Teaching, Hitler style


Fifteen years ago I left journalism to become a high school teacher. I’ve never regretted the move. Although I did wonder about it on my first day of teaching.

It was second period — an 8:15 a.m. English class — and the students rolled in all excited to see friends and start the school year anew. I introduced myself, welcomed them to Room 002B, and we got under way. Midway through the class, for whatever reason, I mentioned Adolf Hitler. A glazed look swept across the classroom.

“Hitler?” I repeated. “He was in all the newspapers during World War II.”

Still no response.

“Does anyone know who Adolf Hitler was?”

Students averted my eyes.

I remained outwardly patient, but inside I was thinking, “Are you freakin’ kidding me?”

These were freshmen in high school and they had no clue. So I wrote his name in big chalky letters on the blackboard and spent a couple of minutes describing one of history’s most notorious human beings. I’ll say this for the kids in their defense, they at least had good questions after learning about the German dictator.

Then the period 2 class trudged in. They weren’t quite as excited as period 1, but they were well mannered and when they had settled in I began.

“Hi, everyone. I’m …”

A student in the back row raised his hand and squinted at the blackboard for a moment.

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you give extra credit, Mr. Hitler?”

Nobody laughed. Not one kid.

I told the student that I would not assign extra credit and my reason for that is if you are going to give me C-work, you’re probably going to give me C-work for extra credit, so why should I raise your grade for the same level of work? Just do the assignments I give and improve each time. The student seemed okay with that.

I then explained Hitler to the class as well.

Happily the rest of the classes knew who Hitler was, but a few teachers got wind of what had transpired in my earlier classes when one of their students told them “that Hitler guy in Room 002B tells funny stories.” For the rest of the year, I was known as “Mr. Hitler” among the faculty.

So, what does this anecdote tell us about students? Clearly that some of them lack important general knowledge, that many don’t read, and that only a few have great discussions at home. So every English teacher’s job is to make certain kids read, discuss, and write every day. And if you can blend an element of storytelling with your lessons, you not only will capture their attention, you will get them talking about your lesson for the rest of the day.

And when will you will know that what you’re teaching is having an impact? When some kid comes up to you the next day and says excitedly, “Hey, Mister, look what I found on Google. Says here that Hitler was a good dancer too.”


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