Teaching Opinion

What Makes a Teacher Memorable? It’s All About Awe

How to make wonder a cornerstone of your teaching philosophy
By Jonathan Scolnick — August 04, 2023 4 min read
Digital Illustration style image with textured overlay of a young person standing during the day reaching out to grab a star in a night dimension appearing in a circle in front of them.
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Toward the end of my high school sophomore year, our Spanish teacher organized a trip to see an Andean band perform in Philadelphia. We packed into a van on a Friday evening and headed downtown to a seated auditorium.

My 15-year-old classmates and I goaded one another: Who could enjoy the show most ironically? The performers’ clothing seemed odd. The instruments, strange. But then the percussionists kicked in, dancing their bombo and wancara drums around the stage, and the panpipes and quena announced a new kind of atavistic sound—new to us.

The folklore of the Inca, a civilization we had spent too little time discussing in social studies but whose traditions had come alive for us that evening. Once spectacle lit up the stage and the auditorium filled up with music, my adolescent cynicism dissipated. I rose out of my chair to dance with honest joy.

The last seven years I have spent living and working in South America. But my thirst for cultural exploration and a desire to understand the world outside my language and country has been alive longer than that. Sometimes I think that night dancing to those ancient rhythms unlocked this fascination. What is it that sets this experience apart from all the other ones I had in high school? Why do I remember it so clearly decades later?

As an educator, I reflect on these questions often. What will the students hang onto? And why? Some years back, I started asking my students: What stood out for them during their high school experience?

Hundreds of former students, from schools in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Medellín, Colombia; and Buenos Aires, Argentina, have offered me versions of the same answer. They remember a moment of wonder. The presentation in which the students did something innovative and imaginative; the project that resembled no other project; the connection they made with that singular peer, educator, or coach; that trip or volunteer experience that shook up their perspective or introduced them to a new way of thinking. Something fresh. Something that broke the pattern. Something that maybe even produced a moment of awe.

On a recent visit back to Brooklyn, where I taught for 12 years, a young man approached me on the subway and introduced himself. He was a student in the first class I taught. We exchanged pleasantries, and then he said: “You know, I will never forget your class, because one day you had us present poetry that we had written. I was so shy and didn’t want to do it. Plus, my crush sat in the back row. But I actually loved writing these poems. You talked me into presenting. And as timid as I was, I got up to the front and read my work. Afterward, my crush congratulated me on my performance. I still write poetry and raps today. I’ll never forget that class.”

Why did this young man never forget that class? My guess is that that moment contained threat, beauty, ability, vulnerability, virtue—the ingredients of awe. And moments of awe cling to us, rattle us—change us.

We need to find ways to infuse brief bursts of awe and moments of wonder into our education system.

In his recent book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, psychology professor Dacher Keltner explains that “brief moments of awe are as good for your mind and body as anything you might do.” Besides being a memorable emotion, studies show that awe boosts curiosity, builds humility, helps with critical thinking, and makes people feel more connected. It even makes us happier. “Twenty years into teaching happiness,” Keltner writes about how to find deep happiness, “I have an answer: FIND AWE.”

We need to find ways to infuse brief bursts of awe and moments of wonder into our education system. This is the work that we must busy ourselves with; it is the work that will be remembered by our students and it is the work that might make them happier.

Why do we educators spend so many hours trying to fit everything else, besides wonder, into our curriculum? Of course, there is not sufficient time to get our students ready for the test, make sure they achieve mastery, cover everything in the text, and deliver awe. Yet, when we choose everything else besides wonder, we skip the most essential thing.

Yes, we must build structure in the class. But that structure ought to exist to be occasionally shattered. We all know that no matter how many times we talk about student agency in meetings, it isn’t easy to relinquish control as teachers. However, only in entropy does wild creativity live. Only in that wildness is wonder born.

Rather than having some inspired moments pop up in class unexpectedly, let’s build them into the curriculum. Let’s lead schoolwide, districtwide, nationwide efforts to break through the mundane. Professional development focused on magic, rather than pedagogy. Meetings led by mentors who found a way to allow something vast and expansive and fresh into their lesson plans. In the last school I worked at, we had an Awe Week once a year. I respected the initiative; however, awe is not something to be announced. We behold it unexpectedly.

Connections and wonder are the positive stuff that students will carry with them from school decades after graduation. This wonder must become more our focus. Moving forward, let’s do our best to build instances of awe into our curriculum. So when our former students approach us on the subway years later, they will recall a myriad of magical moments from their days spent in our classes.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2023 edition of Education Week as What Makes a Teacher Memorable? It’s All About Awe


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