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What a head-butting sheep taught me about teaching

I probably should have been working on my Master’s Project. Or grading that pile of essays my students turned in yesterday. Or, better yet, on an AP course syllabus that I’ve been procrastinating on for a couple of weeks now. Or even simply cleaning my uncharacteristically unorganized, dirty house before the Sabbath sunset.

But instead, I was on Facebook 1, watching this video that my friend Tracy posted. Watching it once. Twice. Again and again and again.

And also, I may or may not have had a solitary tear in my eye.

For whatever reason, as of late, I’ve been a sucker for sheep. I keep stumbling across them in the Bible, on the internet, and in my classroom 2. One of the teams in my fantasy football league is named after sheep. It might just be one of those things where X is always around you and you never notice until someone brings it up, and then you start noticing an abundance of Xs everywhere you go, but even so, I’ve been getting a sheep treatment lately.

So when I saw Tracy post a video about sheep teaching, it was over before it already started. I watched. I laughed. I rewatched. I giggled. I rewatched. I was silent. I rewatched. I was touched.

At the risk of getting too analytical over a silly 2-minute viral video, here’s what my teacher eye sees:

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0:01—In education, this is called the set. A good lesson should have some sort of opening that gets the students’ attention and possible tease what we’ll be talking about today. Notice the sheep backing up, never taking her eyes 3 off her student, before modeling what he will be learning today.

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0:06—CHARGE… but not quite. Notice that the teacher stops short, instilling curiosity in her disengaged student without actually making “a connection.” Again, this is part of a really strong set—get their interest, then get to the instruction.

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0:18—What is she telling him? Ok, probably nothing, but she looks to be right in his face, giving him some sort of instruction on how to perform a solid head-butt. Of course, judging from the bull’s head-shake reaction at 0:19, he might have some doubts to how he can actually do this, but don’t worry—she’s ready to again model a successful charge to her doubtful student.

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0:23—Again, she doesn’t turn her back to him when she resets herself—her eyes remain on her student. She’s done this before.

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0:28—Contact! Ok, now we’re getting into practice-mode. Mrs. Sheep is still soft to her pupil, but this time, she’s modeled how to correctly make contact. Notice that, on impact, she doesn’t just slam skull-to-skull into her opponent; she lowers her neck to drive them down to where she can control the situation 4. This is a big next-level type of lesson for her student: “Ok, now that you know the basic plot, here’s how you can win when you’re charging.”

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0:43—”Are you paying attention?” On her 3rd charge, he was looking off to the side 5 and wasn’t ready for her approach. Now, let’s be real—most of us would find this time to snap at the kid and head-butt them (literally or not) back into reality. Mrs. Sheeple doesn’t; she pulls up, gets in his face, says something, and softy prods him backwards. She’s showing his lack of attention isn’t acceptable, but she’s not making him pay for it. She wants to make sure he gets the lesson, but she’s aware his attention span is lessening, so…

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0:47—She does a 4th run at him, but from a much shorter distance. It’s the equivalent of a golf coach modeling the follow-through of a swing over and over; this is truly the “hard part”, so rather than explain everything, she’s focused on the “closing,” or the part that she’ll be assessing for. Again, light contact to show him that it’s possible. The problem is…

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0:50—Uh oh, he’s pissed off now. Or is he? He comes forward slow enough I can’t decide if he’s warning her he’s about to snap OR he’s try it out. Either way, notice that she runs away at her approach, but that she doesn’t turn around. If she was scared for her life, she would have done a 180 and got the heck out of Dodge, but the fact that she’s still pacing backwards says to me she’s still in charge of the situation.

