How to get that “Best Lesson Ever” Feeling

How to describe this feeling is almost impossible, but I’m going to do my best.

Most days of teaching aren’t amazing.

Teaching days are stressful, tiring, and, for some reason, you are always just so sweaty.

But, then, there’s that one day, that single day, that makes all of the dreary, clammy days melt away. You feel invincible – so invincible that you are excited to wake up and come into work the next day.

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It’s the day of The Lesson that you didn’t really plan to be the most amazing lesson, it just became one. Whether the planets were aligned, or the universe was shrinking, or the teaching gods looked upon you in favor, that day was the day that your lesson killed. It’s those days that you wish the admin had walked in, because you know that this is a rare occasion. This occasion when every student was engaged, and excited about what you had to say. Students who you thought hated you, were laughing at your jokes, and that kid that usually asks stupid questions, asked a question that was actually not that bad. It’s the lesson when students rose their hands to ask questions and rather than ask to go to the bathroom.

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These are the days that make teaching special.

I’m a history teacher, and in college, my honors thesis was based on 19th century social history in Europe. I really love history, but here’s a secret, ahem…

Teenagers don’t care.

The first thing you have to let go of the minute you walk into the classroom, is the idea that everyone cares about your deep expertise on your topic. You have standards to teach and some of those standards have nothing to do with your expertise. Get over it. When you become more seasoned and have tenure, sure, sit back and go deep, but for now, you need to set up a structure for yourself. More importantly, your students can’t go deep, yet. They need the foundations and if you get too detailed and nuanced, you’ll lose them, and then you’ll get frustrated and resent your students for “not caring.” It’s not that they don’t care about you…but like, they just don’t care. Remember: you’re not the only adult in your student’s life. They have up to seven other teachers and coaches in their life asking a lot from them. You are not special enough to dictate that your students HAVE to know all of the details of 19th century French politics in the year 1803.

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I realized this pretty early on, so I began to spend less time on time periods that I loved, and moved on in the name of the California State Standards. And I was so sad. I felt like I was giving up my mind and my love for my subject for the sake of some kids who don’t care about history.

And then I got to the topic of World War I. I had never studied World War I. Not even in high school. In a world of World War II sensationalism, I never considered World War I a purposeful time in history. Also, I’m not a military historian. It’s actually my least favorite type of history. But, I had to teach it anyway.

So, in typical new teacher fashion, I read up on the topic in the textbook the night before and slapped a lesson together on a worksheet and some Google Slides and ran into the classroom with bags under my eyes.

But, something happened that day. As I began teaching, my brain started to put the puzzle pieces of this event together in a way that connected everything that my students were learning up to this point into a pretty, little bundle of global conflict. War, guns, blood, disease, heartbreak, disillusionment, art, genocide; the world was no longer a set  of isolated countries, they’re now interconnected in a beautiful, tangled mess. What’s not to love?

For 50 minutes, I taught an entire lesson with no PBL, no powerpoint, no worksheets, no Cloze reading. I just talked and discussed and answered questions – with the occasional diagram drawn on the whiteboard.

And I felt high as a kite after that lesson.

Then I taught it again to another period – and the same thing happened. Every student was engaged, with mouths dropped wide. And I had that feeling once again.

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And every year, I teach this same lesson, and the same thing happens.

Three different schools. Public and private. Boys and girls. And I always have the same response from my students coupled with the same feeling of invincibility.

Every year, in my reflection notes, I try to discern why this happens. What’s so different about this lesson? I’ve tried just lecturing on other topics before – and I fail miserably – kids get bored and antsy. Is it because it’s a modern war – something a little different than what we’ve been learning? Maybe, but I’ve talked about wars before and I don’t have this reaction. Is it because I always teach it at the time of year when the 10th grade brain starts to develop to the point of maturity? Perhaps.

It’s probably a culmination of things, but one thing that is consistent, is my intoxicating passion for the subject matter.

