The Hyper-Observant Hack

John August’s advice to new, improving teachers screenwriters:

My advice for you is to dedicate one day a week to disassembling good movies. Take existing films (and one-hour dramas) and break them down to cards. Think of yourself as an ordinary mechanic given the task of reverse-engineering a spaceship. Figure out what the pieces do, and why they were put together in that way.

What was that thing you were saying about the intangible art of teaching?

Whatever I am as a teacher, I am a hyper-observant hack, stitching together the best I see around me, trimming back the brush. None of what you see here comes naturally.

To be fair to the teaching-as-calling crowd, August also writes:

If you were writing in for advice about how to be funnier or more charismatic, I would have probably let your email sit in the growing folder of unanswerable questions, because those are pretty much inherent qualities. [emph. added]

Which begs the question: what qualities of a teacher are inherent?

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Well, you’ve got to start by liking the kids. You can’t learn that, you can’t be taught it. You either do or don’t. And I know quite a few teachers who don’t!

    Then you’ve got to want to do the job (whatever that is). Without the motivation, it won’t work.

    Then you can learn. Either by going and watching others (something that I don’t do enough of I know), or by videoing yourself and watching it back. (I find it hard to do and analyse at the same time)

  2. Echoing Dave’s comment: being able to build personal (yet professional) relationships with students is a social skill that isn’t very teachable. It has a lot to do with personality, which is a tough thing to change.

    (Though I’ve heard of some instances where an individual was struck by lightning and their post-strike personalities were totally different than pre-strike. If I start to have problems relating with students I’m going to grab a large metal rod & head straight for the hills.)

  3. If you’re fueled — i.e. energized — by the daily ‘collision’ that occurs as ‘students’ and ‘content’ merge, then I’d say you have the certain je ne sais quoi that so many of us struggle to define as the ‘art’ of teaching, or the ‘inherent qualities’ you are asking about.

    I’m NOT a fan — admittedly so — of teachers who believe that a) loving kids/students or b) loving their content is what makes great teachers. Both can easily be claimed by any other human being on the planet regardless of professional chops. I want my son’s babysitter to love kids, but I do not excuse teachers who think it is enough to rest their laurels in hug-land. Likewise, I want researchers to love their content, but I do not care one carefully crafted iota for the educator who sits atop their own version of an ivory tower in some misdirected belief that this alone will inspire the students around them.

    What does matter?

    I AM a huge fan of anyone who loves the ‘collision’ that occurs when kids/students and content meet, synthesize, and head off on a hard-to-reverse adventure of sorts. This is messy/dynamic business and you gotta love that unpredictable merger.

    You are right, Dan, to keep hammering on the constant search for great content and methods, as well as endless commitment to a practice, practice, practice, prep, prep, prep mindset. Hard to beat someone (or some theory) that is centered on relentless pursuit of knowledge and greatness. The holiday sweater crowd that is comfy in their carefully framed bulletin boards and repeatable worksheets is never going to move pass ‘moderate’ on the talent scale.

    That being said, pure knowledge and hard work alone is also not enough.

    Your insatiable desire to learn across mediums, your insane seeking of related (yet tangential) material, and the hard-to-train energy level you seem to have in spades — combined with the fact that you gain fuel by being around kids as they learn — does suggest that a few inherent qualities are owned by only a few working teachers (in any educational crowd ) while the majority tread water in some lesser professional kiddie pool for most/all of their careers.

  4. Really, what is the best quality you can have or need to have? I would say an attitude of “c’est la vie”. Seriously. Hear me out here…

    What are the biggest criticisms that us Educators have of our jobs. I would guess people would talk about crazy administrators, not having proper/enough supplies, inflexible schedules and teaching curriculum…stuff like that. My older brother for example, who works in the private sector would quit any teaching gig on day one. He would not get what he wanted and he would leave. You need that “c’est la vie” attitude to survive the teaching gig. You need to say, “well,… I don’t have any teaching materials, the desks are falling apart, the principal is a jerk, I’m lucky if I get 1/2 the kids to show up to class, but by golly, I am going to do whatever I need to do to get the job done. Also you need that “c’est la vie” attitude, because if not, you burnout within a few years, if not sooner. You can’t take your stresses home with you. Not fair to yourself, your spouse, kids. While many educators may wish-upon-a-star otherwise, when it boils down to it, “it’s just a job”. I hope my point is getting across. I am not endorsing slacking. Not even close. The kids who show up to our school need our support. It’s not their fault about whatever issues we have with our school. We all have skills and tools (albeit often minimal) and we need to use them to the best of our ability.

  5. if anything, this really points to how teachers need to have time to go and observe each other’s classes. Not in a pressure-filled sort of way, but in a “hey, we might actually learn something from each other” kind of way. I know there are things I could be doing better, and I know there are people who do it better than me, but there’s no time/it’s really awkward to go into somebody’s class right now, especially when my school has a schedule that has everybody who teaches the same stuff all teach at the same time.

