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Good teachers sell learning to their students — and ring cowbells

My teacher friends and I talk about two things quite often: Building student engagement and overcoming student apathy. For an 18-year veteran teacher like me who actually was alive when VCRs, microwaves, and car phones in a bag were first invented, the struggle to compete for a student’s attention in this sensory overload world is overwhelming.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The ability to live-stream college football games onto the big screen through some small plug-in thingy is remarkable. But within the classroom, it’s either ride the waves of advancements in our society or get lost in the sea of insignificance.

One way for classroom teachers to win the competition is to don the persona described by Eric Crouch’s grandpa — the persona of a salesman.

Eric teaches at Double Churches Elementary School, and as a youngster his grandpa made a simple comment Eric would later use as inspiration in choosing education as his career.

Grandpa said, “You have amazing people skills, and you are definitely as good, if not a better salesman than I ever was. My dream for you is that you sell something worth having.”

There are few things more worthy to sell — and tougher in the 21st century — than the importance of a quality education.

However, the dream of Eric Crouch’s grandpa comes to fruition every year in a little cinderblock room at Double Churches Elementary. Eric’s marketing plan is simple. He begins with supply and demand, offering his customers a product they simply can’t refuse, a product with a guaranteed return.

Mr. Crouch gives his students smaller, more attainable goals that give them a taste of success. When kids taste success, it’s like tasting brownies — they can’t stop until they’ve eaten the entire pan. So he allows all of his students to find success in something (supply), and the feeling of accomplishment becomes addictive (demand).

Once he convinces them to buy into what he’s selling, his students begin setting their own, loftier goals. They begin claiming ownership of their learning, and most impressive of all, they no longer rely on him for their source of motivation.

If it was just that easy, our schools would be at the top of every list and more of our students would be heading to the Ivy League. But this kind of selling learning takes work. For Mr. Crouch, he refaced his classroom with a fresh coat of paint and furnished it with hand-built wooden tables and a 14-foot jon boat filled with pillows. He raised thousands of dollars to buy state-of-the-art desks and chairs and an iPad for each student.

Then, he worked to cultivate an atmosphere as inviting as Chick-Fil-A. For instance, when students reach a reading goal, Mr. Crouch pins a medal of achievement on their chest for them to wear with pride all day. Over 35 million words and 50,000 books have been read in Mr. Crouch’s room.

And once students reach a larger comprehension goal, he gives them a special medal they can keep and he rings a cowbell loudly and screams out their names for all to hear.

The kids buy in. They become pillow-sitting, medal-wearing, cowbell-ringing, book-reading customers of learning. And Mr. Crouch becomes a dream-maker to his grandpa.

I’ve faced the struggle of engagement all too often, but I’ve never really thought about learning as a commodity to sell. Doing so gives me a different perspective that I think I can use to maybe ring a few cowbells of my own. Thanks, Mr. Crouch.

But if you’re not in the classroom, find an overwhelmed learning salesman to encourage. They need it, trust me.

Sheryl Green: