In the late 1990s, one of renowned English teacher Jim Burke's students basically called him weird.
This is what they said:
It's so weird. Mr. Burke talks about reading and all this stuff like it actually matters.”
This specific kind of weird, I'll argue, is exactly what we need 1,000,000% more of in American education.
You Cannot Make a Counterculture Without Being Weird
Americans tend to approach education with one question: What's in this for me?
- When will I ever use this?
- How will this help me in the future?
- What will I need for the “real world”?
In short, we're a nation of educational utilitarians. This is the predominant culture. And so it should never surprise us when our students come to us demanding to know “when they'll ever use this,” how this relates to their desired college or career, or how this connects to the “real world.”
Our students are human beings, and human beings are influenced by culture (i.e., by prevailing beliefs and assumptions).
What Burke's student noticed, however, is that Burke embodied a counterculture — one in which reading was good because reading was good. And through Burke's clear and settled passion, the student was getting a glimpse into another cosmos, another realm — one in which a subject's value doesn't come from its utility alone.
You Can't Help Students Tap Into Purpose and Meaning Without Modeling These Things
Stanford's Bill Damon spent his career researching a troubling reality: many US high school graduates lack a strong sense of purpose. When asked at the end of his career what he wished all teachers would do to help with this, he gave a simple answer: take at least five minutes per school year to share with your students why you chose to become a teacher.
When you do things like this, you uncover your weirdness. To your listening students, it's harder to see you as just a person doing a job. Instead, you're a person living out a purpose.
Jim Burke is no exception to this. School didn't mean much to him until after he graduated high school. It was then that he discovered his loves for literature, teaching, and writing. From this place of passion, he decided to give his life's work to education. Thirty-five years later, that's just what he's done.
Picture each of his classes over those 35 years, experiencing an adult so clearly attuned with not just what he was teaching but WHY he was a teacher in the first place.
In a utilitarian culture, this is striking. This is weirdness.
Weirdness is Novel
Need one more reason to be weirder? Weirdness is novel, and novelty is one path to Value.
(Image excerpted from the Value section of The Will to Learn.)
When I created the “Rainbow of Why,” I was trying to summarize for myself all the different words I found for the Value belief across the research on human motivation. There were so many of them. For the longest time, I was stuck.
But then this image came to me of a painter's palette, with each of the Value paths represented by a different color. Conceived like this, Value cultivation becomes an artistic thing, a creative act, something playful and beautiful. Gone are the days when I thought of Value cultivation as just checklists and tactics.
And one way to play with Value in your classroom is to be the kind of weird that Jim has been throughout his career. Be a teacher that draws these kinds of remarks from your students:
It's so weird. M_. _______ talks about ________ and all this stuff like it actually matters.”Your students
Tips for Getting Weirder as an Educator
Tip 1: Work to believe in the inherent Value of your subject matter.
To be truly weird in your teaching approach, you must wholeheartedly believe in the Value of what you teach. Just as Jim Burke immersed himself in literature and embraced its profound questions, you and I must work at cultivating a deep conviction about the significance of what we teach.
We cannot emanate what we do not have.
We cannot give what we don't possess.
And so, use the Rainbow of Why to ask yourself:
- How is my subject useful?
- How is it relevant?
- How can it help my students make the world better?
- How can it make them more successful or more accepted?
- How can it empower them?
- How is it novel?
- How is it enjoyable?
- How is it meaningful?
- How is it lovely?
And don't just know these answers in your mind.
Make them part of your actual living.
Tip 2: Tell 'em.
Did you follow Tip 1? Perfect. Now, tell your students about it. Make the case for the Value of what you teach, again and again and again. Don't be wordy. Don't be pompous. Be calm and confident, asserting what you know is true.
In my book on student motivation, I call these “mini-sermons.”
(You can also see this article for a great example of one of these “mini-sermons.”)
Tip 3: Focus on becoming great at your job.
Sadly, my last tip points to a hard truth about teaching today: many of the greats have left us.
Some have retired.
Some have changed careers.
And unfortunately, we've not done well in the US at refilling our ranks. More and more of our new teachers lack training or experience. The result? Nearly all students in the US encounter novice teachers in their school days.
The good news, though, is that any one of those newer folks can take strategic steps today toward getting great at their job. Teaching is remarkably difficult work, it's true. But it's also learnable work. Despite the complexity, there are simple, robust ways for improving at it.
Rather than striving to be the best, aim to be great at what you do. Mastery of the fundamental aspects of teaching can set you apart as a truly dedicated and impactful educator. By continuously improving your core teaching skills, you'll not only excel in your role but also deepen your appreciation for the profound beauty of education.
In short: be weird
In conclusion, be a weird teacher in the way that Jim Burke has been during his decorated career. By believing in the inherent value of your subject matter, communicating that value, and continually improving your teaching skills, you can become the kind of educator who inspires students to appreciate the deep beauty and significance of learning. In a world where the conventional often dominates, being weird in this way is precisely what education needs.
Best to you, colleague,