There are a number of reasons why people won’t “get out of the box” in terms of their teaching style, or approach to education. One of the biggest ones I have seen is that they are afraid of looking silly. It’s a logical thought – if you stay with the herd, don’t make yourself stand out, you won’t look foolish. You are doing what everyone else is doing, so there is no risk of looking silly. Stick to tried and true methods and lesson plans, and you will be fine. You’re colleagues can’t judge you, and your students already expect it.
The opinion of your colleagues can be a strong factor in the choices you make, especially early in your career. With older and more experienced colleagues looking over our shoulders, we want to prove ourselves, and definitely don’t want to disappoint them. This can lead us to follow the paths they have already created, using materials handed down to us. We can then say “See, we’re doing the right thing. We’re doing what you did, so there can’t be anything wrong with it!”. But, it has to be noted that we get pressure from the other side as well. Newer, younger colleagues coming up behind us, looking to us to guide the way, make us nervous, and wanting to be sure we are doing the right thing and setting a proper example of what it is to be a teacher. Sticking to tried and true methods or lessons is a safe bet. If anyone asks any questions, all you have to say is “That’s how it is done; that’s how the people before me did it, and are doing it”. With pressure to perform “properly” coming from those who went before us, and those coming behind us, it is no wonder that so many of us choose to stay the course, rather than blazing our own trail. Choosing to go along with the norm should make us feel better, less worried. But, does it?
When I was on my teaching practicums, I worked in very traditional schools, for the most part. I felt like I had to use exactly what was given to me by experienced teachers, because they were evaluating me. Surely, the best way to get a good evaluation was to do what more experienced people had done. I did fine, but I wasn’t really happy with what I had done. I knew I was capable of more, and that made me feel stressed and dissatisfied. Sure, my supervisors and colleagues were pleased with my work, but I wasn’t. When I came to my current job, my first instinct was to go with what had been done before, to use what was given to me. But, I decided to be true to what I wanted to do as a teacher. Yes, I could have easily been seen as foolish, yes I did some things that were very silly, but everything I did I approached believing in it, and it has worked out very well. 10 years at the same school, still doing the unconventional, and my colleagues haven’t lost respect for me yet. I may be silly, but I’m no fool.
It’s not just our colleagues we fear looking silly in front of. It’s our students as well. One big fear among teachers is if our students are laughing at us, how can they respect us. If we choose to do something unconventional, and it doesn’t go well, will they laugh? Will they ridicule us? Will they think less of us? Will they judge us? I would argue no. Respect is much deeper than that. And, chances are that they’re going to judge you no matter what, so why not be judged for being different than for being old and boring and the same as everyone else.
Over the years, my students have involved me in a number of their projects, including a three-part radio play about Banbury and the zombie apocalypse. At the end of the first play, they created an “after credits scene” a-la Marvel movies, and asked me to do a Nick Fury-esque cameo, complete with eye patch. It could have been humiliating, I could have felt foolish, but I believed in what they kids were trying to achieve, and I ended up loving doing it. Being willing to be silly helped me to connect with those students. Another time, one of my younger students was feeling low, and asked me to put on the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and do the Baby Groot dance with him. Being willing to do that helped him not only to feel better that day, but to trust me and be more willing to work with me. Students need to see you being silly to know that you are human. If you can have them laugh at you, and you can laugh at yourself, it shows them that it’s ok to be out of the norm. It’s stress relief for everyone to laugh. And, most importantly, it is a way to connect with students.
We don’t want to be silly, because we don’t want to be thought a fool. But, I maintain the silly is only foolish if you don’t do it with confidence. If you feel awkward doing something silly, you probably aren’t confident in what you are doing. If you believe in what you are trying to do, and genuinely see value in it, then it shouldn’t matter if you look a bit silly.
Coming Soon: Out of the Box Part 3: Put Down the Textbook!