In Show Your Work, Austin Kleon’s book on exploring creativity, the author lists ten steps artists can take to cultivate an audience.  As it turns out, they are insightful tips for teaching creatively as well.  Because in the end, teaching is an art as well as a craft.

1.  You Don’t Have to Be a Genius.  I used to think that if I didn’t teach the way other teachers taught or if I didn’t know what they knew, then I was an inferior educator.  But now I know that teaching what I know through who I am is the only way I can teach.  I’ve also learned that when I say “I don’t know” or “Let’s find out,” then everybody learns.

2.  Think Process, Not Product.  Data-driven testmongers may cringe, but learning is more about trying and failing than it is about saying “Here’s my product. Please evaluate it.”  In other words, we might do well to value the process as much or more as the outcome. 

3.  Share Something Small Everyday.  I’ve learned that the off-hand, seemingly random comment can have just as much effect on my students as the planned curriculum.  Something I thought of as I was driving, perhaps.  Or mentioning a movie I saw. Or talking about the birds I saw in the park over the weekend.  Or maybe sharing a quip one of my daughters uttered over dinner the night before.  Sharing these moments with our students makes us human, relatable, accessible.

4.  Open Your Cabinet of Curiosities.  I have a little red ceramic skull in my classroom that I purchased at Knott’s Berry Farm nearly 40 years ago, a trunk with everything I’ve ever written, six blue-bindered journals I wrote in high school, and a handful of notes from former high school crushes tucked into a box in the cupboard.  I take all of these out occasionally and share them with my students.  These curiosities not only make me who I am, but they close the gap between the big desk and the smaller desks.

5.  Tell Good Stories.  People have had a hard-wired hunger for stories since cave people sat around the campfire talking about the crazy thing Og in the next village did at the DMV.  So no matter what subject you teach, telling good stories is a necessity.  If you need practice, listen to masters like Flannery O’Connor, Steven Spielberg, and Louis CK.  

6.  Teach What You Know.  I used to worry that I didn’t know enough, but I realized that at the very least I (often, usually, sometimes) know more than my students. So I try to find an idea I can pass along, and I start there. 

7.  Don’t Turn Into Human Spam.  Don’t always fill the space with talking and taking.  Give. Serve. Offer support, praise, and lovingkindness. Learn what they know before showing what you know.

8.  Learn to Take a Punch.  Teaching often feels like a contact sport where someone has hidden the protective pads. Teachers must develop an almost judo-like ability to dodge the inevitable blows or, at the very least, take one on the chin, look your opponent in the eye, and with a broken heart and watery eyes whimper, “That didn’t hurt.”  

9.  Sell Out.  This is a noble job and we certainly don’t do it for the colossal paycheck.  But if you ever have a chance to make more money because of your teaching skills (writing a book, tutoring, offering a workshop), take it.  Never let anyone make you feel bad for being compensated for your gift.  For better or worse, our society values money and so being paid for your training and experience will increase your ethos. It doesn’t make you less noble.  Do you think Brad Pitt says, “That’s okay.  Give that 12 million dollar check to Clooney; I just do this for the love of it and how I help people.”  Ah, no.

10.  Stick Around.  I suppose this is truly where the Zen kicks in.  Do what you can to accept, avoid judgment, and detach from expected outcomes, so you can maintain your peace and sanity in the classroom and, more importantly, live to teach another day.  Because you still have some time left in this profession, and we need you. TZT