Book Review: Teach Like a Pirate, by Dave Burgess

In this post I present a brief review of Dave Burgess popular teaching manifesto: Teach Like a PIRATE. While the title of the book may create some unfortunate mis/pre-conceptions about what this book is going to be about, the subtitle spells it out quite nicely. The subtitle of the book is: “Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator” This really captures what the book aims to do.

Burgess is quite upfront about the fact that this book is not grounded in theory or research. It is a bold manifesto from a passionate teacher who speaks to us from the trenches. One of the aims of the book is to encourage teachers to teach with a certain spirit – a spirit characterised by being bold, creative, courageous and experimental in one’s approach to teaching. Burgess uses the pirate theme to get this spirit across.

“Pirates are daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success. They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence. They are entrepreneurs who take risks and are willing to travel to the ends of the earth for that which they value.” (Dave Burgess, Teach like a PIRATE)

In Burgess’s view, teaching can be broken down into three areas of practice or expertise:

  1. Subject content
  2. Pedagogical methods
  3. Presentation

Burgess acknowledges that the first two aspects of teaching noted above are vitally important, but his focus in this book is on the third: presentation. In Burgess’s view, this is the area of teaching that is most often neglected. Burgess argues that this neglect of presentation is a great pity. Presentation, Burgess insists, matters! Delivery matters. Teaching is not just about conveying content; it is about creating meaningful learning EXPERIENCES.

Burgess drives home the message with a barbeque metaphor. You don’t just serve people raw meat. You marinade and season your meat. You take care to cook the meat so that eating it will be a special experience. Before the meal you have some good social engagement, AND THEN you serve the meat, together with a few side dishes and a beverage. We are not just aiming for a piece of meat, we are aiming for a meaningful dining experience! The socialising, the marinade, the salad, etc., all of these elements are not just superfluous frills; these elements make all of the difference in the work of creating meaningful learning experiences. Burgess argues that a teacher might know all of the content in the world, but if that teacher’s students are turned off by the presentation, all of that content knowledge doesn’t mean much.

Burgess presents the book in three sections. Below I will briefly outline each of these sections.

Section 1: P.I.R.A.T.E

In the first section Burgess unpacks the PIRATE mnemenic acronym (yes, of course it’s one of those)

P is for passion

Here Burgess reveals the “deep, dark secret” that he believes many teachers carry around with them. Despite all of the pressure that is on teachers to be passionate; realistically, teachers cannot possibly be passionate about every bit of content they teach. HOWEVER, Burgess suggests that the source of passion should not be limited to a passion for content. Instead Burgess divides passion into three categories.

P1: Passion for your subject: i.e. content

P2: Professional passion: What is it about teaching that you’re passionate about? What is the higher purpose that you find in your teaching? Do you want to change the lives of students? Do you want to give them the understanding, inspiration and individualised attention that you didn’t get as a student? Do you want to weave “life changing lesssons” (Burgess) into each lesson? What is it that REALLY motivates you to be a great teacher?

“teaching is no longer about relaying the content standard…it’s about transforming lives.” (Dave Burgess, Teach like a PIRATE)

“Professional passion is an absolute treasure chest filled with everything we need to steadfastly refuse to enter the classroom with anything less than a burning hot passion for the awesome job and responsibility that lies before us.” (Dave Burgess, Teach like a PIRATE)

P3: Personal passion: Bringing your own voice, interests, strengths and passion into your teaching. Burgess notes how bringing this personalised passion into your teaching helps you to be more passionate and energised, which in turn helps you to be more effective in developing rapport and maximising student engagement.

I is for immersion: This is about being fully in the moment with your students.

R is for Rapport: This is about how to develop rapport and meaningful relationships with your students.

“We don’t want to be the teachers that win behaviour management battles; we want to be the teachers who don’t have behaviour management battles. […] That’s part of building rapport” (Dave Burgess, online webinar)

A is for ask and analyse: This is the process of question-asking and analysis that helps the teacher through the creative process and to make adjustments along the way. Here Burgess emphasises that creativity is not just something that happens to “creative teacher” and just doesn’t happen to non-creative teachers. Creativity is a process that everyone is capable of engaging with; but it requires one to engage.

“Creative genius is something people tend to romanticize, but the reality is not very romantic at all. Like any skill it takes practice and effort.” (Dave Burgess, Teach like a PIRATE)

“For most of us, creative genius is developed through hard work, directed attention, and relentless engagement in the creative process.” (Dave Burgess, Teach like a PIRATE)

T is for transformation: How to transform your class into a great place for your students – a place that students will love to come to and where a love for learning can flourish. This is about how to turn your lessons into meaningful experiences.

