Happy holiday season! Santa, if you’re listening, I’d like to explain one thing that I know is on a lot of teachers’ Christmas lists–an oversized box of passion, with the batteries included. Here’s what I mean.
Schools are always trying something new. As someone who is committed to research-driven teaching methods, I do like to push myself to dive into new theories, recommendations, and strategies. But as long as schools exist, there will always be someone new coming to town to tout the Next Big Thing that will revolutionize education. And sometimes a back-to-basics approach can remind us of what’s most important.
I think we sometimes forget that the true core of teaching, the best thing about teaching, can’t ever be summed up with a buzzword or sold for a price-per-student fee, because it’s just too personal. And for content-area teachers in high schools, a big part of that is our love for our subjects. If I were to define the concept of “high school teacher” to an alien, this is what I would say: A high school teacher is a person who loves a certain discipline or skill so much that they spend their life helping young people to learn it. Good teachers know that our passion for what we teach, why we teach, and who we teach will always come first.
Am I just being sentimental here? Maybe we should look at some data. Would a study that synthesizes findings from 1,400 meta-analyses of 80,000 studies involving 300 million students be convincing enough? In the recently published Visible Learning research (Hattie, 2016) about the individual impacts of over 250 elements in education, “Teacher Credibility” was named as one of the top ten positive influences on student learning, with 0.90 effect size. That is MASSIVE! What is this magical element of teaching that can impact students so strongly for the better? Visible Learning for Literacy (Fisher, Hattie, and Frey, 2016) defines it as such: “a constellation of characteristics, including trust, competence, dynamism and immediacy.” In other words, caring teachers who know their content, demonstrate a dynamic excitement about it, and create a sense of urgency to learn it will have a profound impact on their students. If we ever doubted that, the numbers are here to remind us that good teaching relies on a personal energy that cannot be bought, nor can it be faked. It can only come from that irreplaceable, exciting feeling of passion that brings many teachers to the career. People, maybe, like me, who find themselves floored with wonder over the power of words to create beautiful moments within a flawed world. Or people who relish the truths hidden deep within the structure of mathematics, with its unwavering consistency and elegant logic. Or people who have an uncommonly deep respect for history, who understand the figures of our past as if they were intimate acquaintances.
This kind of dynamic, contagious, urgent excitement for a particular type of knowledge is what inspires students to learn. And that makes sense, right? Do you remember a teacher who loved a certain book so much that it made you read it and love it? Or maybe a science teacher who was so gosh darn excited about each and every lab that it made you curious about science in a new way? Or a social studies teacher who made you care about the events in the world because he was always sharing relevant news articles constantly? Maybe you were lucky enough to be a part of something–a discussion, a performance, a debate, or a project that was so engaging that it set you on the path to the life you now lead as an adult?
Those milestone learning experiences are part of the magic of education, and they are propelled by the incredible force within teachers who love what they teach. But that force does not always flow freely–it can get damaged when teachers are overwhelmed, when staff morale is suffering, when time is not available to tap into that passion. Depending on where we are in our lives, personal struggles with mental health or home concerns can also dim the light of the most passionate teacher. In these times of lower ebb, support from others can help. It might be a kind email from a colleague, a chance to connect with other experts in the content area, or just a genuine comment from a student or parent that says, “Hey, I see what you do, and I value it.” There is no educator resource more powerful then a simple vote of confidence to cultivate that shared excitement for learning which powers good teaching. When members of our community get excited about the same things that teachers are excited about, it creates this huge, good energy that makes our school days bright and productive.
So here’s my Christmas wish: I wish that school communities everywhere might recognize the very real (quantifiable, even!) positive impact that individual teacher passion has on student learning. Help us notice it, support it, and fuel it however we can… because an excited teacher is not only an effective one, but a happy one, too.