There’s no such thing as a teaching prodigy. Beginners just can’t be that good. It’s so very hard, because we want so badly to be good. We want our personality and passion to beam naturally into the classroom like the 7:40am sunlight when first period starts.
But teaching doesn’t work like that. In February of my first year teaching high school, my department head told me I was not teaching well. I was a first year teacher, so yeah, he was probably right (though a bit more concrete feedback would have been helpful). I started crying in front of him. Actually, I cried a lot before the year was over. I thought I’d be a natural teacher. Even if I wasn’t, how could I be doing badly when I was trying so, so hard?
Learning to teach is so much harder than anybody who hasn’t done it can possibly imagine. Good instincts don’t get you very far. You stand in front of a room and you have so many ideas about the learning you want to happen, but you don’t know how to make your body and your voice and your brain do the things that will make it so. And oh, you know when you are boring, confusing, or irrelevant, you definitely know.
In desperation, I reached out to Reed, the school librarian. (Yes, that is really her name.) She was tough, springy, hilarious. I asked her for help, and she suggested that we co-teach some lessons in the library. We stood up in front of a room of kids together, and my anxieties and tics melted away. We were making sense to students, and I could feel it. We interrupted each other, cracked jokes, underlined each other’s important points, and backed each other up.
It felt like drinking a magical teaching potion. It felt like – this came to me with a burst of joy, in the middle of the lesson – being one of the Car Talk guys.
The Car Talk guys, for those of you who aren’t either public radio fiends or dads, are brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi, who went by the names Click and Clack. They hosted a radio show called Car Talk that aired in most US cities on Saturday mornings.
Tom and Ray took calls from listeners about car problems. This is a simple and rather boring-sounding premise, but they elevated it to a celebration of human ingenuity. They were clearly competent mechanics, but they often addressed questions like whether you can fix a car with a piece of a BBQ grill and whether you can pee into your radiator if you run out of water. They did lean pretty heavily on gender stereotypes, but somehow I didn’t mind, and that says something. They dusted off generations of cheesy car songs for their incidental music. They had a Puzzler every week that I found as irresistible at 8 as I do now at 31. And I can’t listen to the credits without snorting. (If you don’t have any liquids in your mouth right now, you can read the full credits archive.) They finished each other’s sentences, slammed each other’s looks and driving and social skills, cracked up at each other’s jokes.
Tom Magliozzi passed away in November 2014. His passing struck me not because it meant the demise of Car Talk – they’d been off the air for a while and running reruns. I was sad because we lost one-half of a duo, a duo that taught me something that’s had a profound effect on my teaching. The important part about Tom & Ray for me wasn’t exactly the radio show, anyway; it was how they formed, for me, the archetype of a perfect on-air relationship.
I don’t teach high school anymore. Now I teach design and creativity workshops, honing my skills at the Stanford d.school. An often-overlooked part of the d.school’s teaching credo is that nobody ever teaches alone. All classes and workshops, no matter how small, have “teaching teams” of at least 2 people.
When people ask why, here are the reasons I usually give:
- more instructors give student teams more individual attention
- a good design workshop has a lot of moving parts, so the more people-power the better
- human-centered design is multidisciplinary and needs at least two different viewpoints
All this is certainly true. But I’m only saying this because I can’t really say, “Would you listen to Car Talk with one guy?” It’d be a guy who runs his mouth about cars, insults himself and his listeners, laughs at his own jokes, tries to sound like he knows what he’s talking about.
In teaching, as in car-advice radio, the genius is in the pairing. A team of teachers generates an energy that’s contagious, credible, unpredictable, and most of all engaging.
A single person might be unmoored; a partner adds gravity. A single person is an expert; two people can learn from each other while you watch. A monologue can have emotion, but a dialogue has chemistry.
Since I experienced the power of co-teaching, I’ve gone out of my way to identify people I can cultivate a Car Talk relationship with. I’m constantly sizing up everyone I meet for co-teaching potential. It might be a little creepy, but you know what? It’s worked. My teaching partners are dazzlingly good. To name a few, and to whet your appetite for finding your own: Dana and I can wordlessly turn a workshop on a dime by raising our eyebrows at each other. Karin and I constantly calculate and counterbalance each other, evening out the texture and energy of a class. One student referred to Kate’s and my teaching as a “rap battle” – she throws me curve balls, but only the ones she is 95% sure I can catch.
It took feedback, practice, and sweat to get to this place with these people. But when we get there, it feels so good, like we’ve broken through a membrane, seen a new wavelength of light. The energy we spark between us, as teachers, spills over into the students. With two of us bantering, asking each other questions, filling in each other’s blanks, even sometimes disagreeing with each other, the “course content” turns into a conversation, and everybody’s invited. I’m so used to this now that when I teach alone, I feel flat and one-dimensional.
I’m wildly grateful to Tom and Ray for bringing their relationship to radio, for giving this particular form to their expertise, for creating this joyous, inviting archetype. May all of us who speak, teach, and communicate be wise enough to seek, and lucky enough to find, the Click to our Clack.