E is for Enthusiasm: This relates to the teacher’s commitment to be on-form and enthusiastically engaged every time the teacher steps into the classroom.

“Light yourself on fire with enthusiasm and people will come from miles around just to watch you burn!” (Dave Burgess, Teach like a PIRATE)

Section 2. Hooks.

Part two of the book deals with “Crafting Engaging Lessons”. Here Burgess provides various “hooks” that can be used to “hook” students’ attention. These might include working movement into the lesson (the movement hook), or art (the art hook), or music (the music hook), or drama, costumes, a message on the board, working with the design of the classroom (the interior design hook) and so on. Lots of great practical ideas to take inspiration from.

3: inspirational Manifesto

The third section of the book, entitled “Building a Better Pirate”, offers an inspirational manifesto for teachers. Burgess approaches this section by raising questions that he believes teachers need to ask themselves and by passionately outlining a few of his own beliefs about the teaching profession.

My Personal Thoughts on the Book

I imagine that this will probably not be every teacher’s cup of tea, but I am not at all surprised that this book has resonated with so many young teachers. Personally I got a lot out of it, both in terms of fresh inspiration and in terms of practical ideals.

As someone who spends a lot of time reading very theoretical texts, I really enjoyed switching to something practical for a change.

The book provoked me to question so many aspects of my own practice. One of the questions that really resonated with me was the question about whether students would come to my class if they were not obliged to.

Burgess’s passion is admirable and I especially like the fact that he relates to teaching as an art.

I really appreciate Burgess’s approach to imperfection and making mistakes.

“If you haven’t failed in the classroom lately, you aren’t pushing the envelope far enough. “Safe” lessons are a recipe for mediocrity at best.” (Dave Burgess, Teach like a PIRATE)

As a creative I know that real creativity and innovation can only happen when one is able to push through that fear of making mistakes. Perhaps this is a little more complicated when one is responsible for key phases in students’ education. If I work for weeks on a song that never gets anywhere, that is disappointing. But if a lesson on a key chunk of content bombs out, this could have consequences for my students’ education.

I appreciate how Burgess speaks to some of the contradictions that are so pervasive in contemporary (neoliberal) education.

“[Heaven] forbid that we incorporate artistic elements and creativity into a class outside of the art department. Next thing you know, kids might start enjoying school and become well-rounded individuals.” (Dave Burgess, Teach like a PIRATE)

Admittedly I rushed through the book while I was supposed to be focused on my own academic projects. I will probably read it again at some point. Maybe I will come up with a few critical comments after my second read.

In closing…

I leave you with a few of my favourite quotes from the book, followed by a video webinar given by Dave Burgess.

“When you interact with someone who is fully engaged and filled with passion, it can be an overwhelming and unforgettable experience. There is no faking it…you can’t “Meg Ryan” that type of passion!” (Dave Burgess, Teach like a PIRATE)

“At some point in your career you have to decide if you care more about teaching to tests or teaching kids. My decision was made a long time ago. I teach kids.” (Dave Burgess, Teach like a PIRATE)

“Education shouldn’t be about raising statistics. It should be about raising and fulfilling human potential. Focusing on the stats leads to a lost perspective of what is truly important—the game.” (Dave Burgess, Teach like a PIRATE)

“I’ll always choose a teacher with enthusiasm and weak technique over one with brilliant strategies but who is just punching the clock. Why? An enthusiastic teacher can learn technique, but it is almost impossible to light a fire inside the charred heart of a burned-out teacher.” (Dave Burgess, Teach like a PIRATE)

“If you haven’t failed in the classroom lately, you aren’t pushing the envelope far enough. “Safe” lessons are a recipe for mediocrity at best.” (Dave Burgess, Teach like a PIRATE)

“Building rapport is all about interacting with your students as fellow human beings, not just as subordinates.” (Dave Burgess, Teach like a PIRATE)

“I’m selling education… a life-altering product that can transform the human spirit and literally change the world one student at a time.” (Dave Burgess, Teach like a PIRATE)

“If you can’t explain why someone should pay attention to what you’re saying, maybe you shouldn’t be saying it.” (Dave Burgess, Teach like a PIRATE)

“Among the general public, there is a misconception that education is completely broken and teaching has become a lost art. They harken back to some nonexistent perfect time when “things were different.” Those who hold to this opinion are wrong!” (Dave Burgess, Teach like a PIRATE)