Here, a subject that I had no interest in, yet I was able to find it’s value and create a narrative world for my students that appeals to them as humans, rather than me just checking off the standards to get through the year.

It is simple to get that kinda feeling, and it doesn’t have to be reserved for just “one lesson” out of the year. This feeling can exist for all of our lessons.  Whether you’re feeling a little burned out or you just need a reminder that things will get better, I hope these suggestions will help guide you to your own kinda of feeling.

Build a Relationship with your Students

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I remember when I first started teaching, everyone told me, “Don’t smile until Christmas,” as if it were a well-known gesture to scare your students into respecting you.

I am not a good disciplinarian, I will be the first to tell you that. I am at times, too nurturing and compassionate, and something I’ve learned working at an all-boys school, kids take advantage of you when you’re nice and often see it as a weakness. I have my own demons that I’m working with, but something I swear by, is building a relationship with students that IS compassionate and nurturing because it allows you to create a unique culture surrounding your lessons.

This comes in handy when you’re trying to get that “best lesson ever” feeling because when you switch things up – in my case, it was lecturing instead of facilitating – students pay attention. They think something special is happening. I rarely lecture, and I think the students get tired when I’m constantly putting them into groups and assign projects. Every once in a while, story time is okay.

When you have a good relationship with your students and you’ve earned their trust, they are more willing and capable of switching their routine. Breaks in routines often mean something special, therefore they feel an obligation to stay engaged because they think you’ve made the conscious decision to change things up to makes things unique. Regardless if you’re conscious of this change in the routine or not, how your students respond to change is a testament to your teaching ability and how much your students respect you.

Be Okay with Going Off-Script

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Sometimes, your lesson wants to go where it wants to go, and that’s okay. This doesn’t mean get off-track, this just means embrace the lesson as it’s own unique living thing that needs to evolve with your students.

My best lessons are lessons that go off into branches of rigorous discussion and debate with my students. I never let those branches grow too long, I let them go just far enough to which they can still be considered “part of the standards.” When students start taking the lesson and owning it’s information, the lesson becomes something far beyond what you wrote down while planning. The lesson is no longer “your lesson,” it is the students’ lesson and that’s the whole point of this teaching gig.

Anticipate Where the Conversation Might Go and Have Resources Ready to Foster the Growth of that Conversation

This is kind of difficult to accomplish, but if you’ve made a lesson, you should have all of the links that you used to make the lesson in your lesson plan. Have these links open in your browser before class, and just be ready to navigate. Students are going to ask questions about maps, people, places, how-tos, videos, and if you have them up already, it 1) helps with your organization of the class, 2) shows the students that you know what’s going on, 3) models good research behavior, and 4) shows the students that you really care about this topic.

Let them Know You LOVE this

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When a student feels like you like being there with them everyday, they’re going to feel more comfortable learning. Students come from a variety of backgrounds and home lives, and sometimes being able to see that their teacher likes being in school, models that being in school can be fun and exciting. Modeling that you care, allows the student to relax and embrace having fun in school.

When you have a lesson that you are genuinely passionate about, the students enjoy seeing you nerd out. Think about it: have you ever gone a concert for a band that you don’t really like, but you ended up enjoying it anyway because everyone around you was having fun? Have you ever not wanted to go out with your friends, but then you end up having a good time anyhow because everyone around you was having a good time? Happiness is contagious, passion is contagious, and love is contagious. When you have these things present in your lessons, your students pick up on it; they’re the most intuitive community I’ve ever encountered.

Happiness is contagious, passion is contagious, and love is contagious.

One Last Thing

Many might say that it is obvious to put passion into your lessons, but in practice is can be so hard to do. Especially with so many pressures coming from districts, admins, students, the CollegeBoard, State testing, etc. Sometimes our passion for the lesson falls short because we are rushing to finish the curriculum. You’re not going to find the excitement in every lesson you teach, but over time, you’ll collect that excitement in a variety of lessons and that one day with The Lesson, will turn into many days with The Many Lessons.

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