The Art of Teaching

I had mixed feelings about this Atlantic article, which focuses on the importance of promoting students’ joy in learning. On one hand — duh. On the other, in this age of standards, skills, grit, self-control, and college and career readiness, the point is worth making. But in making it, it’s important not to set the joy of learning in opposition to the hard work. The two are really partners.

When I taught, I always thought my first job was to create a spark, to give my students a sense of the importance, the fun, and, yes, the joy of math. Without that, learning is a slog for everyone, students and teachers alike, and you rarely get anyone’s best work. But once you have joy and excitement, you still have to harness them. You have to get students to challenge themselves by thinking in new ways and trying hard problems — which can involve frustration and at least the temporary suspension of joy. The art of teaching is balancing these. You balance them by making a promise: here’s something hard, but if you stick with it, you’ll figure it out. I’ll help you through it, and when you do get it, you’ll feel the joy again, sometimes even more deeply than you did before.

Done right, joy leads to hard work, which leads to success and joy, and the cycle starts all over again. It takes courage to make those promises, and skill to keep them, and the best teachers make and keep them over and over again.

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