My favorite undergraduate professor was a brilliant historian named Phillip Paludan. What made him a truly extraordinary classroom teacher was the obvious fact that few things in life gave him more joy than teaching. Because Paludan had a gift for voices, he would sometimes transition from lecture to reenactment. He used an over-the-top British accent to explain the English view of the Revolutionary War. His Southern accent, trotted out occasionally during discussions of the Civil War, was equal parts outrageous and entertaining. Because Paludan had fun teaching, we students had fun learning.
Unlike Professor Paludan, I can’t do accents. I do not try. But like Professor Paludan, there are few things in life that I find more fulfilling and more fun than teaching. So I do emulate him by making it clear to the students that I am happy to be in class and that I am having fun teaching the material, which vastly improves the odds that the students in attendance are going to have a good time and enjoy learning.
I have not immersed myself in the literature of positive psychology, but I’m pretty sure that if I did I would find scientific underpinning for what we all instinctively know – that good moods are contagious. Bad moods are as well, unfortunately. Most of us have had experiences with teachers who dearly wished to be anywhere but in the classroom. That can never end well.
No matter the course or student level, if I have a smile on my face and am in a genuinely good mood, everything will go better for me and for most of the students. Of course, there may always be a few students who are determined not to have a good time in class, no matter how positive my attitude. For them I try to remember Herm Albright’s saying: “A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.”So, as I toddle off to class each day, I do not focus on the grand organizational scheme that I intend to use, or the details of the most intricate concepts that I hope to impart. Instead, I simply focus on putting myself into a good mood. I used to try to think of a joke or a clever comment with which to begin class, often playing off some absurdity in the day’s news. But now I am more likely to dredge up a memory of traveling to a fun place with my wife and daughters when the girls were little. Or I think about the last time I had a really good slice of chocolate cake. That’s all it takes to put me in a good mood as I walk into the classroom, which is all it takes to help me set the right tone for class.
“Good moods are contagious. Bad moods are as well, unfortunately,” writes Robert Prentice. This concept became clear to me in my first year of teaching high school 25 years ago. I learned that positive thinking is not only contagious; it’s life-changing.
A common assignment in 9th grade English was a reflective journal about the insights students had gained. One student wrote: “You should know right now that I’m the loser kid teachers always give up on, so you shouldn’t waste your time on me.” It hit me in the heart in ways I still feel today. My feedback to him was simply, “Not in my class!”
That “loser kid” is now a teacher himself – at the same high school where he was a student. Just before he graduated four years later – in the top 10% of his class – he told me that my note turned his whole thinking around. I wonder what might have happened if I had dismissed his journal comment as melodramatic teen angst and moved on.
Robert writes that we should transmit to students that we are “happy to be in class and . . . [are] having fun teaching the material.” I’d add that it’s especially important to always be aware of how our attitudes can have far-reaching consequences. Positive thinking can change lives, and isn’t that what all teachers hope for?”