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The Need to Breathe: How to Develop Urgency in the Classroom

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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As I stated in my last submission, what a teacher believes is the reality of his instruction. Everything you do as a teacher stems from what you value most. Students notice this, but have you noticed how much of an influence you, as a teacher, have on the way students feel in your classroom?

We've all had those days when we are on fire, the students are excited, and everything seems to happen just the way we planned. Why can't we have those days every day? There are a multitude of reasons, but most of them are either related to or directly linked with what we as teachers do. Yes, there are always student issues, but we can anticipate those and compensate for them. So, what feeling do you want your students to get when they come into your classroom? May I suggest a sense of urgency (but not the restroom kind)?

You may have heard the story about the would-be student of a great teacher: The student pressed the teacher to tell him what he must do to gain great knowledge. After much badgering, the teacher finally told the pupil to meet him at the beach the next morning so he could answer his question.

The next day, they met on the beach. The teacher walked out into the water and motioned for the student to follow. When the student got close, the teacher grabbed him and pushed his head underwater, holding it there for a while. The student struggled, first because of his surprise and then because he needed air. Finally the teacher let the student up, gasping for breath. The teacher asked the student, "While you were underwater, what did you want more than anything else?" "Breath!" came the ragged reply. The teacher explained: "If you want great knowledge, then you must want it as badly as you wanted to breathe."

Can you imagine getting our students to feel that level of urgency? We can, if we establish a learning environment that promotes it. The very first factor is that we have to be on fire before we will kindle any fire in our students. We set the mood with our expressions, the way we walk, and the tone of our voice. We have to ask ourselves each class, "Am I urgent enough to inspire the students extrinsically?"

The kind of urgency we want in our students is intrinsic to the learning activity itself. Drawing out this powerful urgency means that our learning tasks have to be important and must require immediate attention. First, we must provide a reason to learn (which is analogous to sticking the student's head underwater). Second, we have to establish a need in our students to learn now (like a person whose head is underwater and needs to breathe). Here are my ideas for learning systems that promote urgency:

Provide a reason to learn -- make it relevant:

  • Establish realistic products the students will create as a result of the desired learning.
  • Bring in an expert who can give the students real-life problems they need to solve using the desired knowledge.
  • Allow students to choose among different methods, not just levels of difficulty or depth. (Read about inquiry-based learning to find out more.)
  • Give students an opportunity to present or publish their work outside of class.
  • Make connections with the other subjects the students are learning about.

In order for learning activities to be most effective, you have to design them to be part of a learning system in which all the parts work together. Ultimately, if the teacher's behavior demonstrates a sense of urgency, students' behavior will most likely follow suit. Urgency is the spark of energy students need to engage in the difficult task of acquiring knowledge and skills. If applied correctly, the process of teaching and learning is efficient and fun. So, when students enter your classroom, you want them to want to feel a sense of urgency. They need to want to learn what you have prepared as badly as they want to breathe.

You can probably come up with a much longer list of things a teacher can do to create a sense of urgency in the classroom. How do you establish urgency -- the need to learn important things right away -- in your classroom?

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (25) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Melissa M's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree; students do need to have a sense of urgency, but I believe that it has to be intrinsically motivated in order to be effective. I say this because so many of my gifted and Honors level students do have that sense of urgency, but it's for grades, not knowledge. Although it is nice to have students who are eager to please, I find that students who are overly focused on grades are afraid to take risks and become too dependent on teacher assistance.

angelica herrera's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I truly agree with the the previous comments. Teachers can no longer afford to teach the same way for any given amount of time. Teachers need to be bold enough to try new things in their classrooms to reach every student. I work with children with special needs and the traditional methods usually won't work with these children. Being open to try new things is a must, however, it might be very difficult because if administration does not support what you are doing it can be very hard. I truly admire those teachers that are willing to do thier best to reach all of their students no matter where they fall in the learning continuum.

Ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Urgency is a motivating force and it is contagious. I am not talking about the desperate urgency one feels when they are a day late and a dollar short, although it is certainly powerful, I am talking about the crackling, sparking urgency of deliberate and proactive purpose, enthusiasm and willpower. Now that is motivation. Business as usual is the exact opposite of this kind of urgency.

You sound like you are one of those people who are not afraid to shake things up a bit. As I stated, your sense of urgency is contagious and affects, however slightly, everyone you meet. As educators it is one of our past times to complain about the state of education. I too have fallen into that trap. I have since learned to look at things another way. What am I going to do about what I view as areas in need of improvement.

