I listened to the TED Talk by Benjamin Zander (see below) for the third time.  Each time I listen I gain something new that stimulates my thoughts about what it means to be a good teacher.  In his short talk of about 20 minutes, he exemplifies the qualities of good teaching in powerful ways.  If nothing else, his overwhelmingly enthusiastic and positive approach about the value of classical music is inspiring.  If you have not watched him, take out 20 minutes with a good cup of tea and see him captivate an audience.

There are so many themes running through his presentation.  I will not try to capture all of them, but will focus on two that inspire me.  The first is:

if their eyes are shining, you know you are doing it!

Zander is referring to the light in someone’s eyes when the music captivates their spirit or moves them to “tears.”  When that happens, there is a light that shines in their eyes.  I see “their eyes are shining” as a  metaphor for enthusiasm or quiet excitement.  Is there really a light?  Probably not.  However, the welling up of good energy coming from within is enough to send the message to any observer that what has happened has touch me, moved me, or impacted my life in some way.  The smile or shining eyes is a powerful nonverbal window into someone’s soul.  We have all probably had the experience at some point in our lives.

“You know you are doing it.”  Doing what?  My answer to his reflection is doing good teaching.  Good teaching happens when students eyes are shining brightly.
What would the classroom look like, feel like, or be like if our efforts as a teacher were focused on creating “shining eyes” in our students?  I don’t believe it would be a traditional classroom that looked the same for all teachers.  The path that each teacher would take to foster a “shining eyes” experience for his or her students will vary from teacher to teacher.    However, I would surmise that it would not be the kind of classroom that many of our students experience day-to-day.  I have been around schools for 34 years, teaching my own classes, watching other teachers teach, and walking the hallways interacting with students.  Seeing “shining eyes” is not a frequent experience.   Now don’t get me wrong, many students have good days in school, learn about important ideas, and come in contact with caring and effective teachers.  It isn’t a ‘glass-is-half-empty’ problem.  But what I am saying, even as I reflect back on my own teaching, is that the “shining eyes” experience is rare.

When I taught high school chemistry and biology, I wasn’t focused on creating a “shining eyes” experience in my classroom.  I was mostly focused on teaching atomic structure, gas laws, equilibrium,  kinetics, and being sure students could solve chemistry problems in all these areas and more.  I wanted them to be successful, but that was mostly defined by achieving a good grade.  I was mostly focused on marching through the curriculum, either because the AP Chemistry exam was looming on the horizon or because I felt the pressure to cover content.  I could blame it on my own schooling and teacher preparation, but that would be a cop out.  Really, I was just teaching the way I knew best or the way I was taught.

Over time, I began to explore different ways of approaching my science teaching, especially as a result of a rich collaborative experience I had with three other chemistry educators from different parts of the country.  We became a team of teachers who went out to conduct outreach workshops for other chemistry teachers over a four-year period of time as part of the Dreyfus Institute and Woodrow Wilson Foundation.  Over the four years, we interacted with nearly 400 chemistry teachers, learning about our practice through teaching them and learning from them.  It set in place a revolution in my own teaching.  My classroom became a laboratory.  While I didn’t call my work action research, I was engaged in thinking about how different techniques could be used to advance the learning of chemistry.  While I can think of some students who left my classroom with “shining eyes,” I am not sure I intentionally created a classroom experience that was accessible for all students, ensuring that all their eyes would shine at some point.

Zander asks a very important question towards the end of  his talk.  He asks this question in response to the observation that “my students eyes are not shining”:

Who am I being that my students eyes are not shining?

He comments that this questions turns everything upside down because it puts the responsibility on us (teachers) to be sure that our students “eyes are shining.”  It is not acceptable to blame them for not learning.  What about our teaching is ineffective if they are not learning?  What about our practice needs to change if they are not learning?  And maybe, how will we truly know that they are not learning?  Is it through test scores?   Zander would probably say no.  It’s through the observation that their “eyes are not shining.”  His measure of success is:

how many shining eyes are around him?

The second lesson I learned from his talk is connected to the words we say, “the words that come out of our mouth.”  He shares a powerful story about a woman he knew who survived Auschwitz.  As a result of her experiences, she made a vow when she got out of Auschwitz:

I will never say anything that would not stand as the last thing I ever say.

I love this story, the conclusion, and the message it conveys.  As teachers, our words are extremely powerful.  They send all kinds of messages to our students, some positive and some not so positive.  So let’s make a vow to never say anything that would not stand as the last thing we say to them.