Students enter the gym with whoops and hollers, and immediately break into a run. Entering the large empty space must be more then they can bear. No matter how many times we go over that they are to walk in and sit on the circle at least one class per day will completely lose their marbles immediately upon crossing the threshold to the gym.
This happens even when the gym is just empty space. If pieces of equipment are out they are pushed right over the edge and into hysterics. Occasionally, I put out a few random pieces of equipment just to see what will happen, I’m rarely disappointed! Personally, it’s a real confidence booster to know that simply putting cones on the floor is sure to ignite emotional outbursts and applause.
Applause really does feel good.
My point of all this is that students are thrilled to enter the gym, they are excited, motivated, and full of energy just by arriving, it’s my job to harness that energy and guide it towards a positive outcome, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. To the lay person this would be like playing with matches, but since I am a professional I only get burned occasionally. However, sometimes when it looks like an uncontrolled fire is imminent, the winds change and an amazing recovery occurs. This story is about one such recovery…
It was a beautiful spring day, the sun was shining on my windowless gym, so I propped open the doors to allow for some fresh air and sunlight to filter inside. The day was progressing in a rather unmemorable way when in an instant everything changed. A small bird, maybe a sparrow or robin zoomed right through the doors, circled the gym once or twice and then perched nervously in the rafters. At once I was overwhelmed.
“Mr. Sollenberger an eagle!”
“Did you see that?”
“It’s right there!”
“What’s it doing?”
“Why is it here?”
“Do you see it?”
It was at this time that I understood how a mob works, my students were part of a mob, and the bird was their leader. It commanded their attention, when it flew from place to place they tracked it like hawks, soon students were making bird noises, and flapping their arms, they wanted to go outside and dig earthworms to feed it. They began asking questions about feathers and wingspans, and talons; “does it have talons?” At this point, the smallest student in the class began to look nervous.
Meanwhile I was just thinking, “Oh man, what if it poops?”
Fortunately, there was a future ornithologist in the class. Since my bird knowledge is not current I deferred all questions to our student expert, who assured the students that it was not a raptor so it wouldn’t have talons, and there was no hook on the end of its beak so we could assume it was not a meat eater, thus we were safe. The small student wiped sweat from his brow and offered a sigh of relief. The rest of the class sat in stunned silence, momentarily contemplating this unexpected burst of knowledge before resuming their barbaric noises and arm motions.
Surprisingly, the bird seemed less then pleased with its condition; it kept flying from spot to spot completely baffled by the roof now over its head. Of course the students thought all this flying was delightful and redoubled their efforts to make bird noises and flap their wings.
However, I knew the truth! This bird was mocking me; he had taken control of my class and was relishing in the moment, surely thinking, “Who’s the bird brain now?”
Mercifully, this class came to an end, which allowed me about five minutes to brainstorm before my next class arrived. What happened next will go down as one of my favorite days.
I met the next class at the door, and calmly mentioned that a special visitor would be joining our class today, the visitor was a good old friend of mine, Mr. Bird! I pointed out that Mr. Bird was watching closely from the rafters and we should enter quietly so as not to disturb him. I mentioned that he would fly from time to time, just to get a different view. Students instinctively assumed the hip and lip position (one hand on the hip, and the other in the quiet position over their lips, its pretty standard in elementary schools), and began walking with marshmallow feet (imagine walking with non sticking marshmallows’ on your feet, its quiet) (this isn’t explained to elementary kids, they just get it). Once we were all seated on the circle I continued with my tale.
Mr. Bird was a good friend of mine; I had met him years ago while outside setting up cones for the day. The bird loved the students and enjoyed watching them play on the playground. Today he asked, if he could see what we do in the gym? I thought his visit would be a wonderful idea, (as I looked at the students they all nodded with enthusiastic agreement) so I invited him to join us in the gym. Mr. Bird is excited to see what skills we have, and he is also excited to see how we listen and follow directions, I continued. Mr. Bird has told me that his children are excellent listeners; and he wonders if students are just as good? Let’s show the bird how great we are, I said. Then he will have a great visit, and he will have good stories to tell all his other bird friends.
By this time, you could hear a pin drop, the students were laser locked onto my every word, we then went on to have one of the best classes of the year, anytime they even got a bit off task, I simply whispered a reminder about the bird, and pointed up at it. In class after class I retold this story and was treated to the best behaved students I’ve ever had, and it wasn’t only behavior, they practiced their skills with a focus and determination that is rarely shown.
Mr. Bird had unlocked their imagination, and my story had motivated them not just as individuals but as a group. They all needed to succeed for the group to succeed and once their imagination peaked they also became highly motivated. As teachers and leaders if we can motivate those around us, amazing and trans-formative events are possible. As for motivating children you just need to find your own bird!