“Your Barbaric Yawp” Bringing the Magic to Your Lessons

Introduction

The first time I taught a class, I wanted to be Dr. Keating, the beloved Dead Poets’ Society character portrayed by the late Robin Williams. He spoke with feeling and inspired his students. His passion bled into every word he spoke and the feeling with which he projected it was contagious. More than anything, I wanted that to be me—the Emergency Services Instructor that sent the students from the room ready to change the world. So I had it ready: a lesson on Pediatric Medical Emergencies. I spoke from the heart on children and their value in our society. In doing so, I referenced a scene on a television show I watched as a child in which a devastating accident robbed a town of all of their children at once and relayed the devastation it caused.

It turns out that nobody had ever seen the show. I thought the story could stand on its own, but without the backstory, it left everyone confused. By the time I finished trying to explain, gave up, and started with the content, my five minute “moment of inspiration” had become fifteen and I had things to cover. From then on, I vowed, I would stick with the lesson plan like everyone else.

Planning is Important

I was right, but I was also wrong. For two years, I stuck with the lesson plans. I drove home the points to my students and made sure they had what they needed to pass their tests and do well. As educators, we need to remember that we teach to objectives. We state them before every lesson: “After completing this lesson, students will be able to recite the normal respiratory rate for a patient when given their age correctly 100% of the time.” Teaching our students what they have come to learn needs to be the priority. During my first lesson some ten years ago, I failed at that because I had the bright idea that if I provided the electricity, the lightbulb would invent itself.

Getting Back on the Horse

I got into education to change the world, so years later, I came back to it. I taught a lesson on the need for coworkers to hold each other up in difficult times. In the world of emergency services, this is essential, and the lesson fell shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic had come and (mostly) gone. I told my students about the worst mistake of my career. I spoke from the heart about a patient that I had done a poor job caring for and, as I ended the story, I heard silence. Absolute silence.

I felt my heart pounding as I remembered the silence of an audience that didn’t get the reference, but then a lone hand went up into the air. I called on the student who said, “I wish others would talk about things like that, it makes me feel a lot less alone.”

The Best of Both Worlds

I learned that it is possible to have the best of both worlds in education. It’s possible to stick to the plan and still project the inspiration and innovation that made you fall in love with education to begin with. Ten years later, my students pass their tests and I like to think they leave feeling like they can make the world better. But I’ve dropped the ball along the way, and my goal is always to let students learn from my mistakes so they don’t have to make them too.

Know Your Audience

You can’t inspire an audience without knowing what inspires that audience or what makes them tick, so if you’re looking to trigger emotion, you need to know where their emotions lie. A reference to a movie from thirty years ago isn’t going to choke up a group of preteen students who will have never seen the movie (unless you’re prepared to give them an hour of backstory).

People Remember Emotions

A wise man told me once that students remember things best when they are very happy, very sad, or very angry. Points that are driven home with emotion are often remembered well. In other words, if things you share are going to be effective, they need to make people feel something—anything. My mistake all those years ago was realizing that the students weren’t going to feel the heartbreak of losing those children without the backstory, the characters, and the plot that got them there. For your students to feel, you need to feel, and the easiest way to project that is to use topics you are passionate about to have your “go out and save the world” moments and to speak about what you know: your experiences. The backstory is sitting in front of them and you know what you need to explain for them to “get it.”

Practice

I couldn’t tell you how many times I told my bedroom mirror a story about a man who fell into a hole before I told my students that the man was eventually rescued by a friend who knows the way out. My inflection, my tone, and the speed of my words was repeated dozens of times for the right delivery. Friends and family grew tired of the story, but when their exasperated sighs went from “I’m not in a hole, Chris, why are you telling me this” to “So you’re telling me that you know how to help because you’ve had the same thing happen to you,” I knew I had it.

Don’t Give Up

Teaching is an art as much as painting, piano, and dance. All of these things take practice. You will lose students as you tell them stories from your childhood. They will roll their eyes as you tell them about your first bike. You will tell a “knock, knock” joke that they won’t find funny. But then you’ll see a pair of eyes light up and a hand go up in the air. You turned on the electricity and the bulb went on.