The Unintentional Lesson

Churchill- fools” The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes.”

This quote, often attributed to Winston Churchill, but probably dating back to Horace, sums up my most recent inservice experience. I do feel compelled to note that being right by mistake is nothing to get excited about; I don’t think Winnie over there would have been excited to meet the particular person who brought to mind this quote today. I would, however, have enjoyed witnessing such a meeting.

Picture this: An enthusiastic speaker presenting information with colorful visual aids in the front of the room. In the back sits someone slumped down in her chair, arms crossed, a sullen look on her face. If you’re a teacher, you probably recognize this from some of your classes and thinking, “I know that student.” But that was no surly student resisting instruction in the back of a classroom—that was a teacher.

In fact, I just described myself as I sat though the beginning of the year inservice for the 2016-17 school year. My bad attitude could have given the most unmotivated students’ a run for their money. I was the epitome of an unmotivated student; I played on my phone: I talked to my seat mates; I took unnecessary bathroom breaks. I will admit that the cutesy title of the program disinclined me to take it seriously. I did, however, look over the materials—which was a mistake if I was looking to motivate myself.

baby-309200_1280The handouts were covered with cute cartoons that confirmed my worst premonitions: We would not be treated like adults. In fact, I felt more like a puppy that had just learned not to pee in the house during that inservice. She kept telling us how great we were when we responded to a question. She literally drowned us with praise. I saw eyes roll all over that room at her obviously forced praise.

Don’t Talk Down to Me!

I sat there resenting the fact that I needed time to prepare lessons, create classroom materials, work on lesson plans… basically do anything but sit and listen to someone tell me things I already knew. Busy_desk.svgIn truth, the inservice training itself was useless. A room full of mostly veteran teachers in a high-performing district were told that we needed to engage our students. Duh. We were supposed to find an “Ah ha” moment when she told us that students learn best when they feel safe. Again, this is no epiphany. I was actually insulted by how the presenter “dumbed down” that particular information, refusing to actually reference Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, while at the same time ironically telling us to “have high expectations.” We were told to help engage memory with kinetic activities, although the presenter seemed to believe a “big word” like kinetic might somehow threaten us, so she just had us wiggle or fingers. (I didn’t.)

While everything the presenter said was basically true, no professional teacher should need to hear it. If anyone in that room needed to hear it, I call into question the teacher preparation program that sent such a teacher out into the classroom. I can see the value of the information for perhaps parents wishing to homeschool or people starting tutoring programs. Not trained professional teachers.

stickman-310590_1280Most egregiously, her closing consisted of a sample vocabulary lesson in which she, herself, demonstrated–through unintentional irony–the importance of knowing your material. One of the words the presenter used was ideopathy. She explained this word as “something unknown.” This is fine; however, in attempting to “connect with her students,” she proved that she, herself, did not actually understand the word. She went on to note that patients on the show House went to see him to have their ideopathies diagnosed. Well, idiopathic actually means not connected to anything, so I for example have primary idiopathic tremors. I have tremors, but they are not connected to anything; no one knows what causes them; they are not connected to anything. Other than telling me I have tremors, doctors can tell me nothing because the condition is idiopathic.  She also used the word “plethora” in an example sentence with the phrase “plethora of many…” This incorrect syntax for the word and is redundant as the word plethora itself contains many. She made the exact same error that my students make: She thought that because she had looked up a word in the dictionary, she could use it.

So what did I learn?

I learned to empathize with my students. I may find the historical background for Animal Farm riveting; I may have a killer PowerPoint to go with it, but that does not mean that my students will find it relevant. Maybe some of my students are less-than-enthralled by my compelling lessons on participles. Maybe they’re all sitting there thinking of more useful ways they could be using their time. Really. I am actually scaling back the more esoteric grammar lessons for more practical writing as a direct result of this experience.

questionDon’t fake it. If you don’t know something, don’t try to convince a group of people that you do. Man up and admit your weaknesses. Some of the truest moments in my classroom have come when a student asks a question I cannot answer. I feel that I gain more respect by responding, “I don’t know. I’ll try to find out” than I do by dazzling them with my encyclopedic knowledge of verb tenses. In those moments, they realize that I don’t lie to them or try to be something that I’m not. I’ve seen students who have been tuned out start paying attention to the suddenly real person in front of them.

Although I have long believed that students have outstanding BS detectors, being on the receiving end reminded me not to dish out false praise. Sincerity is important.  I really do try to challenge my students, and I refuse to talk down to them. I have seen how proud they are of their genuine accomplishments when they conquer a difficult assignment and I say, “You did great work on this! Congratulations!”


And before you ask, no, I won’t tell you the name of the presentation or the presenter, but I will say she’s no fan of worksheets unless you call them graphic organizers.

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