fulfilling profession, a job that can make you feel you have done something worthwhile with your life.

Teaching is a vitally important profession. I’ve heard school described by an elementary student as "The Big Chance.” Education provides opportunities for children in their personal lives, and no less that the health of our society depends on how well we educate our children. Everyone dedicating themselves to improving the world by becoming a teacher should be able to sleep well at night knowing they have done something to help others.

If any prospective teachers are reading this blog, I recommend that you take the leap but do it with your eyes wide open. It won't be easy, but your nation needs good people willing to place themselves in the trenches and make a difference. Yes, teaching is stressful and the pay is not great, but the rewards are plentiful.

I would like to thank all teachers for the sacrifices they make. Hang in there, and keep working hard. In the end, you just might win a few victories for humanity.

Someday ...

"Cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophesy. You have no chance if you assume you have no chance."

– Robert Reich

It should go without saying that the primary objective of any educational system is to put students first. It should also go without saying that the way to put students first is to provide them with good teachers. Good teaching is an essential element to helping students get a good education. Without good teaching, the quality of a child's education is a crapshoot.
And I’d like to point out that students are not served well by demoralized teachers.
Teaching in a public school is far more difficult, I am sure, than the average person outside the classroom understands. On a routine basis teachers are forced to endure pointless meetings, unnecessary administrative paperwork, piles of student papers to grade, overcrowded classrooms, underfunded mandates, unmotivated and unruly students, prescribed curriculum programs that don't work, and, of course, standardized testing followed by even more standardized testing.

The list goes on … and on.

How teachers find the time to teach or even prepare to teach, I don’t know. Sometimes all they can do is try to survive the day at school.

Then, when they leave school and go home, they are hit with an onslaught of news reports about failing schools and the need to “reform” education, which often means little more than giving teachers additional work that is too often designed to satisfy administrators and politicians, rather than the needs of students.

This all-too-common process of demoralizing teachers and cutting the heart out of the teaching profession has created a crisis in our public schools. The culture must change. We must develop a system for public education that does not demoralize teachers, a system that gives teachers time to teach and develop their craft, a system that treats them as professionals and pays them like professionals.
Someday we will have state and national governments that help nurture that system, and I believe that day will come soon. Someday …

Learning for the Sake of Learning

As an undergraduate, I was enrolled in an American literature course at New Mexico State University taught by Marion Hardman. Dr. Hardman was a legendary teacher who left a legacy that continued long after she was gone. She was a master teacher and remains, I am sure, the best literature teacher her students ever knew.

She taught at NMSU for 40-plus years and had a building named in her honor while she was still teaching. The class I took under her tutelage was on the second floor of Hardman Hall and was the last class she taught before retiring.

I assume the students who shared that class with me remember her final lecture. For me, it was a life-changing event, and I still have my notes from what she said.

During that last lecture Dr. Hardman gave an account of how she first came to NMSU. She talked about the problems she faced as a young woman at a conservative agricultural school in the 1930s.

It was fascinating to hear her talk about her career at NMSU, a career that would inspire feminists and scholars of both sexes. She talked about her intellectual development. She talked about meeting Ernest Hemingway.

After she finished telling personal stories, she ended her farewell lecture with words of advice that have never left me, words that have guided me throughout my teaching career,
She warned against the movement to make learning “useful” and “relevant.” For Dr. Hardman, education was about much more than simply preparing students for a career. She thought education should help students tap into something eternally true about being human. She felt students should examine the wisdom of the ages and understand their lives in the context of the entirety of human experience — art, history, literature, music, philosophy, and science.

After requesting that all of us listening to her last lecture commit ourselves to learning for the sake of learning, Dr. Hardman lamented a headline in a local newspaper stating that NMSU students “learn to earn.” She advised us to recognize the triviality of that headline and instead explore our innate desire to live a good life through discovering the pleasures of learning for the sake of learning. Dr. Hardman believed an education should nourish the intellect and feed the soul.
Her words have inspired me throughout my teaching my teaching career.

Thank you Dr. Hardman.

Hardman Hall
New Mexico State University

Top 5 Suggestions for Teaching

“The best schools are the ones where administrators create an atmosphere where good teachers can thrive, giving teachers some autonomy and trusting them as professionals to do what’s best for students.”

And that is how I am quoted in the book
Teacher Top 5 by Nick Ip. The book profiles teachers from across the nation and includes their Top 5 suggestions for successful teaching. Nick Ip honored me as one of the 25 teachers chosen for the book. (Imagine that!)

In a nutshell, here’s my Top 5 suggestions:
  1. Never Enter a Classroom Unprepared.
  2. Find a Way to Motivate and Inspire Students.
  3. Never Quit Learning and Growing as a Teacher.
  4. Bring a Sense of Playfulness into the Classroom.
  5. Have Faith in Youth.
The book includes longer explanations of how I describe those Top 5, as well as some information about my career and what inspired me to become a teacher.

In short, I believe that it sometimes matters little to students
what subject their we are teaching or how that subject is being taught. However, it will always matter why we are teaching. Students have a sixth sense for whether their teacher cares about them and whether their teacher is dedicated to the profession. Above all, it will matter to students who their teacher is as a person. Students will work hard for a teacher they respect, and they will always remember their best teachers as the one who never gave up on them.

