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Top Ten Things Educators Could Learn From David Letterman


In honor of Dave's new show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, I am reposting this blog I shared upon his retirement. Welcome back, Mr. Letterman!!

# 10 Plan in Teams: Last night’s behind-the-scenes montage was a good reminder that one hour of television is made up of many hours more of planning, and that what appears to be a “One Man Show,” is really the result of an enormous collective effort. Every good educator knows that planning in teams is critical, and that a great plan helps class run smoothly while allowing for off-script moments to occur naturally.

#9 Mix it up: Monologues can be compared to a teacher’s mini-lessons. The pace and length are critical. After 5-10 minutes, the format shifts. If Dave stood in front talking the whole time – though he could probably pull it off better than just about anyone – we would eventually get tired and tune out. Educators should take note of the talk show format and remember how important it is to mix it up. Start with a mini-lecture, perhaps, but quickly pivot to something more interactive.

#8 Humor is Key: OK, so we can’t all be internationally famous comedians of the David Letterman variety. However, if you get in front of people on a regular basis – for a living - it helps to be funny. Teachers are not exempt from this. Humor helps students connect with the subject matter at hand, and with the person responsible for delivering it.

#7 Don’t Forget about Music: Paul Shaffer and his band set the tone and mood of the show and were a perfect complement to Dave and his featured guests and musicians. They knew when to take the lead and when to play back up. Every teacher in every classroom in every school in America should have a way to share music and should frequently seize opportunities to do so. Classical music could be played in hallways and cafeterias, period pieces should support history lessons, and music programs should be central to every school. Many thanks to Paul for sharing his creativity and talent with us for so long!

#6 Be Real: What drew so many of us to Letterman in the early days – and what kept so many people watching and choosing him over Leno - was his authenticity. Educators, too, need to be real and authentic in order to connect with kids and families. We sometimes get so locked into our roles (as “teacher” or “principal”) that we forget to bring our human side to the work. Dave was always Dave, for better or for worse, which is what kept so many people coming back to him for so long.

#5 Competition can be Productive: Letterman and Leno - and their respective teams - famously competed for many years. Healthy competition can also propel a school forward. Which grade will have the fewest number of unexcused absences? Which class will read the most books? Which student will arrive on time for the most consecutive days? Competition done right can unite a school community and motivate individuals and groups to be their best.

#4 Rituals are Welcome: Most of us enjoy some predictability - there’s a comfort in ritual and routine, especially for kids. We knew when we tuned in to Letterman that we’d see a Top-Ten list, and that it will be the same but different from the day before. In schools we need to create meaningful daily rituals that go above and beyond the recitation of The Pledge of Allegiance. Some classrooms and schools kick the day off with morning meetings where issues of the day are addressed, kids are celebrated and the day is started in joyous fashion with songs and cheers. Rituals help build the culture and community in a class or school, and give kids something they could count on day in and day out.

#3 Think Outside the Box: My first memory of David Letterman is seeing him dressed in the Human Alka Seltzer Suit in 1984. As an 11 year-old kid, this was just about the most genius thing I had ever seen. While teachers should not be expected to be entertainers of the David Letterman variety, there are so many little things we could do to break free of the mundane. When you wake up in the morning, ask yourself, “What could I do or say that will make today memorable?” I am remembering my 7th Grade Social Studies teacher who helped us learn about Sir Francis Drake by celebrating "Drake's Day" with Yodels and Ding-Dongs.

#2 Defining Success: By all accounts, David Letterman did not stand out in school as a kid who would make hundreds of millions of dollars by building an iconic show and having the stamina to last for 33 years. He had mediocre grades but obvious talents that I suspect may not have been fully recognized in a traditional classroom setting. For educators, Dave's story should remind us to look for the brilliance in all our students, and to more broadly define what it means for a kid to be a "success" through the school years.

#1 Know your Audience: Dave capped off his run with an expression of gratitude to those of us who enjoyed him from the audience or the comfort of our own homes. Ultimately, he drew his strength from our viewership and adoration (and yes, his generous compensation). As educators, we need to remember that we wake up and do this work everyday so that kids will have exceptional experiences while they are with us - they are our audience and our priority, even if they don't give us standing ovations on a daily basis.

Thank you for all the laughter!


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