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0:57—What an amazing 7 seconds! He’s so done with this—the bell rang, and it’s time to gather up his things and mosey to the next class. But she’s not letting him off the hook. “It’s not quitting time until I say it’s quitting time!” She charges at him not once, but twice, and by the 2nd time, he’s figured out that she’s not going to quit coming at him until he lowers his head on her attack. Ladies and gentlemen, that bull just LEARNED. And that’s no bull. 6

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1:02—HE’S READY FOR IT! Again, no judgment, but I get so excited by seeing the student finally understand 1) what is about to happen, and 2) how to deal with it. That’s huge! It’s taken her 7 runs at him, but he’s finally got the idea of head-butting down.

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1:20—”Uh, Senora Sheeple? I got it. Let’s move on to the next lesson.” NUH-UH. The teacher has taken a few more runs at her student because she’s noticed that, although he’s acquired the basic concept of the lesson, he has still not reached her “level of mastery.” This is one of the most controversial A-words in all of education: ASSESSMENT. She needs to see if he actually has learned what (in her opinion) he needs to, or if it was just a couple of lucky flukes.

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1:27—Oops, maybe he’s not as ready as his test says he is. She’s going to keep testing him and, if possible, reinforce the lessons from earlier.

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1:45—One of my favorite sheep-based lessons from this video is here: SHE. WILL. NOT. LOSE. He’s no longer interested in studying; he’s tired, bored, and ready to go home, but she’s pressing him on to be the best he can be. And better yet, she’s doing while not being a jerk about it. He’s so much bigger, he’s so much stronger, but he recognizes that what she’s saying is valuable and important—it’s why he’s giving ground to her.

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2:09—The other part of this I took inspiration from this video took place in the last 30-seconds: nothing. Nothing significant happened. At least, nothing appeared to happen. I like to think, though, that after a heated “battle”, the fact that he’s letting her stay so close shows that he’s willing to listen. It shows that he doesn’t hate her. It shows that he values what she’s teaching—he might not like it, but he gets it, and he respects her for it. In my short time being a high school teacher, I’ve found that despite their stated desires, students truly appreciate teachers who are not only caring, attentive, and willing to adjust, but also firm to what they believe and concrete in their expectations. In a world that young people find increasingly confusing and difficult to “figure out”, they can and will respect principled adults who don’t waver in the wind depending on their moods or circumstances, but believe what they believe and expect the best from their students. 7

Is this too much to get from a clip of one of Old MacDonald’s animals ramming another? Probably. But truly, as I watch this video for the nth time, I can’t help but be touched by the sophistication of the instruction that a sheep 8 was able to provide in 2 minutes. I’m inspired to develop better sets to get my students motivated for a lesson. I’m motivated to model what I’m looking for from them. I’m excited to experiment with new ways to provide quality instruction to them. I’m pumped about assessing what they’ve learned in class. And most importantly, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to be an example to the kids that walk into my classroom every day.

And truly, that is no bull. 9

Notes:

  1. also known as “The Great Timewaster”
  2. Student-directed BURN! :-)
  3. With your permission, for the sake of pronouns, I’m going to assign this sheep the gender of a female, as her uninterested bull “student” is logically a male. If I’ve insulted either party of the video, feel free to contact me immediately so I may rectify the situation.
  4. There’s another lesson here: she must know she’s battling someone physically (and mentally?) different than her, but she’s proceeding by tossing her hesitancy aside and just going for it. She’s not concerned about his family background or his IEP or what experience he’s come from or if he’s scared—she’s in the moment, taking cues from how he is reacting to her right then. She can, and should adjust to him, but without preconceived notions of what is best for him. She’s truly with him, right then. Beautiful.
  5. Staring out the window? Playing with his phone? Dozing off?
  6. You have no idea how long I’ve been holding that joke in. I apologize—it (most likely) won’t happen again.
  7. One of the first major hurdles I see new teachers consistently facing is making this something love-based and not a power struggle. It cannot be an ego thing—neither “You’ll do what I say because I say!” nor “My way or the highway!”—but an authentic expectation for relentless betterment of themselves.
  8. Keep in mind that sheep are known to drown themselves while drinking from a river…
  9. Please tip your waiters and waitresses.
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