Tuesday, May 23, 2017

How Jay Leno Made me Think

TamaraJonesTamara Jones is an ESL Instructor at Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland

I have to admit that one of my guilty pleasures is silly comedies, like the ones written and directed by Judd Apatow. You might remember such classics as Trainwreck and This is 40 as well as others with titles that probably would make some blog readers uncomfortable. So, anyway, he came out with a book called Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy that contained a series of interviews with comedians who’d had the biggest impact on his own career. As I was reading it, I found, much to my surprise, that it caused me to reflect on my own career as a teacher.

In his book. Apatow talked a lot about comedians, such as Jay Leno, who shared advice and feedback as he developed as a professional standup comic and writer. This made me think about people I have had the privilege of working with and how they have impacted the trajectory of my career and my teaching practice.

For instance, Apatow reminisced about a phone call he received from Leno once. I guess Leno had seen a standup performance Apatow had done somewhere, and he wanted to give him some specific feedback about why certain jokes hadn’t worked, why they weren’t funny. In fact, in the book, he quotes Leno as saying, “The real trick is to listen to [your act] and throw out everything that’s not funny…I’m always amazed when I go to clubs and I see new comedians, and night after night they do the same jokes that don’t work. If a joke doesn’t work, you just get rid of it and do something else.” I imagine that phone call was extremely painful for Apatow. Even when we know something bombed, we don’t necessarily like to hear the play-by-play. It’s humiliating to hear about our failings. I imagine he felt much the same as we teachers feel when someone sits in our classes and offers negative feedback that is all too accurate about a lesson. That kind of critique can make us critically evaluate our own teaching, and growth like that is rarely comfortable. And, yet, it’s good advice for teachers, too.

We should listen to ourselves teach and throw out the parts of our lesson that don’t work. It made me think of when I was teaching in Nashville, Tennessee at the International English Institute. The Academic Director at the time was a wise and wonderful woman, Madeline, and she taught me about the importance of critically reflecting on my teaching after every lesson. In fact, we even had a space in all of our lesson plans for journaling about how each activity went and whether we felt we had reached the students. We had to turn in those journals to Madeline at the end of every semester and she read them and responded. It was a ton of work for all of us, but it helped make internal and automatic the process of critical reflection at the end of every class. To this day, even after more than 20 years of teaching, I still make notes on my lesson plans and refer to notes from previous semesters when I write new lesson plans. Without a mentor like Madeline, I am pretty sure I would not be half the teacher I am today.

Another piece of interesting advice Apatow got from Leno was to never say no to anything. In his interview with Leno, Leno says “I do whatever people ask me to do, unless it’s something which is just totally — oh, I don’t know, I mean, sexist or racist or something of that nature.” While this might not be the best advice for someone who wants to maintain a sane work/life balance, I can see that it would be good advice for a hungry budding young comic. And, maybe good advice for an ambitious teacher like me. It reminded me of another wonderful professional influence in my life. Rebecca, the long-time Director of the English Language Center, where I still work, retired a few months ago. She encouraged me to try so many new things. She had me writing scope and sequences, she encouraged me to teach classes I had little experience with (like Pronunciation and Spelling), she even had me write a Spanish radio advertisement – talk about outside my comfort zone! I didn’t always blow her out of the water with the results (I never wrote another Spanish radio ad) but she encouraged me to try new things and to never say no to any new opportunity. That gave me a lot of confidence, and I learned so much.

Madeline and Rebecca were very important influences in my professional life. I don’t know if either of them would have ever considered themselves to be mentors to me. Our relationship wasn’t formalized in that way. But, they both taught me a lot about teaching and their encouragement and guidance put me on the path I am on today. I only hope that I get the chance to pay it forward when I work with new instructors.

So, I wonder if you think back along your teaching career, even if you’ve only been teaching for a few years, if anyone leaps into your mind as being a positive influence. Who has mentored you? What have they taught you? I’d love to hear about what you’ve been taught along the way!

Apatow, J. (2016). Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy. New York, NY: Random House.

Leave a comment on this post