Ever had one of those days? Sure, we all have. For one reason or another, the old “spizerinctum” just isn’t there. We may know why, or we may not, but what we do know is that we’d rather be anywhere else than in that classroom. Yet, the class is scheduled, and the students are waiting. What do you do?

Recently, I faced just such a situation. We had a death in our family, and the funeral overlapped some classes I was scheduled to teach. I cancelled out of the first class, but was able to make it back for the second, and so found myself standing in front of a class just twenty-four hours after the funeral. The experience prompted some later reflection and some possible insights that I thought I’d share with you this week.

Take care of yourself as well as your commitments
I am a workaholic (recovering) and a please-aholic (recovering), and in times past, my first tendency would have been to try to find some way to take care of both my family obligations and my teaching commitment. Fortunately, this time I had the good sense to realize that I was going to be in no shape to teach, not to mention that the schedule just wasn’t going to work. So, I did the mature, responsible thing and contacted both my broker and the client contact, telling them why I could not teach the first course. I said I’d check e-mail while out of town and, if it made sense, I’d try to do the second class.

The funny thing is that people who take care of themselves when it is justified garner more favor than people who always put everyone else’s needs above their own. You may think you are being mature and responsible by coming in when you’ve got the flu, but all you are showing is a need to be needed. Be mature enough to take care of both yourself and your commitments, and others will notice and appreciate it.

Be honest…to a point
I got in very late from the funeral, then left the next morning at 6:00 A.M. to get to the class. As a result, I broke one of my rules about dressing up for the first day of class, showing up instead in jeans and a shirt. I took a moment at the beginning of class to explain my somewhat casual appearance, and to also explain why I might be a little distracted that day. Most of the people in the class were human beings (best as I could tell), so they understood and accepted what I had shared.

The key here is to know when to stop. I stated the situation quietly, briefly, and succinctly. All classroom situations imply a temporary bond between teacher and student, and sharing a part of yourself can enhance that bond and actually make the learning environment better. Go too long, though, or share something inappropriate, and you will cross the invisible line of “more than I wanted to know.” People appreciate honesty; they do not normally appreciate being your therapist, especially involuntarily.

Light the fire
Good teaching resembles a good performance by an actor: there is a sizzle, a pop, an energy that pervades the room. It emanates from the teacher, not by the loudness of his or her words, but by the fire burning within, the fire of helping others learn. And just like the actor, you can learn your craft. You can find a way to light that fire within, even when you don’t feel like it; even when you are convinced it’s not there that night.

This concept may strike some of you as hard-nosed and cruel, or unrealistic. I still insist, though, that until you assume responsibility for lighting your own teaching fire, you will never reach the upper echelons of teaching. I wouldn’t be so insistent about it if I hadn’t experienced it myself.

That day after the funeral, I wondered how I would be able to get through the day. I really didn’t want to be there, and I certainly wasn’t “up” for the class. Once we started, though, I warmed to the subject matter, started working the room and the material. When I saw the spark of understanding in the eyes of the students, I could sense the energy building. It became almost an out-of-body experience, as one part of me taught while another part observed the job I was doing and analyzed what was going on.

Reenergize yourself
What I discovered was that it was possible to generate the enthusiasm internally once I started teaching. You can do it, too. I’ve seen it happen in others too many times to mention—not in teaching, but in music (my other life). Choir members come into rehearsal at the end of the day, beat down and tired. Pretty soon, though, the music and the joy of producing it starts to percolate inside them, and by the end of the rehearsal they are much more energized than when they came in.

There are two preconditions to this “self-energization,” though. You have to actually get joy out of teaching, and you have to prime the pump. If you don’t normally enjoy teaching, you sure won’t enjoy it when you’re down. And you have to be willing to expend the first burst of energy when you’re not sure you’ll have any more. If you conserve it, you’ll never tap the artesian well of energy that comes from teaching itself.

How’s your day?
If you’ve had an experience like mine, or if you’d like to comment on what I’ve written about this, please post a comment below or follow this link to send me a note. And keep finding that internal spark…the world needs more flaming good teaching!

Bruce Maples is an author, trainer, speaker, and consultant living in Louisville, KY.