We can get better

Every hour of the day, teachers need to provide meaningful content, build relationships, inspire young minds, maintain order, assess learning, correct for mistakes, help kids in crisis, respond to parents, follow IEPs, tolerate interruptions, ensure equity, manipulate technology, interpret data and manage frustration.

Doing this job well requires passion, energy, organization and the ability to pay attention to hundreds of small details simultaneously – all for less pay or respect than most professionals earn.

It’s no wonder that when teachers are criticized – and the criticism from politicians, parents and the media can be relentless – we get defensive. We close ranks and point out all of the problems that make our jobs untenable.

Fair enough; there are many factors beyond teachers’ control, like poverty, absent parents, helicopter parents, too little sleep and the distractions of technology.

The danger is that this natural, protective reaction to criticism can blind us to the fact that we actually can improve. We sometimes act as if identifying problems in our pedagogy is an act of disloyalty – or even surrender.

We must change this mindset and recognize that every single one of us has room to get better, no matter how great we are (or think we are).

In the past few years, extensive research has uncovered strategies and tools that can make us more effective teachers and make our students better learners.

Did you know that students follow your instructions better if you stand still while talking? Or that formative quizzes are a better learning tool if you delay them by a day, rather than using them right away? I just learned both this week.

Did you know that embedding hints in online learning tools diminishes student retention? Or that re-reading and highlighting text is essentially a worthless study tool?

The United States has perhaps the worst connection between education research and professional educators of any industrialized nation, but we actually have some of the best education research going on.

We are learning more every day about countless strategies that work: how to defuse conflicts with defiant students, how to improve performance by changing students’ mindsets, how getting students to struggle through new concepts before we teach them is surprisingly effective.

Who is responsible for communicating this research to classroom teachers? Occasionally, bits of information trickle down from administrators who attend conferences, but there is no established channel. Finding out seems like luck or coincidence.

Unfortunately, I think any attempt to officially disseminate this kind of research would be met with suspicion by many of us, who would interpret it as yet another way to strip teachers of autonomy and creativity.

But if we’re not receptive to top-down instruction about how to improve our teaching, then we need to take responsibility for doing it ourselves. We need to realize that like our students, we often don’t know what we don’t know.

The best place to start is with those moments and incidents that frustrate us the most. For me, it is students’ unwillingness to ask questions, either in class or privately.

It’s been easy to blame the students. If they won’t ask questions, then that’s on them. But an experience teaching teachers this summer helped me realize that no one really wants to ask questions – it’s an incredible act of vulnerability.

So my goal right now is to figure out how to change this. How can I create a comfortable, safe forum for students to ask for help? And how can I help them learn to pin down what they are missing?

I have some ideas that I’m starting to test out, and I’m looking for more. I don’t expect that I can fix every aspect of my teaching, but I do think starting with one well-defined, personal goal can make a difference.

I’ll let you know how it goes.