Tuesday, January 5, 2010


They talk about teacher magic as though it is a tangible – as though all teachers bring some magic to their classroom, some element that makes kids spark. When they talk about systemic reform that would make education more uniform across classrooms, schools, and states – they hurry to assert that they have no intention of interfering with ‘teacher magic’. They want to have uniform standards and curriculums and calendars, but allow the goals to be reached on a daily basis by whatever means the individual teacher prefers.

I came into teaching not really understanding what teacher magic is. I thought that if you could learn to manage a class, and you could learn to teach the kids in a way that is fun and engaging, than you have learned to teach. Last year, I viewed successful teachers as those who were scary, who the kids listened to. I saw kids sitting silently in some classrooms, shaking in fear, and dreamed about the day when I would be scary.

That day never came. No kid shakes when they see me. Not a single child is afraid of what I might do. “Out-crazy them!” was the most frequent advice given to me last year, as I struggled to find ways to make my class respect me. “They have to believe that you are nuts, that you could fly off the handle and hit them at any minute. Be crazier than they are – surprise them – throw things – be unpredictable!” Needless to say, that goal also never materialized for me. But things changed, nonetheless.

This year, management isn’t much of a problem. My class never really gets out of control, and when I start to teach a lesson I always finish it. The students finish their projects, they hand in their homework, they study for quizzes. I teach them History by making it interactive, allowing them to work together and do projects. I teach English by giving them some freedom, encouraging them to read anything and write what they are interested in. These are good things – smart ways to teach, I am told. And yet, there is no magic to what I do.

This year I can see that the ‘magic’ doesn’t come from being scary – though many teachers are that. Having your class under control is something you can learn. Making lessons successful is also something you can learn. What you can’t learn is how to make students want to listen to you – make them hang on every word that you say.

My co-teacher is a wonderful teacher. She’s been doing it for much longer than I, and I have learned an incredible amount from sharing a classroom with her this year. We both plan lessons, come up with solutions for problems, help kids, manage the class, call parents, grade papers, and teach 3 subjects. We may not look incredibly different. But she’s got that magic. She can make any group of kids sit and listen to her – she can make them learn just because they want to hear what she’s going to say next. She’s not crazy or scary or mean – she just captures their interest – grabs their attention. It’s almost accidental, it just comes so naturally to her.

Mr. M is in his 3rd year of teaching, and he too seems to have this magic. His students want to make him laugh, want to hear his opinions, and will gather around to listen when he tells a story. He has a good relationship with them – yes – but it’s more than that. This is something that he could do with any group of kids.

In many ways, you can really learn to teach. There are a million skills that can be practiced and mastered and applied every day to make students successful. But, it is foolish to think that teacher magic doesn’t exist or isn’t important. Indeed it is what makes great teachers stand out from those who are competent. And I’d like to think that it can be learned – that I could eventually embody the demeanor that makes kids cling to my every word, but the truth is that it just comes naturally to a lucky few. After all, many days it does feel like it takes miracles and magic and the supernatural all working together to make my students learn. To bring that magic with you into a classroom, makes it feel less like work, and more like home.

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