Rob Levit | February 2014

Are you the FUN teacher or the MEAN teacher?

As I prepare to present two workshops in Memphis at Harvard’s Project Zero Perspectives educational conference, I am reading Making Thinking Visible, an instant classic on “teaching for understanding” and metacognition. Even though it is mentioned very briefly, one of the authors, Mark Church, describes that early in his career he was considered the fun teacher who always had activities that caught the interest of his students.

As he matured as an educator he realized that as “fun” as he was, he was falling short on “teaching for understanding” and making deep connections. His frank and honest story got me thinking about the pros and cons of being a fun teacher versus a “mean” teacher. What follows are two short stories of two elementary teachers (names changed) that exemplified these archetypes.

  • Do you recognize yourself? If so, how? If not, then describe your style.
  • What can we learn from these fun teacher or mean teacher that is positive?
  • What can be changed without sacrificing benefits and positive outcomes for the students?

The Fun Teacher

“Amy” always had the kids moving, laughing and singing in her fourth grade class. The students seemed happy and got along well together. Class was about play and collaboration. When I visited them, they had just finished a unit on Japan and when I asked them basic questions on geography, language and arts, the large majority had essentially no idea what I was taking about. “Amy” looked embarrassed as she had shown me her lesson plan during our planning meeting and had plenty of multi-sensory activities to engage the students in learning.

The Mean Teacher

“Paula” was like a drill sergeant. Her fourth grade class was the most polite and neat class I had ever visited. It was a primer on classroom management and social skills. The students never spoke out of turn, they answered all my questions about Japan and as the students marched to lunch at the end of my visit I heard “Paula” say, “Students! You are out of line and not following protocol!” I wondered if she came from a military background and was impressed at the orderliness of her teaching and classroom. I also noticed that the students sat at their desks the entire period and there was a decidedly stale atmosphere in the classroom that lacked love of learning and spontaneity.

Yes, these two teaching styles are extreme but they have the ring of truth!

So what are the pros of the fun teacher? Students:

  • Have fun in school and enjoy learning (not to be underestimated!)
  • Collaborate on projects and activities
  • Remember the experiences (if not the content)
  • Practice social skills in “real time”

The cons? Students:

  • Lack understanding of why they are engaged in a lesson
  • Emphasis is on busyness and activity rather than on content – form over function
  • Potential for poor performance on tests, standards and long term learning

The pros of the “mean” teacher? Students:

  • Are treated equally and held to a single and consistent standard of discipline
  • Have defined assignments and tasks with measurable outcomes
  • Learn the value of being organized and disciplined in their approach to learning

The cons? Students:

  • Very rarely use their hands and feet in class and spend most of their time sitting
  • Don’t interact together in a collaborative way
  • Aren’t given the opportunity to learn through personal expression and
  • Don’t realize that learning can be fun, flowing and organic

So, do you recognize yourself in any of these archetypes? As you teach your students for deeper understanding and making connections, can you combine the strengths of the fun teacher and “mean” teachers to take your teaching to new heights?

About the Author

Rob Levit, an acclaimed musician and artist and 2013 Innovator of the Year from the Maryland Daily Record, has created award-winning innovative "Life-Skills Through The Arts" programs for adults with mental illness, the homeless, adults in drug and alcohol recovery, youth in domestic/sexual abuse counseling, foster children, hospital patients, veterans and many more. He is currently Executive Director of Creating Communities and was the first Artist-In-Residence at Hospice of the Chesapeake, where he created and infused healing activities for the well-being of staff, families and patients. Email Rob.