Teaching

The squandering of enthusiasm

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by bledsoe on September 22, 2017

When I was 5 years old, I decided I wanted to take swimming lessons. I had been to the swimming pool many times with my family, and while I played around in the shallow end I had seen the older kids and adults actually swimming in the deeper water. I thought it was some kind of magic to be able to float and move around in water that was over your head without drowning, and I wanted to learn this mysterious and magical power.

My mom made the arrangements and we went to the pool for the first day of swimming lessons. There were a bunch of other kids of all ages, and the pool was enormous, and there were instructors with whistles and special floats, and I was so excited I could barely stand it. Finally, I was going to gain this special power. It was going to be awesome.

They put us into different groups with our instructors, and we all went out with our groups and stood at different places around the edge of the pool. "This is it!" I thought. "We're going to get in the water! I'm going to learn how to swim!"

But we didn't get in the water. The instructors didn't even start telling us things about swimming. Instead, some man with a clipboard started talking to all the parents. He talked for hours. He talked for days. He talked about stuff that didn't have anything to do with swimming. I thought he would never shut up.

I began to get angry. This huge swimming pool was just a few feet away, practically begging us to use it to learn to swim, and this guy was wasting our time talking.

Finally, I could stand it no longer. I asked, rather loudly as I recall: "Did we come here to talk, or did we come here to swim?" I don't remember feeling the least bit embarrassed about interrupting the talking man, and in fact I felt a little better for having expressed what I'm sure everyone else also wanted to say.

I like to think that my social skills, particularly patience and tact, have improved since I was five, but the fact is that it still bothers me when enthusiasm is wasted unnecessarily. Steve Martin, the comedian and entertainer, apparently feels the same way. In his video advertising his master class on comedy he says, "I have a little bit of a pet peeve for comedians who come out and say, 'How we doing tonight?'. You've blown one of the most important moments of your show."

Students experience this all the time. The first day of a new class is always a time of excitement: new teacher, new subject, new possibilities. The first day is our opportunity as teachers to take advantage of this rare moment of student excitement and openness; they're willing, they're eager, they're on our side. They haven't already decided that they dislike us or our class. They're at least willing to consider that this might be an enjoyable experience.

Yet how many of us have squandered this opportunity with the equivalent of "How we doing tonight?", or even worse, bored them to tears with an endless monologue about class rules and administrative tedium? Are there important administrative things that have to be taken care of? Sure, but the time spent on that can be minimized, turned into a less boring activity, or moved to a later time, after we've done something more useful with our students' energy and enthusiasm.

Sometimes waiting can't be avoided, but what a waste, not only of time but of enthusiasm, if we force excited, eager people to wait when it's not necessary. That enthusiasm is priceless, and if we squander it needlessly we're doing a disservice to our students, as well as to our profession.

Photo Credit: North Charleston Flickr via Compfight cc

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