I’ve been working with a young teacher who is struggling in the classroom. It’s the same old problem–the students are rude and refuse to learn; the teacher is trying to survive until the end of the school year. This is a dance I’ve watched over the years both as a student and as a teacher–sometimes with horror, sometimes with sadness, always with frustration. This teacher’s students come to talk to me about being treated unfairly by an instructor who they feel hates them; the teacher comes to talk to me about being treated unfairly by students who are lazy and have no desire to learn. The best I can do is to try to get everyone to verbalize what is going on in each other’s heads. It doesn’t always work.

In my workshops, I begin by pointing out that teaching is all about sales and performance art. Inevitably I’ll get some nods of agreement and a few who visibly take offense at this statement. I don’t mean to imply that we teachers are in front of the class singing/dancing/juggling vaudeville-style. I just mean that we have to be interesting to listen to and that we have to believe in our product. This goes two ways. First, our curriculum is our product. It should be clear to our students that we are passionate about what we teach. But in another way, our students are our “products” — not empty vessels by any means, but hopefully we enrich their knowledge, expand their view of the world, and help them master useful skills. And then we send them on their way. We have to believe in the kids; even when our students are throwing up smoke screens by clamming up or acting out, we have to help them recognize themselves at their best and demonstrate our complete faith in their ability to do well in school and in life.

To save money, some schools and colleges are embracing online education. I can see this as an effective way to disseminate information and help students master some skills, but I still believe that nothing can replace spending time face-to-face with an inspirational teacher. Just as with sales, shoppers who already know what they want will motivate themselves to acquire the goods. But for those who are browsing or who don’t even want to step into the store, a gifted salesperson who is in love with the product can pull them in and make them believe their lives will be better if they buy what we are selling. For me, that defines the Art of Teaching.