Mark Edmundson in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, had a great article called Geek Lessons about why one cannot be “cool” and a good teacher. I think there are a number of good insights in this article. Parts of it hit somewhat close to home.
The most common way to become a hip teacher now — there have been other ways; there will be more — is to go wild for computers. Students love computers; you get points for loving them more. I’ve heard tell of a professor — whose energy and ingenuity I have to admire — who provides his students with hand-held wireless gizmos that have a dozen buttons on them. (I understand they look like TV remotes — not a good sign.) Every 10 minutes or so, the professor stops and checks the kids by polling them on the clicker to confirm that they have understood him. Many other teachers have turned their classes into light and laser shows. Three-D glasses are around the corner.
I have actually used those clickers in the past in sessions at UW-Madison. I thought they were kinda neat and they brought some variety to the same old song and dance. But the situations they were used in often felt contrived. Questions were made up for students to answer without much real visible benefit to them or me. I think it is very important to never let the technology drive your teaching.
The most important point I take away from this though is not just for teaching–it is for life.
Uncoolness can be a state that anyone slides into, a state in which we’re more open, vulnerable and susceptible to being surprised than when we’ve got the cold, deflective armor on. Teachers live for the moments when their students — and they themselves — cast off the breastplates and iron masks and open up.
Showing more of yourself, being curious, and not pretending to know it all is when you gain some of the best insights and make real connections to people. Especially in teaching, when it is really important, don’t worry about being cool. Worry about if your students are learning. Worry about if they are connecting with the ideas and information that you are discussing. And in life, try to take off your armor sometimes. You can afford to be a geek every once in a while. You will learn a lot more about yourself, and maybe even take up D&D.