What Monty Python Can Tell Us About Teaching

My friend and colleague sent around this John Cleese video on creativity. I had seen it before, when Merlin mentioned it on Back to Work, but he inspired me to watch it again with a mind to education. It's still a brilliant video, and I will wait while you go watch it (you can read the summary, but it's worth listening to the talk).

Excerpt from the full lecture from John Cleese on how to inspire creativity within yourselves.

Teaching is a creative profession. I have always thought of it that way, though I don't know if that's the way my colleagues or people outside the profession consider it. Teachers may not call themselves "creatives" like pretentious designer-types, but I cannot think of a better general-purpose adjective to describe what we do. Here are some items from my to-do lists past and present:

  • Come up with a lesson plan to help adolescent Americans recognize the importance of the Romantic poets, their place in nineteenth-century Europe, and their significance today.

  • Devise a game to help Latin students practice noun endings and the usage of the dative case.

  • Convince Student Council that their idea of a dance theme could get us all excommunicated.

  • Create a rubric for student presentations on World War I, knowing that some students created videos, others wrote a paper, and still others made a comic book, and they all have to be evaluated fairly.

  • Email a parent who is concerned about her child's grade. The email must be honest (the child hasn't done any work), but also positive ("Your daughter is great at...") and avoid placing blame on the parenting.

There are a lot of ways to accomplish all that, but I think "creativity" certainly helps.

So, Cleese gives five factors to help operate more creatively:

  1. Space

  2. Time

  3. Time

  4. Confidence

  5. Humor

I think all of those apply to a school just as much as to somebody writing Life of Brian (though to be clear, I'm not nearly as good a teacher as Mr. Cleese is a writer and actor, and don't want to imply otherwise). Let's take them one at a time.

Space

Teachers need good space to work in. That is as practical and obvious as it is important. The classroom is one thing, but I'm really thinking about the space to prepare what will happen in the classroom. At my school, we do not have the space for each teacher to have their own classroom to use for prep periods, so we all have shared offices. In one building, those offices have cubicles, and in the other there is a more open floor plan. Both spaces are useful, and I think ideally teachers would have both kinds of spaces available to them. Quiet office/cubicle spaces when necessary, but without sacrificing the ability to work alongside others and share ideas.

Time

Teachers need an adequate amount of non-teaching time, with no other responsibilities but to plan and give space for this creativity. At some schools the faculty teach four periods in a seven period day, others it might be five. Financial considerations aside, the more time given for teachers to be in their creative space (see above), the better the work they will produce.

Time

Here, Cleese means not just time to be in a creative space, but taking the time to really sit with a problem and not simply go with the first solution that presents itself. Cleese gives a good anecdote about one of his Monty Python co-writers, who would never come up with ideas as original as Cleese. The difference? Cleese would continue to sit and wrestle with the challenge, taking the time to be uncomfortable with the problem. I know in teaching, I have that same impulse to hurry to the first solution to a difficulty, rather than sit with it and be discomfited for a bit longer. Whether that's in lesson planning or at a meeting, how often do we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable? Teachers, as much as any professional, face difficult questions at work. How come we often assume the answers to those hard questions will come easily? It takes a certain humility to really use this approach. I'm all for meetings having specific, stated outcomes. But maybe the agenda shouldn't say, "Solve x problem", but rather, "List all factors in problem x, and then begin giving possible solutions." It's not a cop-out–as Cleese says, decisions do have to be made effectively, but the most creative solutions often take time.

Confidence

Cleese says it perfectly:

Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.

I know that I became I better teacher when I stopped being afraid of making a mistake or "looking stupid" in the classroom. I've had plenty of bad ideas–some of them became good ideas with a little tinkering, others will never be mentioned again. But without a doubt, losing that fear leads to more creative lessons.

Humor

I think this was my favorite part of the whole talk. His description of the distinction between "serious" and "solemn" would be great for any teacher and administrator to hear. Teaching is serious work. We have been entrusted with these children, and have lofty goals of turning them into brilliant, modest, polite, professional, friendly, loving, and generous adults. It's kind of a big deal. But doing serious work does not require constant solemnity. In the classroom, humor is an important part of what happens. Every year I get chastised at least once by a neighbor for too much laughter coming from my classroom (this year that happened when my class only had seven students in it–oops). I'm apologetic, of course, because I don't want to disturb anybody. But I'm not sorry. I laugh at myself all the time. The students certainly laugh with me and/or at me plenty. And I laugh with and at them too. You can't spent 40 hours a week in a classroom with teenagers and not find some humor (even if they don't understand many of my jokes). But the real lesson here, I think, is for the adults interacting outside the classroom. Too often, I see adults try to shut down difficult conversations with a false solemnity that accomplishes nothing. As Cleese says, "Solemnity serves pomposity." If there's no joy in this work, then what are you doing here?

As he says, "Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating." It's easy as a teacher to get distracted by the drudgery of what we do, but at the core, it is creative work, and I find it most life-giving when I can operate that way. I love that his suggestions give a way to formalize and focus on that side of my work–and provide an excuse to keep making jokes at the "wrong" times.