What Harry Potter Taught Me About Teaching: Be a McGonagall, not a Lockhart.

Be a McGonagall, not a Lockhart. Be a Dumbledore, not an Umbridge. And even though he turns it around in the end, when it comes to teaching, probably don’t be a Snape.

I’m a mega Harry Potter fan, right down to noticing (and sometimes loving) the slight differences between the books and the movies. Like most people who grew up reading the series, I can’t quite put into words how much these stories impacted my life. I can only tell you that I loved them as a kid, and I love them still. And with respect to both the books and the movies, my favorite Minerva McGonagall moment on film comes as the Battle of Hogwarts is about to begin in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. (While the filmmakers did add a little bit to the existing plot line for this scene, I will emphatically defend the added line of dialogue, but that’s not the point of this post.)

Some of you may know the scene I’m referring to, but if not, please watch it courtesy of YouTube:

When McGonagall transforms the statues into soldiers ready to fight for Hogwarts, tensions are climbing. Everyone is afraid of what is to come and uncertain whether or not any good will come of their efforts. (Yes, I was crying through this scene, as McGonagall brought the castle to life. I really felt for her, a teacher trying to protect her students and save her school, even if saving it meant destroying it.) Then she said it.

“I’ve always wanted to use that spell.”

Aside from the comic relief that moment brought, I can also say that it was a defining moment for me not just as a Harry Potter fan, but as a student and a teacher. There was something about her momentary joy in a moment of looming terror that struck me as important. And I was reminded once again that even though she would have been strict, I know McGonagall would have been my favorite teacher. In that moment, I saw a teacher who knew exactly who she was, and I saw a teacher excited to try new things. Piertotum Locomotor, indeed.

That reminds me of some of the readings for this week, including this observation by Sarah Deel: “I hadn’t considered that certain qualities described me (like my earnestness or attention to detail) could be a legitimate part of my teaching voice.”

Of course, I’m not here asking, “What would McGonagall do?” because that isn’t how my brain works. I have to find my own teaching path, my own voice, inspired by fiction and life experience alike. The are many ways to be a good teacher (or a bad one). McGonagall’s to-the-point, no-nonsense, strict but fair attitude was always something I liked about her in the HP series, even though I never would have wanted to replicate it myself, at least not to the same degree. Granted, my first semester teaching was full of confusion and uncertainty and seemingly endless questions about my identity as a teacher: How should I act? How can I be myself? Should I be myself? How do I keep it professional yet lighthearted? How would I describe myself as a teacher?

(Truly, the answer has been the same since I was eight: I’m a little bit weird, thankyouverymuch.)

Again, with respect to Deel’s piece, what stuck with me especially was the most important commonality she noted among good teachers in her life: “They explained their strategies to their students. The context of the particular classroom was very important; since the students in each class understood their teacher’s philosophy and evaluation style, they were able to learn from the teacher’s responses to their writing.”

And it makes sense; students want to understand why they work they’ve been assigned is relevant to their own lives. Granted, I’m not McGonagall tasking Neville Longbottom with finding a way to blow up part of Hogwarts in order to protect it, but I do want my students to feel like the work they’re doing means something and is useful to them.

And this, of course, is where I turn from McGonagall to Gilderoy Lockhart.

via GIPHY

First, let me admit that my favorite student comment from my first semester of teaching evaluations is as follows:  “Rachel is the most charmingly self-deprecating teacher I’ve ever met.” If you’ve read Harry Potter, then you know this puts me about as far from Gilderoy Lockhart as I can get, and I’m pretty proud of that. Usually, if I’m toeing the line of being too professional and reserved, I tend to back away from it if it means I think I can help my students. I don’t mind, and it seems to work for them… 10 points to Gryffindor, then.

Where Gilderoy Lockhart would embellish and lie about his experiences to make himself look better, I’m willing to throw myself under the bus when it comes to explaining to students terrified of giving presentations that I too used to have a massive fear of public speaking. I’m willing to tell them I didn’t particularly enjoy math, and that my success with it was largely dependent on a college professor who understood that her course was only good to most of us if it could be useful in our daily lives; somehow she found a way to do that. From full-on stuttering and sweating at the front of a room to barely making it through a statistics class, I’m willing to share my experiences with students whether they’re the good, the bad, or the ugly, so long as I think it might engage them and leave them more open to the work I’m asking them to complete.

So even though I’m still defining my identity as a teacher, and even though I’m still developing my own understanding of my “authentic teaching voice,” I like to think that I’m on the right track. Maybe I’m a combination of some parts Dumbledore, McGonagall, Lupin, and even a little bit of Snape… I am a Slytherin, after all. The professors of Hogwarts are not afraid to be themselves and they are open, at least to some extent, to sharing their experiences in order to help students learn.

Seeing as my story is not finished yet, this feels like a pretty good start.

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