Teaching Top 5: Strategies for Successful Teaching

“You need one person to believe in you in your entire life, just one. Often, that one person is a teacher.”

That quote comes from a
Spirit magazine headline for a 2011 article about America’s Best Teachers, and I share the quote via T. Nick Ip’s book, Teacher Top 5. Ip spent fifteen years in finance and strategy before becoming an elementary school teacher to “find the poetry in his life.” Ip’s book, which is obviously a labor of love, has certainly found the poetry in those who have dedicated their lives to teaching.

Teacher Top 5 profiles twenty-five nationally recognized teachers and their Top 5 strategies for successful teaching. The book includes chapters on teachers who have been recognized as members of the National Teachers Hall of Fame, National Teachers of the Year, State Teachers of the Year, and numerous other awards. Each chapter in the book profiles individual teachers, exploring their backgrounds, their reasons for becoming a teacher, their desire for changes in the educational system, and, of course, their Top 5 recommendations for successful teaching.

The book should serve as a guiding light for young teachers and experienced teachers looking to revitalize their careers. Public education might also be well-served by placing Ip's book in the hands of administrators and policy makers attempting to standardize and centralize how good teaching should be measured. Standardization and centralization of curriculum are destroying the art of teaching and strangling the creativity and innovation that allows good teaching to thrive. I hope that people making educational policy would recognize this after reading Ip's book.

As the book makes clear, the nation's best teachers went into the profession for reasons of the heart, and they certainly remain in the profession for reasons of the heart. Policy makers might learn from Ip's book how they can avoid cutting the heart out of the art of teaching.

Ip’s book is accompanied by a website at, which contains information about teachers profiled in the book. If you are a teacher, you can also share your Top 5 strategies for successful teaching and possibly be featured on the website.

Feeling a Teacher's Influence after 70 Years

In 1980, I interviewed Bryan "Skipper" Hall, a man who had spent fifty years as a Methodist minister in New Mexico. He was eighty-three years old and willing to talk openly and honestly about his life and religious philosophy. Like almost anyone his age, he had endured tragedies throughout his life. Even so, he radiated an infectious optimism that I found inspiring. To this day, he is one of the most thoughtful and philosophically mature people I have met.

At the time of the interview I was a young man facing many crossroads. I was struggling through my first year of teaching high school and beginning work on a graduate degree. I was also two months away from getting married to Skipper's granddaughter. I went into the interview with Skipper figuring it would make a good oral history project for my masters in history. I left having learned invaluable lessons about how to live a good life, lessons that have remained with me to this day. I also learned an unforgettable lesson about the importance of teaching that has carried me through an almost forty-year career in education.

In 1974, Skipper's home, one that he and his family had built with their own hands, was destroyed in a forest fire. Skipper and his wife lost virtually everything they owned. When Skipper talked to me about the tragedy he expressed little sentimentality and kept his emotions about the awful loss under control. Life goes on, I suppose.

Five years after the fire, one year before my interview with Skipper, his wife passed away, ending a long struggle with ill health and suffering. Only two months later his son was tragically killed in an automobile accident — a horrific event for Skipper. During the interview he spoke to me about the recent loss of his wife and son in a matter-of-fact way, keeping his emotions in check. I never sensed he was apathetic or unfeeling. On the contrary, I sensed deep emotional pain tempered by a rational understanding of how the universe works. Again, life goes on.

During the ten hours I spent interviewing Skipper, he provided only one moment of uncontrollable emotion. He wept openly when talking about a teacher he had not seen for seventy years, a teacher who had tried to keep him from dropping out of school. While talking about the teacher his voice broke, and he could not continue speaking.

"I had a teacher named Morton and she was one of the best teachers I ever had. She was the only one I remember by name. She begged me not to leave school; in fact, she cried about it. Later in life I tried to find her, I wrote back to San Angelo but they couldn’t locate her.… I tried to find her to tell her I went back to school, but I couldn’t find her."

His memory got the better of him when he told me the story. He lost his composure and motioned for me to turn off the tape recorder. He needed a moment to wipe his tears and get control of himself.

Bryan "Skipper" Hall
SMU Student Body President, 1925-1926

Teachers might be well served knowing that story. They should know that in the midst of all their hard work and frustration — during the dark days when they doubt whether they can even remain in the classroom — they can think about Skipper Hall and the teacher who touched him so deeply. Skipper's story should give teachers a broader sense of the importance of their work and the tremendous influence they can have on students.

If you are a teacher, just think how seventy years from now — in the year 2088 — some elderly person who has already lived a productive and inspiring life might be thinking fondly of you and how you affected them. It's a humbling (and sometimes terrifying) thought.

Skipper Hall taught me that the power of teaching works in mysterious ways, reaching across generations with wisdom, hope, and inspiration.Teaching is, indeed, a noble profession.

Click here to learn more about Skipper Hall's fascinating life and inspiring philosophy.

The Elements of Teaching

I have seen few better descriptions of what it takes to succeed in the classroom than what I first read almost twenty years ago in The Elements of Teaching by James M. Banner and Harold C. Cannon.

