Saturday, April 25, 2009

Passion is a Two Way Street

I've been reading a few blogs lately that have been bringing up the value and necessity for teaching with passion. I'd suggest Jarrod Lamshed's most recent blog Finding the Passion as one of the better examples. I realized that after teaching for thirty years, I'm still jumping out of bed a 4:45 AM, even on cold, gray rainy days when my limbic system is yelling "what are you doing?", ready to get going. This caused me to introspectfully examine the many things I have learned about what works when teaching and what is still providing the kindling that keeps that fire in my belly going.

I have taught the same biology class for three decades now, at different levels perhaps, but always the same content. Every day, usually two days in a row because of alternate day block scheduling, it's the exact same lesson, and yet I still find the gusto for that last class that I had for the 1st. The adrenaline still kicks in, and I rarely get that "Oh my God, here we go again" feeling that quenches my inner flame. Yes, at the end of the day I am spent, I collapse in my office chair with a big heavy sigh, and I still relish the thought of coming back for more. I love my summer breaks, but I get antsy and ready for more before August even starts. After reading Jarrod's latest writings I asked myself, what is this all about, and can I share this with others?

Learning is all about establishing neural pathways that our students can call up and use when they need to. These pathways are often fleeting, we start classes & conference with jokes that are rarely remembered. The joke makes a connection, but only a superficial one. The lessons that last have connections at a deeper, visceral level. Our minds make connections that are strongest when bonded with an emotion. Strong visual images and heart-felt stories from our past make much deeper and better-remembered connections. But even with these amygdala-fused bonds between a lesson and an emotion, true learning creates great amounts of cognitive dissonance. This dissonance arises when what we have constructed in our minds is rebuilt, even torn down completely, to make room for new constructs. Cognitive dissonance is difficult, it causes us to doubt ourselves, and creates anxiety and confusion and frustration. It creates roadblocks to accomplishing our learning goals. Even worse, all this learning is not gradual. Instead of slowly building each day, it's punctuated; coming in sudden rushes as the scrambled pieces of our shattered constructs suddenly jig saw back into a new pattern.

So how do we get students and teachers to learn new things when it is so, so difficult? How do get our students to do this when they lack the experience that helps them realize how vital learning new things are? How do we get teachers to learn something new after a lifetime of education has probably jaded them and made them weary? Where will the energy for all this come from? Here's where passion links in. It's the teacher instructing the lesson that links the new concept to an emotion deep within us. Combine that with the response back to that teacher who has their own visceral connection, and we all get through that tough time of the student's frustrated attempts to grasp a new concept, and to the teaching of these new ideas to frustrated students as well. We then have a strong, deep pathway in our brains that will get us through the struggle that leads to that punctuated and energized "ah-hah" moment. By connecting the lesson with an emotion, neural pathways are made that run deep for both the teacher and the student, and thus we generate the desire to continue on for teaching and for learning. This is the energy that lights us up, that drives us to learn the new, difficult things, despite the anxiety that it incurs. These deep visceral bonds provides us all with the mental scaffolding that will stand us up as what lies beneath is reshaped, reconstructed and reborn.

My latest realization is that the energy I get for all of this is not only from within. Yes, I am passionate about science and its past and its possibilities. I draw on this many times as I do my lessons, but it is not enough to sustain me through a long week, a longer quarter and a seemingly endless school year. I get this energy from my students. As I help them make visceral connections to their own lives and my teachings, I make those same connections within myself. Leonard said
in his afforementioned blog, "I realise that we have a crowded curriculum and I am not saying that this is something we need to find extra time for." Well, I am saying that we must find the time, and that this is a vital part of any curriculum. If you don't find the time for each of your students to conect their passion with yours, then you will never accomplish conveying the rest of that crowded curriculum. You may cover it, you may go through all the lectures and all the labs, but your students won't be learning it. As the year grinds on your students will founder and become restless and you will feel drained as the energy of true learning is first dampened and then finally diassappears.

I can hear you saying, "He must be joking, I have 180 students and standards to teach to each one. I have no time for this." Well, it's not a joke, it is a mission. It's not one you have to complete the first week or the first month. In fact, it's infectious. As you slowly find and connect your fire with some of your students, it spreads to those who you haven't yet conversed with. They will talk with other students who will see the connections being made and they will start to ignite as well. If you are vitalized and your students are burning within, then there will be the desire to do true learning; to withstand the confusion and frustration of a changing construct. They will have that mental scaffolding in place, built by your taking the time to help them form it. It a far cry from the alternative where we lecture on through the year and the students slowly tune us out, conversing and texting to others about what they do feel passionate about. Sure, you may not have time for all this "touchy-feely" stuff, and your students will reciprocate and probably not make the time for you.

And yes,
they will come up to you and talk with you at the end of class about what their lives are about and what is important to them. When this happens there are two choices any teacher can make. Wait with impatience, hoping the conversation ends soon so you can go on to that seemingly all-important preparation for the next class; smile and nod and say "Uh huh, uh huh," hoping this kid's story ends quickly. Or you can realize what is truly important and seize that moment; see what your student is passionate about and create the two way path that will nuture you both. You will be vitalized, your students will be connected and your next class will benefit as well. Passion is a two way street, and we must take the time to bridge every gap between what we teach and what the students are learning with emotion. Emotion is not a weakness, it's is not for wishy/washy teachers, as Sean Nash (The Synapse is his wonderful Ning site) shared with me in a recent Twittering. We must teach with passion and reap the passionate energy that is generated by our students. I hope you all can go on to teach for 30 years, I know I'm still looking forward to my next decade.


  1. The connections that we build with our students are so important and I really like the way you've described it. When we connect with out students, and they with us, it is easier to make our lessons more relevant to them. It is easier for each of us to listen to each other and to be respectful. It's one way to banish the 'Monkeysphere' or 'us and them' mentality and become a community of learners.

  2. Absolutely. T'was funny stuff when we did the "color of emotion" test the second day of school a couple of years back, and... one of my wrestlers (also a football player) fired off from the "blue corner" of the room:

    "i'm emotional??? what? this is friggin' stupid! this test doesn't make any sense at all!! wow... no WAY am i 'blue'!!!"

    The entire class laughed together.


  3. I really think tapping into your own passion is the trick to good teaching. You just think of the craziest, most relevant, most fun thing you can do, and then bring it to life.

    I'm linking to your blog, BTW.

  4. Wow...a very inspiring blog. Come to think of it I see you abiding by its points every day and that's why the whole student body loves you.

  5. Very well said. Although I am a "retired" biology teacher, I remember that my best teaching experiences were those that were not planned - they happened when something touched a memory or caused a student to share. While discussing conditioned reflexes with a class, a student decided to share his fear of white lab coats that science teachers occasionally wear. His reason related to his experience with with chemotherapy a year before. I am sure the student present will never forget the class.

  6. Absolutely! I hardly can sleep the first night of the first day back to school with students--summer vacation, winter break, etc. Sometimes I am the only one jumping around, excited to be doing science and I will plead even demand for them to get out their seats and move! Once they do, their own excitement grows and I can do this every day for years!