I’ve begun to reach a conclusion: enthusiasm is overrated.
This comes after multiple conversations with administrators about the “enthusiasm” of new teachers. Many seem convinced that young teachers are more capable because of their fresh outlooks, ability to relate to students, and new techniques recently learned in teacher education programs. Indeed, newer teachers might bring a fresh perspective and a wiliness to try out new ideas. Some studies do suggest that teacher enthusiasm has an effect on student intrinsic motivation for learning the subject matter.
However, there are several concerns with giving enthusiasm overly large consideration.
First is the problem of even defining “enthusiasm.” Does it mean walking around with a smile all of the time? Showing a perky manner? Is it demonstrating concern in student lives and sharing your own? Is it holding a true value of the subject matter and learning process?
All but the last items of valuing and understanding subject matter and how students learn have dubious quality in improving instruction, I would submit. After all, I can emulate a cheerful demeanor about almost anything (I have background in acting from a previous life), and this would seem to have little effect or possibly even a detrimental one on student learning, if I’m babbling on with seeming confidence and passion on a topic I know little about.
However, if by teacher “enthusiasm” is meant a genuine commitment and understanding of the learning process, this seems something that might even deepen with years of service. After all, the teachers who don’t have this authentic passion are likely to leave the profession earlier. And in fact, newer teachers “burn out” and leave at a higher rate than more mature ones for a number of reasons--lack of true commitment to the field might be one. Real enthusiasm is more than your hobby of the week.
Some studies suggest that there is actually no effect of teacher enthusiasm on student learning and that enthusiastic teachers often have more problems with issues such as classroom management. A possible reason for this is if the teacher spends excessive time “relating” students and treating them as peers, there will be more concerns with controlling the class, just as parents who treat their children as friends often have trouble establishing boundaries and rules. New teachers just because they are new have fewer strategies to draw from in classroom control and instruction.
My daughter currently has a math teacher who is seen as “enthusiastic.” He attends all parent meetings and workshops, talks happily about his classroom, and has in general an upbeat manner. And yet--I would not call him a skilled teacher. He works out problems on the board while students race to take notes. When he is asked a question, he either doesn’t answer or gives an explanation which students can’t follow, or he refers them to a website. My daughter has in fact spent many hours online trying to figure out what he was talking about in class and to in general try to make up for less than stellar instruction. I wish I could help her, but my math skills stop at a crash course in intermediate statistics, and I have no background in teaching math at all.
I’ve actually begun to suspect that “enthusiastic” is a euphemism for young, malleable, and cheap. I was at one point seen as “enthusiastic.” I was also childless and therefore could live without a secure income. I was willing to drive and work long hours (I am still willing to do this, by the way.) Mainly, I suspect, I was easy to get rid of in any contingency. These are attractive qualities in a staff member to school administrators and employers in general and have little to do with good instruction.
In addition, although I was young, enthusiastic, and with a wealth of new ideas learned in training, I also took a long time in controlling a classroom. Sometimes, once I had it under control, I didn’t quite know what to do because I didn’t have twenty years of teaching strategies in my repertoire to draw from. This skill takes years to develop, during which time teachers are also likely to pull a few all-nighters marking papers and be less forthcoming with the chipper “good morning!” They’ve also more than likely acquired a relationship, children, and a mortgage. They may with increasing experience be less impressed by administrators with a great new program that will solve all our problems in education. This doesn’t make them less skilled or committed to their careers.
You may think that I’m burned out and therefore complaining. It is as easy to accuse a more mature teacher of burnout as it is to assume a new teacher is “enthusiastic.” Yet I remain as committed to teaching as ever. I regularly attend conferences and embrace new instructional styles. I take active interest in students and their learning.
As an example of enthusiasm developing over time and growing skill, Steve Jobs, legendary founder of the Apple Corporation, did not enter the computer field because he was “passionate” about it--he began dabbling in electronics as a means to earn a living. His passion grew from learning more about computers, developing expertise in his field, and then eventually innovative ideas. There is no evidence he died any less passionate or committed because his enthusiasm developed over time, and enthusiasm can be learned.
There are actually a number of methods that an instructor at any level of experience can develop enthusiasm and commitment, both on a local level to the individual student and a more global level to the profession as a whole.
Develop Enthusiasm as a Teacher
Take an Interest in the Individual Student
Is what he likes to be called different from what’s on the roll sheet? What’s his family life like? What are her major interests outside of class? How well does she connect to her peers? How does he seem to learn best? Knowing some information about the individual student helps the instructor know how to teach course content to her and help her fit into the classroom environment comfortably.
Learn How to Set up the Classroom
How well can students see the board? Are there important visuals like a world map? (It’s surprising how not having a map in the classroom can impede instruction.) What’s the lighting like? What kind of groupings can be created given the physical limitations of the classroom? (For example, if there are several stationary tables students sit around rather than individual desks, this has different implications for instruction, group work, and assessment.) What kind of audiovisual equipment is there; do you know how to use it, or can you learn? Is it easily or can it be incorporated into daily instruction? It’s surprising how often state of the art instructional equipment goes unused because instructors can’t use it and/or can’t see how it can be incorporated into everyday instruction productively.
Connect to the Profession as a Whole
Take an active interest in what is happening in your subject matter and what we’re learning about how people learn: there is actually a wealth of new information on the topic of student learning available. Are there workshops on classroom learning offered at your school site? Is there a state conference or even a national conference based on your subject matter available? Perhaps you can get funding to attend or even present at such a conference. If not, there are also usually websites related to subject area fields as well as scholarly journals with articles based on current research in the field.
Can an instructor commit to each of these areas equally at one time? Of course not. Steve Jobs did not learn everything there is to learn about computers in a day--or even a year. Again, that knowledge and skill developed over time. But for the truly committed teacher, as her knowledge base grows, so will her passion and enthusiasm for teaching.