Mister, why are you teaching math if you could be a singer?

Sunset Bronx River Parkway by julie narimanYesterday, Mr. W started his trigonometry class by singing.  He sang “I’ll Be” by Edwin McCain acapella, in a beautiful tenor vibrato. “It’s the song I used for my American Idol audition,” he told the class.

At their best, this particular group of 11-12th graders are curious and excited about learning.  At their worst, they can be cynical and complaining, and can wear a teacher down.

As Mr. W was singing, though, the students visibly melted, and  smiles broke out.

When he was done, the students clapped uproariously. and hands shot up.

“Mister, when did you learn how to sing?”

“You auditioned for American Idol?”

“Mister, how come you’re teaching math if you could be a singer?”

The students were amazed to learn that their teacher had majored in music, specializing in classical saxophone, but had decided to become a teacher because he genuinely wanted to help others.  The entire event, including the song and questions, took about five minutes, yet it transformed the class into a place of cooperation, respect, and new possibilities.

Our classes are run in a uniform manner, so that a history class or math class has very similar methods to a science class.  The uniformity allows students to get good at learning methods like Topic Teams, a team learning structure in which students teach each other topics they research in a unit.

Within the uniformity, though, we’re interested ways each teacher’s unique interests and strengths can be woven into the class. After all, when we hire teachers, we use the motto, “Hire the person, not the position.” The students knowing their teachers as people, respecting them, and wanting to work for them, is crucial to learning.

But earning respect is a different path for everyone.  Some people have a natural air of command, while others are more effective when they use humor.  The students had already experienced Mr. W’s singing in a school assembly earlier in the week, in which he sang, “Eye of the Tiger,” dedicating it to students taking exams in January.  To him, singing in front of 350 students was no big deal, and it had never occurred to him to sing for his students in class.  To most of us, our own talents are “no big deal,” and we take for granted the extent to which they can impact others.  That moment in time when Mr. W sang to his student was his unique gift to them, and some of them will never forget it.

Photo credit: Photo of Bronx River Parkway Park by Walking Geek, licensed under Creative Commons.  

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