Do You Have to Be Entertaining to Be Popular?

The following link will prove that if you scare enough students over enough years, you will wind up with your picture on the Internet:


I think one of the most detrimental myths of teaching is that a person has to be funny or easy or entertaining to be popular with students. I think this idea has ruined a lot of good teachers. I cannot even estimate how many teachers have told me over the past 42 years “if I try to hold the line and make the students work, they will dislike me and kill me on the student evaluations. Students only want teachers who make them laugh and give them A’s.”

Students only want teachers who make them laugh and give them A’s. If that line is true, the future of education is truly bleak.

Often, I believe that line is merely a scapegoat – not always, but often. What I think those folks are really saying is “whether it is true or not, the students believe that I am giving them busy work in this class with little value and they resent it.”

At times on this blog over the past few months, I have shared (and chatted about) several of my favorite teaching quotations. They have all influenced my teaching significantly over the years.

The quote for today has had an enormous impact on my teaching career. I cannot emphasize enough how important these few words have been to me over the years—almost every single day. However, I’ve resisted including this quotation before now for two good reasons. First, I’m not sure who said it. Second, I’m not sure exactly what the person said. But, I firmly believe the basic truth of what is said here and that belief has really led me to teach the way I do.

As I remember it, probably 35-40 years ago I was reading a story about a successful football coach. I have always thought it was Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers but I cannot be sure of that. In the story, according to my memory, the coach says something like “There is something in every person that wants to be pushed to be great.”

Every person wants to be pushed to be great.

I may not know for sure who said it or even the exact words that were said but I certainly believe the sentiment. As far as I can see, almost every person needs (and wants) some amount of external motivation to push them to reach their true potential. They want to feel good about themselves but they need some help.

--Why do we hire personal trainers to tell us what physical exercises to do when we already know what we should do?
--Why do we pay teachers when we could simply read books?
--Why do we pay preachers when we do know the difference between right and wrong?

We need (actually, I think we crave) external motivation that will push us to use our talents wisely and make something great of ourselves.

--I don’t think it is an accident that the US Army slogan for many years was “Be All You Can Be.” That appeals to people.
--I don’t think it is an accident that most successful coaches in sports seem to have a drill sergeant type of philosophy. If there is a clear and desired goal, people react well to being pushed and pushed hard.

Almost everyone, I believe, wants to be great but some external motivation is usually needed. As the Bible says so well: “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

I think the key is having that clear goal that says “here’s what you need to do to be great and I’m going to push you to make it happen.” Always remember: No one needs external motivation to be average.

So, if you are going to push people to work hard in your classes, you have to convince them that this effort has a genuine payback. They must believe they will become better in some way. Making a certain letter grade is not really much motivation for many people.

My own experience is that if you explain to students why you want them to do a certain amount of work (assuming the amount is fair as well as challenging) and what the benefit to them will be, they will usually surprise you with their efforts. They will not resent you. In fact, they will appreciate you. Okay, not every day but most days, people are willing to put out a real effort if they see the benefit clearly.

What’s the point of all of this? Here are some questions to consider if you want to become a better teacher. Be honest – skip the PR and do an honest self-evaluation.

--What is your goal for your students? On the last day of class, what do you really want to see?
--Is what you are asking the students to do actually going to get them to that goal?
--Do your students understand what your goal is?
--Do your students believe your goal is worth their effort?
--Are your students able to connect the work you are requiring at the moment with that goal?

It is not about being funny or easy. It’s about pushing people to be great and making sure they understand what you are asking them to do and why.

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