Teach like a Pirate

This week, I attended a statewide conference for school administrators where I was presenting some research I had conducted with some colleagues.  During the day, I had the pleasure to attend a great keynote speech by David Burgess, a secondary school teacher from San Diego, CA.  In addition to teaching high school social studies, Mr. Burgess is also the New York Times best selling authoring of the book Teach like a Pirate.  His keynote was a shortened version of the teaching traits and techniques he promotes in his book.

Dressed in pirate garb, Mr. Burgess engaged and entertained the audience with passionate tales from his classroom.  To him, Teach like a Pirate means that educators should take no prisoners and employ an almost swash-buckling approach to getting students to learn.  But the concept isn’t just a metaphor.  In his book, Mr. Burgess explains that Teach like a Pirate actually means embracing each component of the acronym P-I-R-A-T-E.  Teachers need to be PASSIONATE and IMMERSE themselves into the content.  They need to build RAPPORT with their students and ASK questions and analyze student responses.  They need to undergo a TRANSFORMATION to leverage creativity to design engaging lessons that hook students.  Lastly, educators need to have and show ENTHUSIASM for the learning process.

Mr. Burgess is a gifted presenter and showman.  In his introduction, he explained that he used to work as a magician.  During the presentation, his ability to keep a crowd in suspense was clearly on display.  He kept an audience of over two hundred school principals, superintendents and supervisors engaged and entertained.  After the presentation, however, I reflected on the substance of his presentation.  Clearly, educators need to engage their students in the learning process through creative lessons and the PIRATE acronym offers a concise, systematic solution to this. As a teacher educator and professional developer, however, I wonder how these traits can be taught.  How do we teach educators to be more passionate?  Or to be enthusiastic?  These seem to be personality traits that would be hard to foster in others.  I’m not saying that passion and enthusiasm aren’t critical elements for successful teaching.  As a student, I’ve always struggled to learn from educators who were disengaged from the subject matter or from a lesson.  I’m only wondering how we build enthusiasm or teach passion to new and experienced teachers.  Are there activities that can help build teacher enthusiasm?  Are passion and enthusiasm concepts that can be measured?

And that’s the other main reflection I have after attending Mr. Burgess’ keynote.  In an era of evidence-based teaching, how do the components of Teach like a Pirate fit in?  Some elements (asking questions, for instance) have a strong research base that demonstrates their effectiveness.  Others (transformation?) have less explicit connections to any solid evidence base.  In his presentation, Mr. Burgess didn’t cite any journal articles or include references to support his work.  Then again, does it matter?  As I examine Teach like a Pirate from a scholarly standpoint, I can almost hear Einstein’s words echoing in my head:

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

And maybe that’s where Teach like a Pirate has its most power.  It motivates educators to focus on the less tangible aspects of our practice that can impact student learning.


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