My personal brand of teaching

What is my teaching style?

A simple question, but one I hadn’t considered on its own until this week.

Everyone knows the stereotypes, remembering them from their time in high school. The disciplinarian. The laissez-faire. The nice guy who’s a bit of a push-over. The coach who also teaches. But how do I explain my style when people ask me? I prefer not to rely on the buzzwords, or ‘edu-speak’ that some seem to juggle without really understanding why. I think it’s important to consider what I initially thought my style would be, what it actually is, and what I hope it can become.

I’ve really always known I’d be a history teacher, if only subconsciously or at least without admitting it. My interest in history was based entirely in a strange interest in old junk, a nostalgia for a past I didn’t entirely understand, and the great lecturers I had as teachers growing up. ‘Great lecturers’ is really a term that shouldn’t be taken literally — my public-school history teachers weren’t quite at the level of Marc Antony. Nevertheless, they spoke with enough confidence, color, and knowledge to captivate me in the stories that most students can’t seem to find relevance in. To me, this was a great teaching style. My middle school teacher Al Latino stands out in my mind, primarily because he taught history to my classmates and I for three years. He let us choose our seats, and I sat front and center for over two years while everyone else focused on sitting near friends. Anyone who remembers my typical behavior at this point in my life will tell you I was never a ‘front of class’ kind of kid. But it was Mr. Latino’s captivating story-telling and warm personality that made me fall in love with history (he was also the only male teacher in the school, typical in grammar schools).

In high school I had three drastically different history teachers. (1) The teacher-coach, a role model for my lacrosse teammates and I — but had I not already been enthusiastic about history I might not necessarily have been inspired by him. (2) An ex-lawyer who always seemed a bit angry at the fact that she was now teaching (I think that’s actually the kindest description I’ve ever had for her). She actually dampened my appreciation for history, the constant book work and outlining of chapters from our Texas-published textbooks making my classmates and I bored out of our 16-year-old minds. (3) During my final two years I was fortunate enough to have a teacher I can call nothing short of inspirational. Now, I don’t mean standing on the table inspirational (‘Oh Captain, my Captain…) but it was these two years of history that inspired me to study the subject at the university level. He made the pursuit of knowledge seem worthwhile to me — as much for my own enjoyment as for a way of understanding the world. But he is a primarily lecture based teacher, a style that works for him because of his depth of knowledge, personality, and ability to make content relevant to us.

So, my experience with history teachers was a (mostly) positive one. But I’ve tried lecture-based teaching, finding it both exhausting and somewhat ineffective, and I prefer not to rely on textbooks. Knowing the positive impact these teachers had on me, how can I learn from their example while still finding my own teaching style?

I’ve noticed from my time in Espoo that the story-telling aspect of history is essential to grab student attention. Some students are already hooked on the subject, and many more can be pulled in by a well-told story. As an historian, I recognize that history isn’t exactly ‘just stories’ as so many people perceive it to be. I understand history as a way of thinking, a lens through which to view the world if worked at with enough well-intentioned dedication. But this isn’t what hooked me on history, and it’s a concept many don’t understand until they experience it. So I haven’t totally written off the lecture-based-format, but hope to use it to captivate and inform. It still has its place in the history classroom, but I recognize it isn’t always effective and can be overused — not to mention the fact that I can’t imagine the energy it would take to teach like this all day every day.

If you know me well enough, you know I’m a pretty relaxed person — laissez-faire is actually a good phrase to describe my mentality on many things. But I know this style could cause me problems, particularly when I’m a young teacher — and especially if I work in a high school. Laissez-faire is a beautiful idea, but in reality it is very difficult to teach this way successfully. Sounds wrong, I know — but it’s the more structured, teacher-led, you might say ‘traditional’ approaches to teaching that are easiest if properly planned and well-organized. But it is essential to be an honest version of oneself in the classroom, and I find that children can see a lie better than we tend to give them credit. So how can I blend my laid-back attitude, passion for the stories of history, and understanding for the necessity of fundamental historical skills into my own teaching style that places students in the driver’s seat?

This week I learned the importance of dividing the class period into smaller chunks to keep the students focused and energized. I’ve begun working several breaks into each class period, having students stretch, practice mindfulness, watch videos, or play a quick game to turn their attention away from their learning task. I find these breaks can also be the perfect time for the stories of history. My ideal classroom is built to foster student independence, but I can turn the spotlight on myself for ‘story-time’ to remind students that history is fun as well as useful (cheesy, I know).

My exact teaching style is difficult to pinpoint, and it’s certainly too early in my career to know for sure. It’s also a malleable aspect of the profession, and I imagine mine will be constantly changing along with my music taste. So I guess I’ll say it’s too early to tell for sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to begin thinking about.