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Role Models, Motivational Speakers and Other Dangerous Things

July 4, 2012

The pleasure of Night sky viewing : Sanyam Kumar Shrivastava, MD Star astronomy club, Bhopal

Let me make something very clear to every teacher or wanna be teacher. This applies to parents, administrators and professional athletes as well. You are not a role model. Pause, and let that sink in for a minute. Don’t fight it. You are not a role model.

Did you actually pause and think?  I didn’t think so.

Thoughts like this are insidious for so many reasons. First of all, it is extremely arrogant. I’m sure you aren’t thinking about it this way but every time you think of yourself as a role model it rewires your brain a little. Before you know it you are that veteran teacher whose ass imprint is permanently carved into the faculty lounge sofa telling new teachers not to waste too much time preparing lesson plans because your students will never be able to do the work anyway. And even if you aren’t there yet, think about how you come off to your students – To say you are a role model is demeaning and insulting. It says if you work really hard, do all your homework and stay out of trouble you could be a math teacher someday too – if you’re lucky. Well if that doesn’t convince a student to join the chess club I don’t know what will. I desperately want my students to do better than me. Not that I did poorly, but you get what I mean. Everything in their lives – from the media to our politicians, to our parents and educators have sent them the message that they aren’t smart enough, wise enough, strong enough or attractive enough. But how can anyone shoot for the stars when they have never even seen them?

This leads me to my next point; nobody wants to be you anyway. You probably took that the wrong way, I’m sorry. I’m sure you are very cool. I’m just saying that most high school students still have a tiny bit of individuality left, and they can feel it slipping away as this mysterious “real world” everyone keeps referring to in math class gets closer. To push a student in any direction will only end badly.

And speaking for myself, I don’t want to be a role model. That’s more responsibility than I signed on for. I’m not Jesus I’m a math teacher. Thank god historians recently discovered that Jesus is black, because I was getting really tired of being mistaken for him whenever I don’t shave for a couple of days. I have flaws, and I like my flaws.  I let my students be my role models. That way all the pressure is on them.

And finally, you are not a motivational speaker.

Nothing can stop a young person that is truly motivated. If properly motivated any one of your students could pass any AP exam, get into any college, or get any teacher they don’t like fired. Every parent and teacher knows this. Thus the key to being a good teacher is figuring out how to motivate them, right?

If you are nodding your head right now (the up and down nod, not the side to side) than you have a problem. This is one of the biggest misconceptions in education. Teachers don’t motivate students, and that is not our job.

Letting a student write their poetry report about the lyrics to a Lil’ Wayne song might catch their interest for a few hours, but don’t expect him to come into class a few days later and recite Emily Dickenson.  It’s just not going to happen.  From your perspective you tricked him into learning about poetry.  From his perspective he tricked you into letting him get out of reading poetry.  Both of you are happy, so let’s just call it a draw, ok?

I’m not saying that the Lil’ Wayne ploy isn’t a great idea. It’s actually excellent teaching, and that kind of creativity is exactly what teachers often need to guide students to learn. I’m just saying that the chances of him falling in love with classical poetry are slim. But don’t think you didn’t have an impact. When I meet people and tell them I am a math teacher I get one response more than any other:

“Oh you’re one of those people.  No, I don’t need another drink.  Excuse me, I have to go make a phone call.”

Oops no, not that response – um… sorry, this one:

“Oh cool, I always hated math in school, but I did have this one teacher that was awesome… I wouldn’t have passed algebra without her.”

That’s a pretty great thing too.

Maybe I’m being a little harsh.  Motivation does happen.  It just can’t be forced.  When a teacher (or parent) exposes a student to something that sparks a passion it can be one of the most rewarding feelings one can have. But when a student comes into your class eager, excited and motivated to learn what stochastic analysis is all about even though they’re only in geometry, it wasn’t your passable comb over and terrible math jokes that lit the fire.

