We educators continually hone our skills. We observe colleagues and borrow ideas from them. With every new class of students, we gain teaching skills to respond to their unique needs. We can’t help this constant flux and improvement; it’s in our blood.
The teaching skill that makes all the difference, though, and the one that I noticed made a drastic difference in my relationship with my kids and their academic improvement was this: my own quirky self. We are the secret ingredient! Our lives, our talents, our wonderful failures, our odd little hobbies. This is the secret sauce.
So I was riding my bike this week…
The first teacher who drove this point home for me was Mr. Howard, my high school physics teacher. Aside from having ninja teaching skills, he was beloved by everyone. He was a tallish, lanky man with big, excitable eyes and closely-shorn curly, black hair. Bill Nye-ish enthusiasm seeped out of him at every moment, but never in a way that felt forced or acted. He just LOVED physics.
Mr. Howard was an avid bicyclist. He spent his weekends riding all over the South Shore of Massachusetts. One weekend, I actually ran into him several towns away at an ice cream shop. He was outfitted in all his bicycle gear, and I was surprised by the distance he had travelled in only a few hours.
As any student who had Mr. Howard could tell you, most of his lessons on physics started out the same: “So this weekend, I was on my bike…” Then he would launch into a demonstration of how that week’s lesson objectives fit into his bike ride. Velocity, friction, speed, Newton’s laws of motion, velocity, force … all if it came alive as he described his latest escapade.
Taking something real from his life — something he clearly loved –and transforming the subject matter accordingly is what made him such a remarkable educator. Had he presented the laws of physics using the standard teaching skills, very few of us would have remembered or cared about his lessons.
Walking the talk with my teaching skills
When I followed Mr. Howard’s lead and took those first tentative steps toward bringing my own interests into the classroom, there was a clear shift in both my relationship with the kids and in their attention during lessons.
One of the first areas where I added a dash of me into my teaching skills was art. I’ve always found drawing relaxing and fun, so I began using illustrations in my Morning Messages. I demonstrated how to create fun handwriting titles when we took notes in science. I sketched during recess or quiet times and taught an afterschool Zentangles class. Soon, I realized lots of kids wanted to learn Zentangles, so I played simple Zentangle videos from Youtube (with no sound) during our Quiet Times. Many of the kids got their own sketchbooks, and some began taking art classes outside of school.
Outside of art, I love watching birds. So about eight years ago, my then-third-grade-colleagues and I applied for a minigrant to create a bird sanctuary in the garden area next to our classroom. We got birdfeeders, binoculars, bird identification books, and planted bird- and butterfly-friendly flowers and bushes. During Quiet Time, we watched bird videos. And interestingly enough, several of my students who lived with ADHD become the most avid, calm birdwatchers in the class. (This fact still blows me away.)
My students felt closer to me and were more excited to share their own passions and skills. Conversations opened up. Two-way respect increased, as things became more relaxed. It was lovely and made my job (and their school day) more enjoyable.
Colleagues’ teaching skills through passions
Bringing oneself to the classroom is something that I see threaded throughout my own school. Our building abounds with teachers who import their interests to their teaching skills. Sometimes it directly affects the learning objective of the day. And very often it is the catnip that gets kids invested in their teacher and deepens that relationship.
Years ago, our classroom had a phenomenal aide whom the kids adored. After school and on weekends, he coached soccer, and the sport was his happy place. Bringing his own equipment to school, he used recess time to run soccer games and coach kids, particularly those who felt they had no natural athletic ability. His teaching skills as a coach were such fun to witness! He loved the sport and loved the kids and they responded in kind to him. When he spoke, whether it was soccer-related or about the latest book he had read, they listened. Kids who had trouble succeeding in their schoolwork blossomed on the soccer field, and while it wasn’t a magic wand that transformed them into advanced mathematicians, it did lower their anxiety and put them in a better frame of mind for learning.
We currently have several educators in our school who run marathons and who raise money for charities. One of them was training for the Boston Marathon a few years ago and the kids were beyond excited to see her run through their town on her way to the finish line. When the Marathon Bombing happened later that day, there was a wild scramble of parents, kids, and colleagues trying to ascertain if she was okay. (She was thankfully not at the finish line, and the kids flocked to her afterward to say how worried they had been.)
Other teachers who brung it
We had a third-grade banjo player who made up songs about the curriculum and did sing-alongs with her class.
- A current second-grade teacher is a self-taught professional-level baker who teaches cake decorating to kids in an afterschool program; his creations are something you’d see in a magazine.
- We have fifth-grade teacher who is a yogi and teaches the kids calming poses and exercises.
- A third-grade teacher loves the Patriots and has a giant poster of Tom Brady in her room, along with tons of beach decorations because summer is her season. (My fourth-graders who had her swoon when they say her name.)
- A past third-grade teacher could do accents like nobody’s business and her read alouds were amazing! She was also multilingual and helped out many newly arrived English Language Learners feel welcomed and comfortable.
- Our head custodian is a Disney fanatic and goes to Disneyworld several times a year. He came into our room at Morning Meeting to answer all the kids’ questions about Disneyworld. They revered him afterward.
I could go on and on about my colleagues, but you get the point. When we bring ourselves to the classroom, the kids simply do better. Plus we have more fun. Which makes us happier, more effective teachers. And the whole thing spirals into a beautiful cycle.
Essential teaching skills: bringing YOU to the classroom
If you are a seasoned educator, it is probable that you are already doing this on some level. Perhaps, though, there are fun aspects to you that you haven’t integrated yet. If you are new to the classroom, you might be looking most forward to this aspect of teaching. Either way, here are some questions to get you thinking about ways you can bring your unique self to your teaching skills:
What did you love doing when you were a kid? Legos? Comics? Friendship bracelets? Dance moves to Thriller? Putting on plays? Rubix Cube?
- What activities/sports were you involved with in middle school/high school? Robotics? Badminton? Student government? Woodshop?
- What hobbies/interests did you used to have? Rollerblading? Skiing? Baking? Amateur astronomy?
- What do you do for fun in the summer/fall/winter/spring?
- What would you do if you became independently wealthy?
- What magazines do you subscribe to? What websites do you check every day?
- Do you belong to any clubs? Book clubs? Knitting groups? Running clubs? Audubon Society? Rock climbing?
- Where do you donate money? Red Cross? Farm Sanctuary?
- Where do you go on vacation? What do you do while you’re there? Are you a Disney fan? Have you visited Harry Potter world?
- Do you work a second job when you’re not teaching? What do you do?
- What kinds of things/places are on your bucket list? Trapeze? Skydiving? Hiking Machu Picchu? Completing an Iron Man Triathlon?
- Do you take any classes or courses for fun?
- Do you have any odd little abilities? Can you make balloon animals? Do you speak Pig Latin? Are you the record holder at your arcades pinball machine? Have you ridden every rollercoaster in the United States?
Take time to mull over your unique offerings and how they might play into your classroom teaching skills. Observe your colleagues. How are they bringing their unique interests to their students?
Teaching skills: your turn!
Now we want to hear what you think.
In the comments below, tell us:
- What are some interests from your life that you bring (or plan to bring) to the classroom?
- Or. Do you have colleagues who inspire you by bringing themselves to their lessons? Give them a shout out!
- Or. Who is a teacher that inspired you by bringing themselves to the classroom? What made her so special? Why do you remember him so well?
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