Saturday, January 10, 2015

Vanity isn't always such a bad thing!

Being in a teacher preparation graduate program that uses the cohort model is possibly one of the best experiences in my life. I am pretty lucky to know and work with 25 teacher candidates who are all phenomenal in so many ways. Some of the biggest advantages to the cohort model is the ability to collaborate and compare notes, and more importantly to be able to commiserate with someone who knows exactly what we are going through. (Let's be honest: Our partners, friends and families can console us to a certain degree, but there is only so much you want to put on them.)

I was talking to one of the women in my cohort about what you might call stage-fright. As part of our program, we have to tape one of the lessons we teach, and share it with the rest of the cohort, as well as have our cohort leader observe us live in a classroom. She mentioned that she was a little nervous about both of these things (not to call her out!) and it kind of surprised me. Now, I'm a pretty outgoing person, and have been comfortable in the spotlight for as long as I can remember. I was in choir, theater and almost every sport I could fit into my schedule. This is a commonality a lot of the folks in my cohort share.

Having an audience, to me, was always something that drove me to be better. Even if that audience was just me, it helped. Playing volleyball, I would review tapes of me at practice, or games that were recorded, to see what I was doing well and what I could tweak to better my game. And for many people, being able to observe yourself is almost an act of pride. It not only helps you to be able to identify how you can improve, being able to see what you did well is one of the best confidence boosters.

I believe that great teachers tend to possess some degree of vanity and showmanship. Vanity, today, is seen as a negative thing. But it really is just an adjective that is defined by being "produced as a showcase for one's own talents." Now that you've had your vocabulary lesson for the day, I'll get to my point: Teachers, to some degree, are performers. Now this isn't to say that great teachers should be vain or that their motivation for teaching is to feed that vanity. But hear me out. We teach because we have knowledge. We share that knowledge because we believe that we can help others to learn. And at the end of the day, being able to help someone learn something new feels pretty darn good.

Try and remember some of your teachers who were not necessarily your favorite growing up. It's difficult, right? Probably because they didn't make as much of an impact on you. Maybe it was because it wasn't a subject you were particularly fond of, but even in those classes, you can have teachers that inspire you in some way.

Now think back to some of your favorite teachers. What do they have in common? For me, and I'd venture to say for you too, all of these teachers kept me engaged and I wanted to stay in that classroom to listen and learn. They were always "on." They were interacting and responding with what students were saying and doing, and encouraging them to be engaged too. They listened, they were thoughtful in their responses, and, almost most importantly, they had a personality!

Gosh, 8 hours of being "on," that sounds exhausting, doesn't it? Well, after spending time co-teaching in an elementary school, I realized that, yes, it is exhausting. But so much fun, and so rewarding. As teachers, we come prepared with a script, albeit a loose framework of a script that is altered at any given moment. Improvisational skills are crucial, and listening and paying attention is necessary. We know how we want to be seen in our classroom by both our students, their parents, and our colleagues. And just like with any other profession, when we walk out the front door, we start the show.

In the words of Bob Dylan, you have to "know your song well before you start singing." For any musician, once they have performed a song or an album several times (probably several hundred times), they know it inside and out. They know it so well, that they are able to improvise and go off book and still make it sound great. Effective teachers work much in the same way. They know their craft. They can "perform" at any time because they have studied themselves, they have collaborated, and they have listened when given feedback. Performing isn't about being the center of attention or stealing the limelight. The best performers, much like the best teachers, are fantastic listeners. They aren't up in front of the classroom putting on a show, they are in the classroom with their students.

Grad school gives us the opportunity to hone those skills. We only get a year in this program to get in as much as we can. Recording yourself should not be feared, it's another tool that you can use throughout your entire career as an educator. Being observed might make you a little nervous to think about, but once you're in your classroom with your learners, they might as well not be there because there are just so many other things to focus on. And when the day is done, you get to have a conversation about your "performance." That feedback from a seasoned professional is gold.

You know your song! Listen to your students, follow your "script" when you can, improvise because you will have to, and, most importantly, have fun!