According to Banner and Cannon, good teaching contains eight essential elements.

1. Learning: A good teacher loves learning. They have mastered the subject, and their love of learning for the sake of learning is infectious.

2. Authority: A good teacher has authority in the classroom, an authority that comes from the knowledge and character of the teacher. If the teacher is not respected, the teacher’s desire to help students learn is pointless.

3. Order: A good teacher has effective classroom management skills. Good classroom management takes many forms: routine procedures, high expectations, reasonable rules of conduct, realistic expectations, equitable rewards and penalties. An orderly classroom is the place where good teaching begins.

4. Ethics: A good teacher is an ethical person who understands the responsibilities of the profession. An ethical teacher is one who puts the needs of the students before anything else. An ethical teacher is one who is sensitive to the beliefs and culture of every student.

5. Imagination: Good teachers are imaginative. They possess the ability to approach their subject in a way that captures the attention of their students and enhances learning. Good teachers find a way to engage students.

6. Compassion: Good teachers care about their students. They care about making the world better.

7. Character: Good teachers are good people. Good teaching stems from the character and personality of the teacher.
  • Good teachers are authentic human beings. They are the author of their own words.
  • Good teachers are consistent.
  • Good teachers are emotionally stable. Students allow little tolerance for moodiness or emotional outbursts from their teacher.
  • Good teachers are willing and able to acknowledge mistakes.
  • Good teachers are able to strike a balance between being a student’s friend and maintaining an icy detachment from students.
8. Pleasure: Good teachers make learning enjoyable. They find joy in being with students and helping students learn. Good teachers bring a sense of playfulness and fun into the classroom.

Teaching is not an easy job to conquer, and I applaud the teachers who go to work every day doing their best to create a better future for our children and our nation.

The Art of Teaching

A decision to teach grows out of a desire to make a difference.

When I went to college I had to choose a major. I juggled several options — music, law, astronomy, anthropology, communications.

I chose to teach.

Like a physician motivated by an overwhelming desire cure disease, I chose a profession with a higher purpose. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to serve the needs of children. I wanted to serve the needs of my community.

I left college believing that teaching was a noble profession. Forty-one years later I have not changed my mind. In fact, I believe it now more than ever.

The nobility in teaching comes from the faith that teachers have in youth. Faith in youth translates into a faith in the future, and faith in the future translates into a faith in humanity. Teachers who don't possess that faith won’t survive long in the classroom.

And nobody ever said that teaching would be easy. It hasn’t been.

I have seen experienced teachers — those who thought they had seen everything — walk into classrooms only to find that students had found new ways to challenge them, new ways to make them feel like rank amateurs.

Teaching is much more difficult than people outside the profession can ever understand.

And no teacher gets it right every day because teaching is not a science. Teaching is an art form. Good teachers are like good artists.
  • They bring their own personality and their own spirit into their work.
  • They help people learn what it means to be human.
  • They inspire people to appreciate the best that human beings can achieve.
  • They change people’s lives.
  • They know the success of their work is judged by an abstract standard. Just as you know good art when you see it, you know good teaching when you see it.
Good art and good teaching are essential to making our world better. Both have the ability to make a difference in people's lives. Both are vital to the health of the communities in which we live.

"I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit." – John Steinbeck

Over the years I have learned that mastering the art of teaching required me to address four essential questions.
  1. What do I teach?
  2. How do I teach?
  3. Why do I teach?
  4. Who am I as as a teacher?
The first question was usually answered for me. In most cases, when I taught a new course I was handed a curriculum guide or textbook that provided me with the content of the course I was teaching. For most subjects, a consensus about content was decided long before I taught the course.

The second question took time for me to find an adequate answer. For several years I spent time experimenting, finding my way, attending workshops, talking with other teachers. I eventually discovered the teaching strategies that worked best for me. It took time for me to learn what worked with the students shaped by the community in which I lived.

My answer to the third question has evolved over time. I have spent my career in teaching as someone who also spent a lot of time reading and learning, looking for a higher purpose to what I do in the classroom. I have also learned how necessary it is to find an answer to this question. Surviving in the profession requires a periodic reminder of the reasons I became a teacher in the first place. If I want to motivate students, I must also keep myself motivated.

"To learn and never be filled is wisdom; to teach and never be weary is love." – Arab Proverb

The fourth question — who am I as a teacher? — penetrates right to the heart of what it takes to succeed in the classroom. Students work hard for teachers they respect. To be a good teacher I therefore need also to be a good person. I need to be the type of person who motivates students and makes them want to do their best.

Putting all this together — answering these four questions — has led me to a better understanding of what it takes to master the art of teaching. To be a good teacher I need to know my subject, as well as the teaching strategies that work best for me and the type of students I teach. I need to clarify the reasons that teaching history is a worthwhile endeavor. I need to be a missionary for my subject and grow as a person so that I am the right person to teach that subject.

(1) Banner, James M., Jr. and Harold C. Cannon,
The Elements of Teaching, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977) pp. 1-6.
(2) Palmer, Parker J.,
The Courage to Teach, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998) p. 4.