Teaching or learning: teachers, which would you prefer? If you want it, sell it!

I hate my teacher!

Teachers, I can’t tell you how much I hear from kids that they’re ready to learn, but their teacher keeps getting in the way.

Yep, we hear it all the time, “I hate my teacher!” But if we listen behind the angry words, what kids are really saying is that they’d rather like than hate their teachers.

Kids don’t fully understand the dynamic here, and, yes, they too easily blame the teacher for a class they dislike. But consider that when we ask students about their favorite/least favorite teacher and subject, the teacher and the class don’t frequently align. In other words, we frequently hear from kids that they like a subject but dislike the teacher, and vice-versa. Here’s the math:

Favorite Teacher = not necessarily favorite subject
Favorite Subject  = not necessarily favorite teacher
Fave T + Fave S = easy A
Fave T + Least Fave S = less resistance to learning
Least Fave T + Least Fave S = trouble

What’s interesting, though, is that when kids like the teacher but not the subject they are more likely to perform than even the other way around, when they enjoy the subject but dislike the teacher.

That is, when they reject the teacher they also reject the teaching: and the learning. That’s trouble.

Kids are clear on this topic: they want learning over teaching

When kids are learning they aren’t aware of the teaching. It’s like the difference between work and play: play requires work, but work without any play is no fun.

I’m not saying teachers have to make the classroom fun. That’s neither realistic nor healthy. I do know that a meaningful classroom is far more enjoyable than one that seems like all work and no play. Successful teachers transform their classrooms into relevant, purposeful encounters for their students.

For those who don’t, at the A+ Club our response for the student is to remove student focus from the teacher back to the student :

okay, you don’t like the way your teacher teaches. Great. But how does that help you? Let’s focus on identifying teacher expectations and meeting them, whether you like the teacher or not.

Still, that ought not absolve teachers of their responsibility to get kids to learn rather than just throwing lessons at them.

It’s not in the pedagogy

Education experts affirm that teaching is delivery and learning is engagement, and that learning can only happen when teachers do both. Great, but the problem with the experts is that they haven’t a clue as to how to develop it in teachers who don’t already have a knack for turning lessons into learning.

I’ve sat through many a “Professional Development” session in which the experts had the teachers acting out this or that student engagement strategy. It’s rather funny to watch a bunch of teachers playing musical chairs. It’s also pathetic to think that simply turning on or off music to cue some student-centered activity equals teaching with learning.

Here’s the deal: kids wouldn’t need the games if they hadn’t already chosen not to learn.

So let’s get back to our Fave/Least Fave teachers and subjects: when teachers earn student respect, when they can understand why the teacher is doing something, students are more likely to learn. One of the largest obstacles to it is simply poor salesmanship by teachers.

All the pedagogy in the world can’t overcome scary interpersonal skills. So more effective student engagement by teachers has to start with a change in attitude.

My suggestion for your next Professional Development is to hand out a copy of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” The premise is simple and enduring: if you want something from someone, you have to give them a reason to take it from you.

Carnegie wrote that success comes from “the ability to express ideas, to assume leadership, and to arouse enthusiasm among people,” which may be asking too much of teachers. But think about it: wouldn’t conscious attempts at in-classroom teacher leadership go a lot further towards student engagement than playing pass-the-card games for vocab study?

Leaders explain. Leaders create purpose. Leaders build enthusiasm.

Salesmanship & Arousing Enthusiasms

First, a joke:

A man sat in the bar bragging about his horse: “This thing runs around all day, I can’t believe it! It’s all work all the time. And eat? Hardly a thing. I just give it a little hay, and it’s good for a week…”

Another man said, “Boy I wish I had a horse like that.” And so a deal was made, and each walked away happy.

A few weeks later, the same two men ran across each other back at the bar. “Oh, that horse you sold me,” said the second, “is a disaster. He just sits around eating all day long. Won’t do a thing!”

“Shhh,” replied the first man, “You’ll never sell that horse if you keep talking about it that way.”

To kids, the old teacher line that “you’ll need this later in life” is beyond ridiculous. Honestly, Biology teachers, will your students really need to understand cellular osmosis to survive into adulthood? So let’s drop the B.S. No, that horse ain’t really so great, but here’s why I want you to give it a chance…

Selling your class to 14 year olds isn’t easy, but it can be done if with an enthusiasm based in the reality of passion for it, genuine concern for the students, and by always telling them why they’re doing what you are asking them to do.

Sell sell sell!

If you’re teaching, it’s because you want to share your knowledge. And if you’re having trouble sharing it with your students, reconsider how you go about it.

You might also consider that the things you do with the kids everyday in class are not good for a sale. Consider:

  • do your rules help make a sale? or could they be stated a little differently for students to actually want to follow them
  • does your tone reinforce engagement or reduce it?
  • is that assessment consistent with real and realistic objectives?
  • is it your job to teach your subject and its skills or to socialize kids into your moral code?
  • are you teaching secretarial skills or your subject?

We hear all the time how teachers ask things of kids that have nothing to do with the subject matter. Sure, you want to develop executive function and good social skills, but teachers too often stray from classroom purpose into life lessons. Stay focused on the job at hand and don’t try to be all things and solve all problems. The kids know it.

Narrow your objectives and sell the crap out of it. Sell it enthusiastically, sell it gloriously, and sell it constantly. You don’t need to lie about how fast that horse runs, but there are a few things even a bored 15 year old can like about it.


A strong sales message needs:

  1. Grab
  2. Offer
  3. Authority

The Grab is the attention getter.  The Offer is what’s in it for the audience. And the Authority is the legitimacy in the message.

Think about how you do this all the time, if unknowingly: “Heh, I’ll give you three extra credit points if you get your homework in on time tomorrow!”

Okay, we have both an Offer and a Grab in the “extra credit” (along with the offer expiration). What’s missing there is Authority. How about, instead, “Heh, if you get your homework in on time tomorrow, I’ll give you two extra credit points. And if you tell me how it relates to today’s class, I’ll throw in two more.”

Kids need relevancy, and they need to know why. Why! why! why! am I supposed to be doing this [stupid] thing! Sell relevancy constantly and use it to sell the learning you want them to engage. The more you can build relevancy, the more authentic your lessons will become, and the more learning you will find.

If you treat your kids as the potential customers they are, you might be selling more learning along with all your teaching.

– Michael