Sunday, September 14, 2014

Make some noise and make a difference

I hate a quiet classroom. I love laughter and noise.

I think if I had a dollar for every time a colleague shut my classroom door, I could retire by now. Early on in my career, I understand the noise wasn’t always positive. When you first start teaching teenagers, it’s going to be a little rowdy. If I ended class early, they’d talk “too loudly” some would say. One colleague, a friend I still admire, even moved classrooms to get away from me, I’m convinced. My classes were pretty rowdy. There were moments when I humorously screamed to get their attention, threw chairs across the room, or even jumped on desks. Face to face teaching, I believe, requires a performance.

A few years later, I sat down to talk with my high school principal about a variety of topics. One was noise.

“Don’t you think some of our classrooms are too quiet?” I asked.

“Way too quiet,” he said.

I knew I liked him. If all we are doing as teachers is forcing kids to shut up, read, write, take this test, be quiet and listen to my lecture, etc, then students could learn everything they need online. They don’t need a classroom full of other students; they need somewhere where they can sit quietly and be undisturbed and do their work.

How boring.

Students should share ideas, speak freely, even engage in the occasional heated debate. And they should be laughing because real teaching and learning should bring joy, and laughter is a consequence of joy.

Last week, a college colleague very politely stuck his head in and asked if he could shut my door. “Of course,” I said. I typically do shut my door, but we have a new security system at the college, and all doors are now locked when shut. So if I’m missing a few students, I tend to keep the door open in case they are running late.

I smiled when I was asked to the shut the door though. You see, my students were laughing too loudly. That thought made me smile even more.

Sure, I have some classes that look like they are in misery. I call them out for that. “Don’t you think learning should be a joy? If you’re enjoying what you are learning, let me see it on your face. If you’re not enjoying it, I’ll keep working harder, but sooner or later you’ll need some serious self-reflection as to why you are in college. This could be the best time of your life, but only if you make it so.”

I’ll take a rowdy class over a quiet class any day. You see, I can take the energy from those rowdy students and redirect it into class discussion and activity. And when that’s done right, there are no better days in the classroom. But for those who lack energy, it’s so much harder to create it. I’ve thought of bringing espresso shots to class, but I don’t make that much money.

When I first started teaching college, I worried if I’d have the same effect on adults. I’m not trying to say I’m great; I’m saying I have a lot of fun doing what I do. But I do want to be great. Many of my college students are only a few months older than some of my previous high school kids were. There’s not a lot of difference between a senior in high school and a freshman in college. But in college, we do get a variety of ages and students in our class.

My first college class: I had a woman who didn’t smile much. She became my challenge. So many of my students in that class laughed and participated, but she was a quiet one who only listened. She was older than me, African-American, and Muslim. She couldn’t have been more different than most students I had worked with in the past. She taught me something important though: some people do prefer to listen than speak, and that’s ok. After all, listening is a prerequisite for understanding, and as teachers, we must recognize that our students will have a variety of personalities as well as learning styles. She was quiet, and that was ok; I still had a dozen other students laughing and sharing thoughts throughout each lesson. But she bothered me, for in the back of my mind I was worried that she was not enjoying the lessons.

And the end of the semester, at the end of my very first college class, this older woman came up to speak to me privately. She said something I cherish and always will, and she shattered my fears that I wasn’t getting through to her.

“Don’t ever change. Don’t ever let the system change you. Don’t ever get burned out. You are the best teacher I have ever had,” she told me and shook my hand on the last day of our class.

Now I was speechless. Here’s this woman who I worried was not enjoying my class. This quiet soul who listened and rarely spoke unless forced. But the few words she volunteered on her own were some of the nicest words anyone has told me.

If you are out there—and let’s face it, how many older African-American Muslim students have I had? (a few, actually)—and you ever stumble across this blog, thank you. Thank you deeply for giving me confidence that I could teach successfully at the college level to any audience.

So teacher-friends and friends of learning, what were your favorite classroom experiences? Favorite teachers? I’d love to hear your stories too.

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