I picked the wrong exercisesIn January I wrote a post lamenting the plateau that many teachers encounter after their first few years. I ended that post with a commitment to avoid that plateau with intellectually taxing exercises, and I suggested three such exercises:
- Daily journaling about the hard parts of the material that my students were learning that day. This drill would lead me to think more carefully about my lessons.
- Blogging more often about failures, on the theory that there's more to learn from my failures than from my successes.
- Great novelists read widely, and (on analogy) I committed to observing more teaching.
None of these has worked particularly well for me. The exercises didn't feel like they were helping me much, and the more I thought about them the less sense that they made.
I've thought a lot about it, and I think I misfired because I failed to understand what makes great teachers different.
"What do you mean by great teacher?"
Yeah, very fair question. Let me put a few of my assumptions on the table:
- Great teachers aren't necessarily influential, but influential teachers are usually great. Analogy: There might be some great, undiscovered novelist out there, but Faulkner is pretty freaking influential so it's worth taking his books seriously.
- Therefore, it's legit to look at the careers of influential teachers when attempting to figure out what makes a teacher great.
- Read that previous line again. I'm not saying that great teachers are famous and give big talks at things and write books and do PD and whatever. I'm just saying that the community of teachers find these people valuable, and a sensible way to try to figure out how to get good is to look at the careers of valuable teachers.
"All teachers are valuable." Yeah, I know. Yesterday was Teacher Appreciation Day, it was great. That's not what I'm talking about.
I started looking at people who do really valuable work in math education. I started by thinking about the teachers whose work has influenced me the most. I thought about the names with the biggest "buzz" in math and science teaching. I thought about the people with the most popular blogs and books. I tried to think about the things that I had done that had gotten me the most positive feedback, both from students and from other teachers.
This two-pronged hypothesis is where I landed:
- If you want teachers and students to love your work, you've got to create amazing curricular materials and share them.
- If you want the general public to love your work, you've got to express your ideas through the lens of technology.
Being the most thoughtful guy in the world about classroom management is great, but it's not what's most valuable to teachers and students. Assessment (and assessment reform) is really cool, but it's not what gets teachers and students really pumped up. Standards reform is kind of its own beast, but it's not the key to the heart of your teachery friends.
There's one big thing that matters to teachers, and it's having someone help them make their lessons better. Every other aspect of teaching matters less than that one. That's your core source of value as a teacher. If you want to be great, produce the sort of lessons that people will get excited about. (See how carefully I phrased that? Excitement about your work is the heuristic -- it's not the goal.)
But if you want people outside the profession to admire your work? For better or for worse, tech is the way to go. People eat that stuff up.
A better set of exercises
Being great means doing great things in the classroom, but my three exercises didn't really help me get better at creating interesting curriculum, which is what my students and peers really value. The exercises didn't work because they weren't sufficiently focused on what actually matters to my career.
- I put too much value on the idea of blogging about failures. Now that I realize how important creating quality curriculum is, sharing my successes seems less about bragging and more about getting crucial feedback on the stuff that matters.
- I got the analogy wrong. Great novelists read lots of books, and I thought great teachers need to consume lots of teaching. I was wrong. Since the primary value of teachers is their curricular work, great teachers need to consume lots of curricular materials. (More in a second on how to do that.)
- Meditating on and anticipating the hard parts of a math topic is good, but it's focused on the content and not the lesson. This isn't necessarily a problem, but the drill just doesn't produce great lesson ideas. That's been my experience, at least.
That's the bad news. But, good news, everybody! Here's my updated list of exercises, and I feel a lot better about committing to these guys:
- Creating great stuff is hard. These things take time and noodling around, and it's tough to create the good stuff when I'm planning for Tuesday on Monday evening. Instead, I need to ruthlessly devote much more of my planning time to the medium-term future while (temporarily) ignoring the short-term. This extends the time that I'm thinking about a unit, and makes it more likely that I'll come up with something good for the kids.
- I had it all backwards -- I should be sharing the lessons that I'm excited about, not the duds. (Unless the duds are interesting.) By sharing my successes I'll have a better shot of getting positive feedback about my work, and other teachers will help show me when I'm on to something.
- This one's my favorite. Every once in a while I come across a teaching idea that seems awesome, but also undoable, for all sorts of reasons. It's too crafty. I don't really do games. It requires too much cutting. I've never really used group work like that. My kids wouldn't appreciate it. I'm like a painter that's limited by my brush technique, and I need to push through and try other teacher's lessons in my classes, particularly when the lesson is unlike one that I would teach. (I'm looking at you, Fawn Nguyen!)
God, I hope that made sense. I feel a lot better about this than I did after my earlier post. Let's end with some quotes that seem sorta relevant but mostly I just like them.
"So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it's the hardest to do anything with". - Margaret Atwood, Happy Endings
"Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression." - Isaac Bashevis SingerAs always, start some trouble in the comments.