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When I was a first-year teacher many years ago, I stumbled upon a trick that almost always seemed to work as long as it was done with the “right” group of students: learn and occasionally use (I stress the word occasionally) the expressions, euphemisms, and slang of popular culture. The students find it amusing and if a teacher is lucky, somewhat endearing. This practice can pay great dividends as long as it is done sparingly while maintaining an unflinching aura of authority and maturity.
The latest expression to gain traction in the lingua franca of my students is “YOLO.” Translation: YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE! Usually “YOLO” is muttered as a juvenile justification for aberrant behavior. I will spare my readers colorful real-world examples.
I would never admit this to my own students, but I find the expression to be helpful when thinking about the impact a powerful teacher wishes to make on students. Yes, deep down I would like to be a “YOLO Teacher.”
But what does it mean to be a YOLO teacher and how can a teacher be one?
While the expression is usually used to defend a negative behavior, it can also be seen as a positive trait of an impassioned classroom teacher. We get but a few months in the lives’ of our students to have any impact, whether minor or titanic. We teachers also only “LIVE ONCE”—we know that the success of our own professional lives is largely measured by the yardstick of our students’ triumphs and failures.
So, how can a teacher embody this YOLO ideal in the year ahead? Remember these 5 tips:
#5: Don’t forget our students will remember us far into the future. Think back on your own school years. Sometimes what we recall of a teacher or a class is random. We don’t just remember the organized lessons and impactful activities. We remember the teacher losing his temper. We remember the offhand remark of a fellow student or the classroom when it wasn’t at its best. We will all have bad days and poor moments, but a YOLO teacher minimizes these moments in the hopes that students will remember the positive aspects of our time together.
#4: Resist the urge to be negative! As a school year meanders through the year, it is sometimes easy to lose focus and succumb to negativity, to focus on the student who never seems to improve or the grades that never seem to get better. Classroom negativity is toxic and contagious. Don’t give in to it. Teacher negativity only gives students an excuse to be cynical and imbues them with a learning disposition that will only harm them as they continue their educational odysseys.
#3: Don’t take a day off. Teaching is a career where excellence is profoundly difficult and mediocrity is profoundly easy. Putting on a movie or extending “reading” or “game” time because you don’t want to put forth your best effort is a ubiquitous temptation, especially as the weather warms and we slither towards the finish line. But here’s the truth: our students know what we are doing. And if we are being honest, every single teacher I have ever known has done this at some point. But YOLO teachers feel guilty about it because they know it will be a day they never get back.
#2: Pretend your child is in your class. Nothing will motivate YOLO teaching more than pretending your very own child is sitting in your classroom. Is today the day a student will fall in love with the subject you teach? Is today the day a struggling student will have a breakthrough that changes the trajectory of his educational journey? Is today the day that a student has an emotional breakdown and needs the strength and wisdom you can provide? If you want your own children to have teachers that facilitate these outcomes then you, too, must do this for other peoples’ children.
#1: One day can make all the difference! I met my wife on one day. All of my children were born on one day. I decided to become a teacher one day and I can remember one day when I read a book by Tolstoy that changed my life forever. Not every day alters the course of our lives or has an impact on who we are. But a great many of them do. Teachers do not get to choose what inspires or discourages our students. We don’t get to choose the “one days” that matter in the lives of our students. A YOLO teacher tries to be great everyday because our students’ lives are unformed and inchoate, because we never know the day that will matter the most to our students. I guarantee if I found the teachers who changed my life they probably wouldn’t remember the day that I remember. And yet, they were able to make a difference because they understood the truth of YOLO teaching.