I recently read the book, The 360 Leader by John Maxwell (2005). He cues in on the fact that even though we might not be the one who has all the power and calls the shots, we can be a powerful force for change within any organization. Mr. Maxwell proposes that we can be leaders for the people above us, parallel to us and below us in the organization. For example, an English teacher in California named Mary Swanson saw a need and had (and still has) a sense of urgency to fill that need. She saw a group of students that had potential but no support to go to college. She started filling that need for the students. Soon other faculty saw what she was doing and imitated her. School leaders saw the results of her efforts and asked her to replicate them elsewhere and before you know it, Mary Catherine Swanson had created AVID which is an internationally recognized college preparation and academic improvement reform model helping hundreds of thousands of students(Freedman, 2000).

My question to you is how are you going to use your "charisma" and your sense of urgency to see if you can motivate your students to become fully engaged?

Freedman, J.(2000) The wall of fame: One teacher, one class, and the power to save schools and transform lives. San Diego, CA: AVID Academic Press in collaboration with San Diego State University Press.

Maxwell, J.(2005) The 360 degree leader: Developing your influence from anywhere in the organization. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Laura Lee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I recently went to a professional development conference on differntiated intruction. The presenter worked in a low performing school district where most of the students did not speak English as their first language. Nevertheless, she consistently raised standardized test scores by about 25% every year for her students. What she said was, "I teach to the world, not to the test. If we teach what students really need to know, the test scores will follow."

Bettina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Melissa, I agree that the students have to be intrinsically motivated. They have to have a desire to want it and just not for "grade wise", but I feel that teachers have to help make that happen. I have been inside of a classroom that I disliked going to because the teacher/professor didn't know the material that he or she was suppose to be teaching. I loved the subject, but when the teacher is boring or is not knowledgable about the content, I lose interest! I try so hard not to be the teacher whose class I disliked, but the one who helped to motivate me.

Ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Melissa M:

You coulden't be more correct. Anytime a student gets their motivation from an outside or artificial source like grades, it is detritmental to a healthy learning attitude. You stated correctly that it becomes a dependence.

The real trick to being an educator of worth, is no more complex than the teach a child to fish concept. In my blog post about learning systems I briefly explore this concept. If you teach a child to fish, then the intrinsic motivation (reward) is the the actual fish.

Project/product based learning relies on the idea of intrinsic motivation. When a student is done learning, they demonstrate their knowledge and skill by creating a product that they can touch, feel, read, and in essence show off--much like a trophy fish. This reinforces the confidence, enthusiasm and desire to learn.

The thing about this kind of learning is that it is cyclical or systemic. The cycle can be repeated over and over, and a creative teacher only has to modify the topic or content.

You sound like one of those teachers. Best of luck fishing!

Ben Johnson Natalia, Texas

Ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


A teacher who really cares about the topic or skill they are teaching, demonstrates this through the enthusiasm and urgency of their every action. I agree, that sometimes teachers get confused about focusing on "caring" about the students. Yes, it is important to have a relationship with the students as individuals, but for a teacher, students need to see how much you care about what you are teaching, before they will care about it themselves(applying the old, worn-out phrase). This is something that a computer will never be able to replicate, no matter how engaging the music or graphics.

Enthusiasm is contagious. Thanks for caring!

Ben Johnson Natalia, Texas

Racquel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


You seem to have taken the empathic approach to teaching and I admire that.I am in total agreement with you.It is a fact that the Education Arena should feel a sense of urgency.Education is very important and that is proven everyday.Some teachers become so complacent,but we should understand that as educators we need to be apart of an ongoing learning process which will impact on our students in a positive way.Neito(2003)posits that,"the best teachers are those who have worked hard both to develop themselves in the field and to practice what they understand in their own personal lives."As educators we do have the ability to change the world and if we buld on the skills we have been taught we can make it.

Nieto S. (2003).What keeps teachers going? New York: Teachers College Press

camille's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved this piece on firing up young learners by being on fire yourself. There are so many days, as a fifth grade teacher, that I come into the classroom "fired up" about what I'm going to teach! I feel it, the kids feel it. I've paved the way for a great learning experience. And then, on the other hand, there are days when I'm "ho hum", the kids, in turn, feel "ho hum". Nobody's excited. I've paved the way for boredom. I've always known it's my fault if I'm not excited about my job. I have the power to control what's learned and how. If I'm not excited, how can I possibly expect my students to be? I love all of your teaching strategies designed to draw students further into the learning process and make them feel compelled to learn the material. Thanks for your words. Hopefully we'll all breathe better now.

Randy Green's picture

I discovered my pool shots improved dramatically when I started playing speed pool. Nothing like time constraints to increase focus and eliminate distractions. Do we need to find ways to compete against the clock on a regular basis? I could do this for many activities in PE classes, but I imagine it would be much harder in the classroom.

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