The Power of a Teacher Pep Talk

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Dead Poets SocietyFreedom WritersStand and Deliver. Chances are good that if you’re a teacher, you’ve seen at least one of these movies and had one of two reactions. You were likely either stirred and inspired by the teacher protagonist in the film who seemed to achieve the impossible in their fictionalized classroom, or you were frustrated by the impossible standards for teachers created by a film you felt had little connection to the realities of teaching.

In a recent New York Times article by education reporter Motoko Rich (which I highly recommend), Rich explores the strange dichotomy that exists in teacher-centric movies: every Hollywood depiction of teachers seems to represent them as either a hero/savior figure or as an incompetent clown (Mr. Schue on the Fox series Glee was alternatingly inspiring and incompetent). Rich suggests that “neither cliché has much connection to reality,” adding that, unlike the doctors in medical dramas or the lawyers in legal dramas who are actually depicted doing their jobs, “movies and television rarely show teachers, well, teaching.”

Teaching in Dead Poets Society, for example, is reduced almost entirely to a matter of charisma (although I would argue there are some small moments of pedagogical excellence in that film, too). Extended footage of a teacher doing what we generally think of as teaching–working with a small group, giving a brief lecture, conferencing with a student–is not a feature of teacher movies. While Rich’s article is a fascinating read and raises provocative questions about representations of teaching in film and television and their effects on public perception of education, it also got me thinking about the role of charisma in our profession.

What is the role of the inspirational speech in real-life teaching? How efficacious is an articulate, well-placed monologue? Recently, I had occasion to be reminded that a teacher pep talk can in fact be more than mere vacuous charisma.

A couple weeks ago, my seniors were just a weekend away from their IB exams, and I was hosting a review session for the final literature exams on a Saturday morning. I could sense that some of my students were understandably anxious as they peered over the precipice of April into the intimidating unknown of May examinations. So, in an effort to allay that apprehension and self-doubt further, I paused in my writing workshop to be real with my students. I told them that they were all incredible writers, that, for what it was worth coming from a newish teacher, they were easily the most talented writers I had worked with, including many adults and college students. I told them that all year, my standards had been higher than IB’s and that they were all supremely prepared not only for the upcoming exams, but for freshman year of college. I told them I was proud of them for their hard work and dramatic improvement and that they had all the tools to get perfect scores on the next week’s exams.

Did my students all look at me with tears in their eyes and declare they would hence forth be English majors? No, nor did they spontaneously enter a poetry competition or start a Mr. H Official Fan Club. However, and much to my surprise, several students told me they suddenly felt confident about the exams, that that had been one of the best pep talks that they’d received, or that my words had given them renewed hope or energy to tackle the challenge of the next couple of weeks. It only took a minute or so of my time, yet the payoff seemed to be enormous for some of my students.

It’s important to note that I meant everything I said to my seniors that day. Students are pretty good at sensing insincerity, and lying about my kids’ preparedness and ability–even with the best of intentions–would have been ethically dubious at best. Good teachers are naturals at identifying the strengths of even their most struggling students, and it’s been my experience that not only gifted students, but also generally low-achieving students (and everyone in between!) need to hear that they’re good at something in every subject or they’ll give themselves up as simply “not a math person” or “not a good writer.”

Consider how often we correct our students’ behavior, their speech, their writing, their exams–how much more negative feedback must they receive every day than positive feedback on everything ranging from their conduct to their homework? Imagine how that must be affecting their self-images! I think that’s where the power of the pep talk lies; those kinds of words of affirmation are all the more precious for their scarcity. But this experience was also a reminder to me, upon reflection, that I need to be more mindful of how much positive versus negative feedback I’m giving all of my students. They need to be affirmed as well as critiqued and corrected. That’s healthy teaching, and that’s optimistic teaching.

What do you think? Do you have any anecdotes to share about a time you were surprised by the effect of your words in the classroom? Sound off in the comments section below!

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