  6. ok, I thought I had some good contributions, but you all already took mine. Like kids, like learning, tolerance for less than ideal working conditions, check, check, check. I’d also add a mighty thick skin for the “those that can’t, teach” a-holes.

    At the risk of this devolving into a bitch-fest, the thing I would like most in my little teacher heart is if I could remove the kitchen sink and a few other extraneous items from my curricula. “Mile wide and inch deep” doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’m expected to cover so much that it’s impossible to do it all well. I was able to whittle my algebra 1 concept list down to 100 items, and I can’t get any lower than that. Take Dan’s list and add the more boring parts of probability, the more useless parts of statistics, geometric sequences/exponential functions, absolute value graphs, very pedestrian sets & venn diagrams, and you’d be getting closer to my list.

    I hear Algebra 2 is even worse. Sigh.

  7. Agreed w/r/t a strong work ethic, the indomitable will to see students achieve. That stuff can’t be taught or bought.

    I split with Doug and Ben, though, when it comes to a positive disposition toward students and the ability to forge a relationship.

    You take someone with a heart for student achievement and show her how much more students achieve when they’re humanized and respected, and then step back. You’ve pointed her in the right direction and lit the fuse.

    Re Christian and anyone else who’d suggest I inherently own the stuff of a teacher, I promise that all I walked into this job holding was a self-abusive work ethic and an unshakable heart for student achievement. The rest has been hackwork.

    Tim is right, that a flexible, easygoing personality is essential (both to deal with administrative nonsense and class management problems) and probably unteachable.

    And Dan, yeah, I can’t count how many times I told myself I’d give up my prep to go walk through classes. Happened once.

  8. I would definitely echo the sentiment that you absolutely positively MUST LIKE kids! Whatever age you’re teaching you have to enjoy that age. I started in elementary school and while I wasn’t unhappy I found that I liked a slightly older group. I now teach 6th – 8th graders and love them, especially the 8th graders. Enjoying the kids is what makes the worst day tolerable and the mediocre day great.

    One thing I would add is that you have to accept that teaching is not an 8-3, 9 month a year job. Too many new teachers I’ve known have come in and said, I leave with the kids, I won’t take home work and I won’t spend a penny of my own money in the classroom. Within a few weeks those same teachers are overwhelmed or fed up. Teaching is far from the only profession where people take work home with them so accept it and you will make your life oh so much easier in the long run – as well as become a drastically better teacher!

  9. Let me rephrase a bit. Really getting students to perform and push themselves in my experience requires several traits:

    1. Willingness to try new things. Perhaps the associated trait is that of a risk-taker. You need to be willing to throw out status quo when you can see it isn’t working.

    2. Time spent on really developing those new instructional techniques you’ve thrown out the status quo for. Goes with all the talk of work-ethic that’s already been pretty well described.

    3. Ability to connect on a personal level with students. I have known at least a couple teachers who met the first two traits pretty well, but just couldn’t connect to high school students. The result: students performed, but didn’t push it to the limit. Teaching is a personal activity, and personality does play an important role.

    I agree that simply being able to connect with students does NOT make a good teacher. I’d rather have the person who can’t connect with students but has traits 1 & 2 than someone who only has trait 3.

  10. As for you last question, I think the “willingness to try new things’ is teachable, if said teacher is in a school/environment that encourages ands fosters this spirit. The school climate would also help with #2 on Ben’s list. I don’t think #3 can be taught. It can be encouraged (or discouraged) by the school climate/admin, but I don’t think it can be taught.

    I’d like to add one more quality to the list: the ability to think on one’s feet. I think a good teacher needs to constantly read what’s going on in the classroom (level of engagement & understanding are the two that immediately come to mind) and be able to make changes in the “plan” accordingly. This comes into play too when you have the one kid who says, “yeah, but how does that work with … “. You’ve gotta be able to take what the students bring to the class and run with it – without being totally dragged off track.

  11. Coincidentally, this popped into my reader today:
    The Science of Scriptwriting

    You don’t have to delve far into the realms of scriptwriting before you’ll be pointed towards a book called Story by Robert McKee, which explains why scriptwriting is more akin to engineering than art. McKee examines story-telling like a biologist dissecting a rat. But after taking it apart, he explains how to build a story yourself using rules that wouldn’t look out of place in a computer programming text book.

    McKee has become so influential that huge numbers of films, perhaps most of them, and many TV series are now written using his rules. But the real measure of his success is that there are even anti-McKee films such as Adaptation that attempt to burst McKee’s bubble.

    Given that scriptwriting has become so formulaic, shouldn’t science have a role to play in analysing it? That’s exactly what Fionn Murtagh and pals at the Royal Holloway College, University of London have done in a project that analyses scripts in a repeatable, unambiguous and potentially-automatic way.

    Using McKee’s rules they compare the script of the film Casablanca, a classic pre-McKee movie, with scripts of six episodes of CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), a classic post-Mckee production, and find numerous similarities.