Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Teachers Have Style Too!

Something has been nagging me for a few months, specifically since returning from the ASCD conference in Chicago this past March. I’d tell you the whole story of what caused me to pause and reflect, but I’d probably be banned from presenting again. It’s not really something one should share on a public forum like a blog. On the other hand, I likely won’t have the funds to travel there anyway this year, so what the heck, right? Also at this point, I’d feel a little guilty about leading you on only to let you down. Perhaps what we could do is have you email me, and if you email me (off the record), we can have a private exchange (encrypted of course). Sound good?

I’m sure if you’ve made it this far into the post (thank you), you might be feeling a little cheated by that proposition, but I’m here to share that that, my friends, is the “taboo hook”, a presentation hook shared with me when I attended the ASCD session of Dave Burgess, a.k.a. “Teach Like a Pirate” original pirate, author, and presenter. The taboo hook is intended to snag learners, drawing them into the content or experience by making them believe it is forbidden. Essentially, you are sharing a secret...and because it is a secret, it is by nature juicy, forbidden--and highly desirable.

I met Dave the night before my 8 AM presentation when I realized I had forgotten my dongle, an essential tool for presenting. With no hope of hitting an Apple store at 11:30 PM, I frantically tweeted out an S.O.S. and Dave, being the true kind pirate he is, offered up his booty and even attended my session. Of course I wanted to support him, but even more, I wanted to know what “Teach Like a Pirate” meant, so later that afternoon, I found myself sneaking past the “session full” sign into a standing-room only “Pirate” presentation. What Dave did during his presentation was essentially turn teaching into performance art. He went through the ABCs of Pirating a class’s attention--Passion, Immersion, Rapport, Ask & Analyze, Transformation & Enthusiasm--and then he shared some “stand and deliver” style hooks. As a one-time rebel, the taboo one was my favorite.

When I left his presentation, however, I was stumped. Surely, I had just witnessed great teaching. On the other hand, all I did was stand, listen, and watch. I didn’t engage in a problem-solving initiative, collaborate, discuss, or do any hands-on learning. BUT...I learned! What Dave did for me in that session was not just share information which stuck but also inspire me to learn more about how to “teach like a pirate”.

As I learned more, though, I wasn’t sure I was cut out to be a pirate. I find that the best learning in my class takes place when I’m not presenting, or at least through a combination of teacher-centered discussion and student-centered experiences. I’m also not a great performer. I have terrible timing in my delivery, I’m not funny, and I don’t come across as particularly rebellious. If I tried to be a pirate, I believe my students would force me to walk the plank until the real Mrs. D returned.

This has had me pondering teacher style and whether we are allowing for each teacher to rock his or her best in the class or whether we are forcing all teachers to believe there is one “best” style of teaching. We all see how students thrive when allowed to play in their style of learning, so why wouldn’t the same logic apply to teacher presentation style?

Recently, Edutopia shared via Facebook a post by Principal Ben Johnson entitled “Great Teachers Don’t Teach”. In it, Johnson proposed that “great teachers engineer learning experiences that maneuver the students into the driver’s seat and then the teachers get out of the way.” As an educator whose style is aligned with this sentiment, I read it and said, “Yes, I completely agree!” Then, however, I thought of Dave, and I thought back to my own high school experiences and whom I would consider my best teacher, Mr. Craft.

Mr. Craft was charged with teaching us either honors World History or U. S. History, I really can’t recall, because all he did teach us conspiracy theory, and particularly the history and conspiracies surrounding the Kennedy family. As a teacher, I would argue that by the book, Mr. Craft was a terrible teacher. We did not learn the prescribed curriculum, we never engaged in collaboration, formal assessment, project-based learning, hands-on learning, writing across the curriculum, experiential learning. In fact, I would say we only ever engaged in auditory learning and discussion through debate. But Mr. Craft did something no other teacher in my K-12 educational experience did...he captivated my curiosity completely and inspired me to learn outside his class. I did all of my projects for every class that year on something Kennedy related (even my physics project), and my friend Ryan and I were the only people under forty when the JFK and Ruby movies premiered as we finished high school.

Mr. Craft was a great teacher because he was great at how he taught. He could not have been any other style of teacher--when he tried, he failed miserably and we were similarly miserable. When I shared Edutopia’s link and asked my Facebook friends to reflect on what made their “best teachers” great, they all made very different points. Not surprisingly, one of my friends also cited Mr. Craft.

Maybe there is room for differentiated style in teaching and a place for balance in the classroom. Instead of measuring a teacher’s presentation method against today’s “best practices”, perhaps we should be measuring it against student indicators of best learning. And, to be clear, by best learning, I don’t mean standardized assessment. Like many things in life, the best learning can be measured in the love it produces, the spark it ignites, the relevant connections it builds. I would argue that great teaching happens not when a particular method of teaching is employed but rather when great learning is achieved.


  1. I take teaching as a Pirate differently. I think Dave means that you need to have- Passion, Immersion, Rapport, Ask & Analyze, Transformation & Enthusiasm, to Teach, but however you get there is up to you. Just like anything else, you can't emulate someone else’s style, you have to be comfortable in the way you do it.

  2. Thanks Bruce, I agree. I do see how we can apply the principles within our own styles. They are clearly universal.