9781460225493Passion is an important yet often underused word. Don’t we want our kids to feel passionate about what they do? Too often, the reason they don’t is because they don’t see us model it. Again, remember the zeal and zest your best teachers exhibited, and how that made you feel during their class. “Why is Mr. G. jumping on that desk to make that speech?” “Why is Ms. L. running around the room” rather than staying in front of the room like most teachers?

Good teachers make the classroom a place where humor is the norm. They make a room “ours,” not just his or hers. They make it a place where everyone can safely be themselves. They make rooms where mutual respect is the norm. They make rooms where students are not afraid to try. They know it is ok to give a wrong answer, not because it will be accepted, but because it (not they) will be corrected without fanfare. It’s just normal trial and error. If at first you don’t succeed. . . .Develop more of those classrooms, and watch kids soar.

This one day, I was working with the defensive linemen on stance and start drills, the football equivalent to the most basic reading or math skill, necessary for everything else to work properly. One of my charges (I’ll call him Ray) was a big, fast kid who had been continually frustrated by players of lesser ability blocking him. On this day, one of his first with me, I kept making him do the drill over and over again, so that he would get it right each time on his own, without prodding. After having been told to do it again, after more times than he had ever been urged to do it, he turned to me and, in a frustrated voice, asked, “What do you want from me, perfection?” My answer was, “No, but what do you want from yourself? Mediocrity?” He paused a second, then went back to work. He eventually went on to be an all-league and semi-pro player at that position.

What he learned is what all students need to learn. They need to raise their bars higher. Regardless of the sets of standards “educrats” create, if we don’t get our kids to raise the standards or goals they shoot for, they will forever be mediocre. Of course, we don’t want these goals to be unobtainable, but they need to be high enough so that there is a challenge to meeting them. A by-product of these goals is that even if they aren’t reached, they have surpassed the lesser goals they, or others, may have set.

All kids can learn. All kids can achieve. Can all be A students? No. Should they be? No. As in teaching and football playing, being a successful student is based partly on talent and partly on skill development. If SAT scores are the best indicator (of the standardized tests, that is) of success rates in college, the rich, white folks in Scarsdale know that, and their culture breeds success. However, too few of the poor Hispanic and Black folks in the Bronx can overcome the overwhelming street culture of the inner city. Our question should really be, how do we develop these kids’ skills to match their talents, while fighting the influence of the street culture they are in? It’s the culture, stupid. What do we do? Do we dumb down their curriculum and teach to minimal standards? Or, do we find it within ourselves to drive them to seek “perfection,” rather than mediocrity?

Belief is contagious. Confidence is contagious. Enthusiasm is contagious. Passion is contagious. It is easy to spot a classroom where those qualities are part of the culture with the intrinsic motivation to achieve those goals. However, even with the most able and intrinsically motivated students, these classroom traits don’t magically appear. Teachers make them happen. Teachers create a classroom where those are the expected states of mind. You know it. You know which teachers’ classes you raced to because it was fun to learn there? Yes, learning can be fun. Students don’t expect it, but are damn well more motivated and happy when it is fun. It is part of a teacher’s job to make learning both serious and serious fun.

Why don’t students expect classes like that? Remember most of your teachers? No. It was true then and it is true now. If the teacher doesn’t make the class interesting, serious, and yet fun, what did your “less inhibited” classmates do, even if you grew up with well-behaved suburbanites? That’s right, they became class clowns or made their own fun.