Keith Hughes could be the “Dear Abby” of the teaching world – assuming that Abby were an irreverent, tall-haired, social media virtuoso who dispenses advice 140 characters at a time.
In an era when teachers are confronting immense public pressure and struggling with testing and education reforms they often view as prescriptive and punishing, Hughes is using Twitter to improve education while offering a humorous and upbeat place of refuge in the online world.
Though he is just as frustrated as his peers, he has found his own way to make the profession better for himself and for others: A secret sauce of 1,000 tips for getting jaded city students to respect teachers and pay attention.
#TeacherTip 986. Prepare kids to think and the testing will follow; if you prepare kids to test don’t expect them to necessarily think.
The 42-year-old Buffalo Public Schools teacher enjoys a stellar reputation locally and nationally. He still gets votes for “best teacher” at McKinley High School, even though he left the school for another district assignment a year ago. His upbeat personality and digital media expertise have earned him two cable television shows and hundreds of thousands of YouTube watchers.
When a reporter asked him for some basic bio information, he wrote back: Wait. lol. I have a wikipedia! and forwarded the link to his entry.
But it’s what he’s been posting to his Twitter account over the past several months that has earned him appreciation from colleagues.
Several months ago, he posted #teachertip 1 on his @hiphughes Twitter page. He had no idea, back then, how many tweets he would end up writing.
But on March 29, he posted #teachertip 1000.
In between, he’s tweeted nuggets of insight into how to teach better, become more popular, and stay sane.
In keeping with Twitter’s 140-character limit, his tips aren’t any less powerful for being short.
• Some are fun: #teachertip 978. Play “Chariots of Fire” on test day and high five your students in super slow motion as they enter.
• Some are practical: #teachertip 943. Homework everyday? Come on, we all have lives. Make it authentic, make it count and only do it when it benefits the mission
• Some are profound: #teachertip 967. Learning is invisible; like wind. You can always try to capture it but it’s probably best to focus on adjusting ur sails.
Hughes said he started posting the tips as a way to cope with all the mandates and pressures that have piled up on the teaching profession and maintain a focus on a positive student learning experience.
A former student, Shane Smith, who had Hughes junior and senior year, can’t recall Hughes’ offbeat and energetic teaching style without laughing.
He recounted how Hughes created a dance to describe the Bill of Rights, and how he forced students to learn about philosopher Karl Marx by having them change the words to the goofy, viral dance song “What does the fox say?” to “What does Karl Marx say?”
“I knew some things about Karl Marx, but now I know almost everything,” said Smith, who is now studying to be a teacher at SUNY Buffalo State.
Hughes speaks philosophically when it comes to the challenges facing teachers today. He compared his attitude toward teaching to a physician’s attitude toward health care reform: A doctor may hate the impact of certain “reforms” on the profession, but that shouldn’t stop a doctor from entering the exam room and facing a patient as anything but the best doctor she or he is capable of being.
#teachertip 940. If a teacher ever complains that they hate their job b/c of the kids, politely tell them to quit.
There are a few themes that weave throughout his tips. Perhaps the biggest: if you expect students to learn from you, you have to give them a reason to like and respect you first.
#TeacherTip 996. Noticing a kids new hair style who may be disruptive in class is a smarter teacher move than calling home & telling his mom
Demanding student respect without earning it is the biggest mistake teachers make – especially city school teachers, said Hughes, who spent 15 years as a history and government teacher at McKinley High School. In many cases, city children have a long history of being failed by adults; so they don’t immediately view teachers, or any other adults, as trustworthy.
“If kids have been jilted their whole lives and are a little rough around the edges, you have to win their respect,” Hughes said. “Attention isn’t something that can be taken. You have to earn that authentically. ... Teaching is half human relationship, and half content.”
Hughes also incorporates digital technology into lessons and encourages teachers to engage students by using the tools that already engage them.
#teachertip 924. If ur not trying to update ur tech skills then ur not being very professional. I’d be scared of a doctor w/a jar of leeches
Because Hughes embarked on his teacher-tips journey with little thought about the end game, he didn’t keep a personal archive of his tweets.
When a reporter offered to post his 1,000 tips, he responded that it hadn’t occurred to him to save any. He scrolled through his Twitter account, salvaged the last 100 tips and submitted a Twitter archive request for the rest of them.
Teaching colleague John McTigue described Hughes as a pioneer in using online videos and social media to reach more students than just the ones in his own classroom.
Hughes has his own “HipHughes History” channel on YouTube, where his videos have been viewed more than 5 million times since 2008.
The videos looked rather primitive in the beginning, McTigue said, but they have become more polished since Hughes’ early days. Some popular ones, like “The Arab-Israeli Conflict Explained” and “The Russian Revolution for Smart Dummies” have been seen by more than 100,000 viewers. Hughes even finds ways of handling the minority of “trolls” who post negative comments to his video history lessons.
“He’s terrific at diffusing any kind of social media calamity,” McTigue said.
In response to one negative comment posted on his “U.S. History for Dummies” video, Hughes simply responded, “I see a comment that makes no sense. Happy trails.”
Hughes’ online postings attracted the attention of the History Channel, which now features him on its “United Stuff of America” cable show, and the American Heroes Channel, which began featuring Hughes last month in its new series called, “America’s Most Badass.”
This latter show, which premiered March 24, compares four historical American figures and has them compete head-to-head to see which one wins the show’s “Most Badass” title. This past Wednesday, the show had President Andrew Jackson, billionaire Howard Hughes, daredevil Evel Knievel and Gen. George Patton vying for the title.
But despite his appearances on two cable shows, Hughes is first and foremost a teacher, even though he isn’t working in a classroom this year. Currently an instructional technology specialist for the Buffalo Public Schools, Hughes said even he gets worn down by outside pressures and politics now placed on the profession. He took the instructional specialist job as a breather, he said.
He misses the classroom, however. And students apparently miss him, too. Every year, the Future Teachers Club at McKinley polls students on the best, most original, most creative, smartest and funniest teachers.
Even though Hughes has been gone a year, students are still handing in ballots with his name on them, McTigue said.
Hughes is tweeting a separate set of tips for students, though he’s not nearly as far along with those. He hasn’t cracked 100 yet.
#StudentTip 77. If ur reading this in class; u should really be paying attention. Put the phone away; it will be there when class is over.
To read more of Hughes’ tips, go to buffalonews.com/schoolzone email: firstname.lastname@example.org