The Role of Passion in Effective Teaching

May 15, 2024

I know a chemistry teacher named Nate who treats talking about isotopes like calling out winning Powerball numbers. Kids don’t often hide their phones in their laps when Nate lectures about chemistry. Instead, they lean forward in their desks and connect with the excitement emanating from their teacher. They strive to understand what he is teaching and race to demonstrate their understanding because they know he does this “shaking thing” when he gets excited and lets out a howl that you can hear from the hallway. And there is no better way to get Nate excited than by showing him you understand something about science.

Nate has a way of making the content he teaches compelling to his students. It’s in his hand movements, how he darts to the whiteboard when he thinks of a way to illustrate a point, and the different tones of voice he uses. He doesn’t start his lectures with bravado but works his way to the climax, speaking with a cool and calm voice until he reaches the crescendo. Not every student leaves Nate’s class loving chemistry, but they all leave knowing that Nate does.

Personal passion is infectious.

Nate’s secret sauce for delivering compelling, epic lectures is partly owed to his deep connection with the material. It’s not that he has expertise in everything he teaches or that he is a world-renowned scientist and knows every detail about chemistry (although maybe someday). Instead, Nate is fascinated by chemistry, his subject area, and wants others to be fascinated by it as well. He knows there is a relationship between a student’s understanding of the content and their own confidence, ability, and success. This comes across in how he teaches it, and many students adopt his same feelings.

Are you passionate about the content you teach?

This is not asking if you are passionate about teaching. Of course, it’s important to be energized by the many aspects of educating students, from building relationships to designing learning units to mentoring learners, etc. But is the content you teach worth getting excited about? Do you personally care about the subject matter of your class?

The fact is, everything we teach in classrooms should have some level of inspiration behind it. There should be a purpose to the content of our classes beyond the fact that they are in the state or federally prescribed content standards. If we can’t articulate the purpose, I believe we are wasting our students’ time. Essentially, if we can’t define why they have to learn something, then why should they have to spend so much of their lives learning it?

This doesn’t mean you have to love everything you teach.

Not everything you teach needs to make you want to holler out loud and scare people walking by in the hallway. It doesn’t all need to be exciting. For instance, I’ve never been a huge fan of teaching grammar. When teaching ELA, if it was up to me, I would only plan creative writing units and help kids exercise their creativity. The truth is, it isn’t easy getting students excited about the use of semicolons and participles.

However, proper grammar is about providing clarity, and clarity is essential in writing. If I want my readers to understand the ideas I am trying to articulate, they need to have command of syntax and structure. This is the purpose of grammar instruction, so I teach knowing this purpose and try to communicate that purpose to students. And this purpose is the birthplace of that passion we talked about earlier.

Purpose leads to passion.

Mike Rowe from the show Dirty Jobs once said, “Never follow your passion, but always bring it with you.” I’m not sure I agree with him that we should never follow things we are passionate about, but I get his point. Essentially, you don’t have to be passionate about everything you do in order to be passionate. I’ve never been passionate about teaching grammar, but I’ve always been passionate about helping students become better communicators. Grammar helps them do that. Therefore, I’ve always approached lectures about grammar with that same zeal and tried to transfer it to students.

Is there a purpose in the subject matter you teach that you know will motivate students? Can you figure out a new angle to view the content that your learners might not have seen before?

You will not love or be excited about everything you teach in your classroom, nor should you be expected to. But you can look for the purpose in what you are teaching, and allow that to fuel your passion. And the chances are, your students will pick up on that and possibly develop a little passion of their own. Maybe even leaning in a bit more and getting spooked when walking by in the hallway.


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