Speaking for myself – and many colleagues of mine have admitted to this as well – somewhere along the line I started to think that it was my job; to help each student find that passion for mathematics (or whatever subject you teach). It was like playing golf. You hit a few great shots your first time and it feels amazing. Even the veterans around you are impressed but you have no clue how you actually did it. You start to think “hey, I must be a natural!” So you become obsessed; buying the best clubs, subscribing to magazines, and talking endlessly about golf with anyone who is nice enough not to ask you to shut up. You go out to play again equipped with every tip, trick and gadget in the book – and you shoot the worst round of your life.  That miracle first round eagle doesn’t happen again. Sure you’re finishing most of the holes, but it starts to feel unsatisfying and you start to hate the sport. And right after you paid the $200 application fee to get your real estate license – birdie. And you get rejuvenated all over again. And the cycle repeats.

Do you eventually start making birdies more often? Absolutely. Do you start doing real estate on the side so you can afford to send your kids to private school? Of course. But should we expect a birdie every hole? For the average human being, shooting par is pretty damn good.* When birdies become the expectation it’s time to quit while you’re ahead.

Ok Wilson, what’s the point?

I am not going to tell any other teacher, parent, mentor, or 1990’s sitcom father giving advice to his daughter at the end of an episode what to do but I will tell you what I am going to do.  I’m going to stop trying so hard.   I am my best when I stop thinking so much and just have fun.  Kids don’t need to be told to be themselves, they need to live in a world surrounded by adults who aren’t afraid to be themselves.

The human race has evolved a sixth sense which has been fully manifested in every child being born now, and that is the ability to detect bullshit a mile away.  The old ways of protecting them from the dangers of the world just aren’t going to work anymore.   I’m not arguing the validity of more traditional methods – just the feasibility.  Information is as easily accessible as sharp objects, household chemicals and light sockets.  The more you pretend they don’t exist the more curious they will become.  And any time you lie to them – regardless of your good intentions – you can be sure they will be on Google the moment you turn your head.

If you really want your child or student to shoot for the stars the answer is extremely simple.

You just have to be willing to let them go play in the dark.

*  I feel compelled – in hopes of minimizing angry comments from non-golfers –  to note that par has a different connotation in golf  than it does in our vernacular;  shooting par in a round is an unfulfilled dream of millions of golfers everywhere.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Linda Wolfe permalink
    July 5, 2012 12:07 am

    And yet the paradox is that your “not a role model” stance makes you a wonderful role model for this highly evolved group. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. It’s confidence-inspiring for the future of our children under the guidance and influence of teachers like yourself.

  2. July 5, 2012 4:56 pm

    Good analysis. Too bad you profess to be on the “Other Side.” Perhaps we should try walking in each others shoes for a while.

    • July 5, 2012 5:18 pm

      Please don’t confuse leaning in one direction with standing with my feet firmly planted on that side. I have a deep respect for all views and opinions so long as they are founded on love and respect, not hatred and fear. It really amazes me how often people argue without realizing that they are essentially saying the same thing from a slightly different perspective – which is why my car radio and television are more often tuned to conservative stations than liberal ones. I don’t need to be reminded what I believe, I need to be reminded what others believe and have my beliefs challenged on a regular basis. Which is why I appreciate your blog.

      • July 5, 2012 5:24 pm

        Could that be because we don’t really listen as well as we should?

        • July 5, 2012 5:46 pm

          Certainly that is part of the problem but I don’t like to look at it that way because it implies that we have become a society of fundamentally ‘bad’ people that only care about ourselves, and that just is not true. I always try to ask myself why a person isn’t listening – there is always a reason beyond selfishness and hatred. I believe that the true problem is a lack of faith – in ourselves, our neighbors and whatever higher power and truth each of us believes in.

  3. July 7, 2012 11:13 pm

    Being a role model is about how to behave and act, not what to become.

    Motivation can be divined or, in your words – forced – out of ANY student well before it would have happened on their own. That’s called good teaching – reading the research, using appropriate strategies, assessing for learning. (Not the greatest blog material, I know).

    Snarky blog writing isn’t really necessary to be a successful teacher.

    • July 8, 2012 12:00 am

      When teaching I reduce my snarkiness to a mild sass.

      With respect to your comment on motivation, I think we may be defining our terms a bit differently. All human beings are naturally motivated to learn and grow, but as we get older the world tends to stifle that motivation (not intentionally most of the time). Fear tends to take precedence over curiosity. Good teaching is not about creating motivation – it is about helping students find the motivation that has been lost along the way and making sure it stays strong.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, even teachers need to be assessed for learning.

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