[Updated: Here’s the narration and slidedeck of my presentation. QuickTime movie. 20 MB.]
I was the second segment. The longest. My department head laughed on his way in and called me a sucker. Under different circumstances he would’ve been right. But I knew why I was there.
I got up in front of the teachers and gave this intro:
As long as I’ve been a teacher, I swore I’d never talk in front of teachers. I’ve done the department meetings, the staff meetings, the new teacher meetings. And inevitably … in every single one … there would come this moment where my eyes would slowly tilt somewhere above the speaker’s head … usually at some piece of stage lighting … and I’d pray silently: Please, God. Let that fall.
All in all, not the opener I thought it was. The line about swearing never to talk in front of teachers got a bigger laugh than the joke proper. Always the pessimist, though, I was ready for the flop. I came without cue cards, but if I had them, I wouldn’t have written “wait for laughter to die down” after that joke. I told them the only reason I had doubled back on a strong resolution was for the opportunity to talk about my favorite part of teaching, the part that gets me up in the morning. And what kind of person resists that call?
The important part of all this, and I’m pretty sure this was clear to my colleagues, is that I am a teacher and I have sat through some of the most crushingly awful presentations at staff meetings ever. I have endured the motionless presenters, the monotonous voices, the frozen faces, and the inexpressive hands. I have lived through dim overhead bulbs projecting too-small text in a way way too brightly-lit room. I’ve been there during the computer presentations with slides saturated with text that numb the viewer into submission. Oh my word those are probably the worst.
So the point of my intro and that first slide there wasn’t that I will improve your practice and help you change your students’ lives. It was, I’m one of you and so help me this won’t be another one of those presentations.
And it wasn’t.
I was rehearsed but not so much that it showed. I held myself tall. I walked purposefully to various parts of the room. I made eye contact. I spoke much slower than I wanted to. I cracked a few other jokes, one about whiskey, each of which was received better than my first. I clicked through slides without looking at the screen, knowing exactly where I was. The audience knew that effort had been expended for their sake and gave some appreciation for it.
There was the guy who wore shades and balanced his head heavily on his chin, whose head listed to the side now and then and whose mouth wore flecks of drool. He wasn’t really with me. There was PB, over twice my age, almost fifteen times my years of experience, who graded papers without distraction through the presentation.
But those were the easy cases. With those teachers, at least I knew where I stood. The rest of the teachers all watched me intently but I knew that some majority percentage of them was watching and waiting only for one moment. They were waiting for the one phrase or condition or fragment that would allow them to write the whole idea off. They wanted the excuse to say, “That wouldn’t fly in my class.” I resolved early-on I wouldn’t be boring. I also resolved I wouldn’t give them that license.
So I made frequent nods to all subject areas, at one point singling out English and History, the teachers with the best excuse for skepticism and told them this would work for them. At the very least, I made it clear that the classic model of assessment, the school of thought that says, test the student once and if she fails the test but later learns the material, well that’s too bad, she should’ve learned it faster the first time, is why students are scared of being assessed.
And then as my talk wound down, I called them on it. I called my presentation a fool’s errand. I said that trying to teach teachers was one of the most pointless tasks anyone should feel called to. I pointed the gun at myself too. Even two years into teaching, I said, I was so comfortable, cocky, and sure of my methods I would find any way to dismiss a good suggestion. (Note to keynote speakers and session presenters: the best way to ensure your dismissal is by being really really dull.) I told them that even if I was up there to tell them they were all getting raises they would harrumph, glance at their watches, and continue grading papers.
I asked them, then, out of respect for the impossibility of my situation, to put down their pens, and papers, and grading, and give me ten final seconds.
Please honestly ask yourselves this: when was the last time you walked into your classroom … cancelled a test … and your students were angry with you?
The effect was powerful. The mood was unsettled across the room. And just like with my wobbly opener, I knew exactly where to go.
I have second prep, fourth prep, I’m free before school, during lunch, and after school. I believe in this system so much. My e-mail handle around here is “dmeyer.” I’d love to sit down and talk to you about this anytime you want.
I said thanks, hit a button on the remote, and faded the screen on the best lesson I ever delivered to a room of deaf people.
There was still more to the staff meeting but I just sat there, kind of flat. Usually after these sort of talks I’ll be shaking. I felt wasted, though. Even with pictures and words, I hadn’t been able to express how much teachers are botching the whole assessment thing. It was obvious that the crowd had been entertained and if my purpose up there had been only to amuse them, I would’ve been charged up. I tried.
Teachers came forward as I packed up my projector and laptop. Each gave me some variation on “great presentation.” Obviously this was gratifying but I knew what they meant, though only a cocky first-year teacher was tactless enough to put it in words: “it was the least boring staff meeting presentation I’ve ever seen.”
I mean, gosh, thanks, but … Sarah came into my class yesterday complaining that you won’t let her retake the unit test. Don’t you and I have something more to talk about?
It was a bummer.
Then things brightened. One teacher, I don’t even know her name, came up and wanted to talk about it. I agreed to meet her after school on the rally day. I’m so excited about that.
My Geometry students told me that one of their teachers was going to try my methods out in their science class, which is so exciting.
Then the next day I bumped into one of the first-year teachers, an English teacher for the love, who came at me with a familiar righteous indignation and wanted to know how to make this work for her English class. I swear, if she and I can tool this to work in the abstract subject areas, I’m taking my Keynote presentation on the road.
If every teacher assessed like I do, I wouldn’t be nearly as popular. Kids love my class because, in some cases for the first time in twelve years, math treats them fairly. But I’d gladly trade my popularity if all our students felt as empowered as mine do.
[Update: check out the comprehensive resource.]