Let me provide context. Dave’s school was going through an accreditation process, which meant that observers would be in and out of classrooms—clipboards in hand. It’s one of those educational hoops that schools must jump through every so often. The process is a nuisance and often little, if anything, is gained from the experience.
On the day in question, one observer—who luckily will remain nameless—popped into Dave’s room while his students were making paper cranes. Sadako and a Thousand Paper Cranes inspired this culminating activity, the fictional retelling of the story of Sadako Sazaki, a young girl who had leukemia from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. Sadako believed the Japanese legend that if she were to make 1,000 paper cranes, she would have one wish granted. Dave mentioned how it is not unusual for him to have kids in his classroom crying during this activity—I noticed he became emotional at this point in the interview.
Now try to imagine how Dave felt when he heard about the following exchange that took place between the clipboard-carrying observer and one of his students:
What class is this?
It’s U.S. History.
The observer looked around (and saw students making paper cranes) and said:
What does this have to do with U.S. History?
And walked out.
I can’t imagine how angry I would have been if I had been in his place. A lot of passion and preparation went into Dave’s lessons.
I hadn’t taught in 10 years, but after talking with Dave for five minutes, I was ready to go back into the classroom. The guy is intense. No way students in his class would have ever taken their eyes off him—let alone goof off and ruin a lesson.
But they did.
Dave’s students lost it during a lesson that he had spent hours preparing. A lesson he was convinced was awesome. A lesson, that when I heard about it, sounded more impressive than any lesson I had ever taught. A lesson that should have kicked butt, but instead, kicked his.
If you have never heard Dave speak in person, I suggest you take a few minutes to do so. This story will make more sense once you do. During his teaching career, he won many awards, such as Most Entertaining, Most Energetic, and Most Dramatic. Additionally, he wrote and published the New York Times bestseller, Teach Like a Pirate. Dave knows his stuff.
So what happened? How could someone as energetic, skilled and prepared as Dave bomb a lesson two years in a row?
Dave was psyched to teach this lesson. He spent much time preparing. He was going to teach his students about the impact of radio. The centerpiece of the lesson was Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds, in which most of the country believed aliens were invading the Earth. Dave was certain his students would share his enthusiasm for the broadcast.
“I set up my room, and I had all these different props and different things out. And I had built it up. Kids came in, and they were like, what are we going to do today? The whole room was transformed. It was dark. When the lights went out, you could barely see your hand in front of your face. That’s how dark it was. And then, the centerpiece of my lesson was going to be playing for them…we were going to sit there in the dark and listen to the original broadcast as it actually went down in real life. Like, I wanted them to experience it.”
Dave was wrong.
It was chaos.
He flipped the lights on and laid into them. “You see what I did to this room!? Do you know how much time I put into this!?” He admitted he lost his composure.
There was always next period. But the next class was no different. Dave was livid. He couldn’t understand why the lesson—the one he had spent days preparing—failed again. During his break, he complained to his colleagues, “This is just ridiculous. I don’t even know why I put so much time into this stuff.”
But he didn’t give up. In fact, Dave thought he had it all figured out. He needed more hooks. And so, when it came time to teach the lesson again the following year, Dave was ready. He dressed in costume and had even more hooks to draw his students into the lesson.
It was disastrous.
Behavior management problems two years in a row.
And then it hit him.
The answer had been right in front of him all along. The guy who can captivate an audience like few others. The guy who has sold thousands of books. The guy who has created an entire movement in education. Missed it.
“That broadcast for today’s audience? Is just flat-out boring. It’s no good. The centerpiece, heart of my lesson, was trash. And so it didn’t matter how I accessorized it. It didn’t matter that there was a prop in the front of the room when they walked in. It didn’t matter if I controlled the lighting to create atmosphere. The kids were bored by listening to the broadcast.”
Many adjectives have been used to describe Dave Burgess. Boring is not one I have ever heard. But he was right. And he knew it. This is the Dave Burgess we never saw. Not because he hid his mistakes. It’s because we weren’t in the classroom with him. We didn’t see the struggles, the botched lessons, and the readjustments. It was refreshing when Dave affirmed the following:
“Everything that happens in the classroom is just feedback. There’s no such thing as true failure. It’s all feedback. Students are providing you the real-time gift. It’s a gift of feedback. To help you improve and hone your craft. And it’s hard to see that in the moment. It’s so easy to personalize things that go wrong in the classroom. To beat yourself up about them or to beat kids up about them as I initially did. But really, they were providing me feedback that I needed to be more aware of in order to make little shifts in course and adjustments to create a more powerful lesson.”
Hearing these words from Dave was refreshing. How many of us beat ourselves up over our mistakes? Now we know. Dave does too. But only for a moment. And then he’s back at it.
This is the Dave Burgess we never saw.
What happened next? He decided to give his students more ownership of the lesson. They still had to learn about the power of radio and how Orson Welles tricked everyone. Only this time, they would be the ones creating the radio broadcast. This flip put the students in charge of writing the script as well as creating sound effects.
I love it. In the words of Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High,
“Awesome, totally awesome!”
This is an excerpt from my new book, My Bad: 24 Educators Who Messed Up, Fessed Up and Grew! To purchase the book, click the title above or the image below. I can’t wait to hear what you think.