A Good Start to Your Lesson: Stimulating Interest and Enthusiasm

“Welcome to my job!” —Comedian George Carlin at the opening of his show.

Teslas's Lab
Nikola Tesla’s Lab, Colorado, 1899

The start of anything is always an important opportunity to set the tone for what follows. In teaching, particularly, a good opening can determine the eventual success of the classroom experience.

By the time you meet them your students have acquired the skill of adaptation. They adapt to each new school, each new teacher, and each change in curriculum and teaching technique. When they end up in your class they are expecting more of what they have already lived and are preparing to adapt once again. Good class beginnings can break this pattern, generate interest and enthusiasm, and encourage engagement.

Ideally students will come to your class wondering what unusual thing will happen today. Imagine that for your first lesson on the Greek philosophers they arrive in class to see you wrapped in a bed sheet ready to read directly from Aristotle as he would have spoken in the Greek agora. (Or maybe it is your students who are invited to come dressed for the occasion.)

The great minds of any discipline are, after all, people, and many have led interesting or complicated lives. This makes biographies a great source of interest. Since when are Canadian women persons under the law? Since 1929, thanks in large part to the country’s first female magistrate, Emily Murphy and four other “persons” who took the case to the British Privy Council. Women had previously been barred from being Senators or even attending court cases because they were not deemed to be persons under Canadian law.

Inventor Nikola Tesla was a contemporary of Thomas Edison. He acquired a long list of patents, greatly influenced the design of the electric power grid in North America, and anticipated devices like the cell phone. Tesla was also a fastidious dresser and always arranged to be photographed from his good side.

Story, or narrative, is a powerful way to bring history to life. Perhaps a modern headline would lead to curiosity about one of history’s best known philosophers: Greek Teacher, Accused of Corrupting Youth, Commits Suicide at Age 71.

It is useful to have a repertoire of personal stories that have been well received in the past. Practice them and use them when appropriate. Humorous is good although humor can sometimes be dangerous. The safest way to use humor is to ensure that you are the butt of the joke. And Mother’s advice still stands: stay away from sex, politics, and religion. A good story has a beginning and a middle which build to a strong punch line, rehearsed and well delivered. Good stories are short and contain no unnecessary details. It is an art that is worth practicing and is a great way to get things started.

Demonstrations are also powerful ways to begin. I will never forget the high school chemistry teacher who managed to create a small explosion while introducing his lesson. Attention was keen for the rest of the class (especially in the front row). A prof at teachers’ college set a hard-boiled egg on top of an empty milk bottle and asked how we might get the egg into the bottle without breaking it. When no correct answers emerged he set fire to a piece of newspaper, dropped it into the bottle, and replaced the egg. Within a few seconds the egg slammed into the bottle with a bang and settled there unbroken. Attention was keen for the rest of the class (especially in the front row).

How about posing a problem? In the absence of a speedometer, why might it be difficult to calculate the speed of a car at an instant in time? Or, How can a country best balance the civil liberties of individuals against the need for security?

If, in the previous class meeting, you asked for feedback from your students you could share some of it, along with your comments, at the opening of the next session.

In one course I taught I began each class with a very short book review. I pulled something off my bookshelf and explained to the class how it had been valuable to me.

Displaying quotations at the outset, and possibly having a short discussion, can get minds engaged and ready to tackle other ideas.

The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.—Groucho Marx

I had a university professor who always had music playing before he started his lecture (to a small, intimate group of 600 students). I never found out why he did this butI read subsequently that he had received an award for being one of the best teachers in the entire university. (I just told you a story 🙂  ).

For the braver teacher you might want to ask, “Has anyone heard any news today that they are concerned or excited about?”

The possibilities for openers are, of course, unlimited. It’s worth noting that openers are part of our normal way of coming together with other people. We do it with colleagues and friends, usually automatically. Some people might even be offended if you didn’t begin your conversation with an interesting warm-up, before getting down to business.

We often fall into the trap of thinking that teaching a class comes with restrictions that impose a formality not typical of our daily human interactions. Teaching a class is not just a meeting of the minds but a coming together of many other things that we share as humans. A class may struggle to really get going if we forget to relax and enjoy a few human moments at the start.