In Teaching, You’re Not Always Saving Lives

The administrative team in my district recently engaged in a ritual that we have performed for as long as I have been here. We renewed our certification in CPR and basic first aid. It takes about two hours, and the training is usually provided by a few of our staff members.

Our instructors were two of our district’s best health and PE teachers. Their expertise was apparent, they were warm and inviting, they showed us several high-quality videos illustrating the symptoms of cardiac arrest and the procedures for emergency care, and they encouraged risk-taking and engendered confidence in the participants.

Practice is an essential part of this training, because if you find yourself in a situation requiring CPR, you must have done it before, even if you’ve never performed it on an actual person. We practiced on first-aid dummies—pardon the expression, but the plastic mannequin-like apparatuses are literally “dummies,”. You can blow into the dummy’s mouth and, as long as you are holding its nose in proper form, the chest will rise as it would in real mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Chest compressions also mimic how it feels to administer actual CPR. Each administrator practiced the entire routine at least three times. After finishing, we took a quiz. If we passed, we received a card certifying us as cardiac lifesavers by the American Red Cross. I’m pleased to report that every administrator passed the quiz and successfully recertified.

One might conclude that this entire exercise was a matter of compliance, something you just have to do periodically to check off a box and meet a legal requirement for training. But I have found that it’s not sufficient to sit back and comply. You’re required to recertify once every two years, and sure enough, every two years the methods to move blood throughout the body via chest compressions and provide a small amount of oxygen through mouth-to-mouth seem to change. When I first learned, it was one breath and 15 chest compressions. Then it was changed to chest compressions first, then breaths. Later, it changed again to 30 chest compressions and two breaths.

I shouldn’t be surprised that the procedure is in constant flux—we’re talking about life and death here, and we’ve got our best people working on it.

This workshop included several elements of effective instruction: the “feeling-tone” of the classroom setting; the expertise of the instructors; the relationships developed in the workshop; and the use of media, modeling, cooperative grouping, and independent practice. Given the subject matter, you might ask, “Why was any of this necessary? You were learning to save lives!” You would think that we could have mastered these techniques even with horrible teachers, a lousy environment, and without videos or opportunities to practice on dummies. But this isn’t true. If none of these factors were in place, we likely would not have successfully recertified.

Photo credit: Donald Gately

Put simply, if a group of dedicated, experienced school administrators don’t automatically engage when the content is a matter of life or death, how much do you think your 12-year-old learners are going to engage with a discussion of Shays’ Rebellion or a poem by Emily Dickinson? Regardless of how essential we deem the content we are teaching, kids won’t engage unless we focus on the essentials of learning.

All great teachers have singular passions for their disciplines. As a teacher of English language arts, I know that I did. No one needs to convince us of the importance and relevance of our content. But that’s not enough. Even though we teach our content as though the lives of our kids depend upon it, they won’t learn unless we purposefully employ techniques to ensure they are engaged.

What are you passionate about in your content area?   How do you ensure that your students engage?

Donald Gately, EdD, serves as the principal of Jericho Middle School in Jericho, NY. He was the 2016 New York Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter at @donald_gately and visit his blog.

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