Abc: Always Be Closing

When I went to teacher’s college, one of the assignments involved developing a metaphor for our teaching practice.  We were to develop a comparison between teaching and something else, and in doing so, we were to refine our own ideas on the profession and our ‘role as teacher.’  It was these affective activities that seemed to define the year.

The examples around the room were all suitably reflective of general ideas on education.  One of my colleagues said that teaching is like being a gardener, for teachers prepare the soil, tend to the plants with water and nourishment, and protect them from anything that will mar their development.  Another said that teaching was like being an electrician, because electricians run conduit and wires, but that the electricity, being out of their strict control and possessing its own life, is like our students’ imaginations.  A guest of the class, a grad student from the curriculum department, said that to her, it was both butterflies and bricks, since teachers need to be a mix of foundation and whimsy, of structure and flexibility.  She had prepared an Escher-esque poster to illustrate her point with the bricks of a wall flying away.

I wasn’t the best student.  I tended to see the year as a bit of a waste – my cohort of 32 had 28 master’s degrees and 10 Ph.D.s.  Some of my colleagues had just finished a term teaching university students as sessional instructors and were looking for more steady employment after missing out on tenure-track university jobs.  I saw ‘reflections’ like this as largely beside the point – and I still do.  I don’t think they helped me be a better teacher because while they did ask us to ponder some interesting questions, there were no answers more correct than others; the speculation involved generally didn’t move past the level of good dinner discussion.  As Doug Lemov points out, it didn’t help me know what to do when the students entered the room on my first day of class.

But students like I was, and am, still desire graduation so I completed the task.  In doing so I decided to go once more to the well of my contrarian’s disposition, I hope still as deep and abiding as it once was, and write something decidedly less idealistic.  I wrote that teachers are like salesmen (pardon the unreconstructed singular gender), because teachers, like salesmen, need to inspire sometimes reluctant customers, to get their attention, and metaphorically, grab them by the lapels and close the deal.  Sometimes we use humor, sometimes ferocity, and, like a good salesman, it takes a wise teacher to know the time and place for each. The best salesmen don’t let personality get in the way of a sale. As teachers, we need to be able to play the crowd, to silence the heckler as we hawk our goods – knowledge – and make our customers feel like better people for having bought in.  It is a good salesman that makes you feel happier for having spent your money; teachers can do likewise with a teenager’s more prized possession – time.

And I think the metaphor holds.  In the David Mamet movie Glengarry Glenross, based on Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer-prize winning play, Alec Baldwin, a dynamic if abusive real estate salesman, confronts a group of under-performing salesmen.  His powerful speech is as darkly comic as it comes, and while the language is spicy, we teachers would do well to heed at least some of his advice: always be closing.

Owning the Room

Despite all their myriad differences, there is one thing that nearly all teachers share: nightmares of failure in front of a class.  In some dreams, there are discipline problems, with students out of any sense of control, hurling books, or defying all authority.  In others, students are bored beyond belief by the pedantry of the dreaming teacher.  These dreams are the equivalent of showing up naked to work.  We teachers have a fear of public speaking. (Doubt me? Look at the faces of fellow staff members before they are up to speak at a staff meeting or assembly.)

There are many self-help books on public speaking, but one released recently, Own the Room, echoes some of what charter-school founder and pedagogical consultant Doug Lemov calls “getting and holding the floor” – a concept integral to successful teaching.  The authors, two former actors and a psychologist specializing in stage fright, write mostly for a business audience, and there is lots of talk about landing clients.  But there are also a few helpful meditations on what it means to interact with an audience.

The authors provide a primer on effective speech, albeit with the patina of modern business jargon. They stress the notion of authenticity (a trendy but important concept we used to call “being ourselves”); the use of narratives (what we used to call “stories”); employing novelty and surprise and wit in our speech; creating clarity and intention in our words; crafting powerful transitions between ideas; how to avoid PowerPoint pitfalls; using your authority as the speaker; and generally being memorable to the audience.

I often think that we have lost much of our ability to speak and speak well.  Teacher education tends to assume that oration is inborn, or at least learned by osmosis in the classroom.  I recall in teacher’s college not one lesson on how to hold an audience while speaking, and yet I imagine more teachers fall back on lecture than any other – including the more complicated “brain-research approved” methods advocated in those Ivory Towers.

I recall, too, what Jaques Barzun said about lecturing: that, although it was true that it can be (and often is) overused, the principal problem is most speakers aren’t doing it well.  I can remember passionate, insightful speakers vividly, but I cannot for the life of me remember nearly anything from the more popular co-operative learning strategies.  Which isn’t to say that all teaching should be lecturing; but when a speaker does it well, it can be a revelation.  We shouldn’t ignore the techniques of the most ancient form of teaching – the spoken word.