Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Becoming great at teaching

I picked the wrong exercises

In 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.
I tried each of these. I started planning my lessons by anticipating the hard parts of my lessons. I joined on to (the excellent) Productive Struggle blog and posted more regularly about my failures. I got myself in a bunch of classrooms.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 Singer
 As always, start some trouble in the comments.


  1. I'm less interest in curriculum and more interested in execution but I think I'm in the minority.

  2. So do teachers plateau because they stop consuming great lessons and curriculum?

    Thanks for sharing, as always!

    1. Consuming wasn't the best choice of words. Teachers plateau because they reach a local maxima in their teaching, and the costs of trying something you're bad at start getting higher. It's easy to experiment when you suck at everything -- what could go wrong? -- but tough when you know how to do a few things well.

      "Consuming great teaching" isn't a great turn of phrase, because I don't intend to include relatively easy activities like reading other people's lessons. What I mean is trying other people's lessons, attempting to embody their style or techniques.

  3. Hrm, I don't think the *creation* of great curriculum is necessary, unless you want to be know as a great curriculum creator, which is different from being known as a great teacher. But I think being a great teacher requires the effective use of good curriculum. I agree with Buell - it's all in the execution. You can give the best curriculum on the planet to a novice and not get the kind of results that a master teacher could get with that same curriculum.

  4. Enjoyed the first plateau post and this one as well. I most agree with numbers 1 and 3. So many of my students' favorite lessons have come to me in the days and weeks before I taught it- and they come out of the blue. Many of them fit into the mold of #3- so I don't try all of them. Thanks for sharing. New teachers (I am in year 5) need to hear that there are others going through the same struggles.

  5. I think this is a very insightful post, thanks for articulating your insights.

    Although I teach at a university, I have been reading your blog and others (such as Fawn Nguyen) for ideas in homeschooling my daughter. But I find that many of the ideas, particularly those involving group work, could be used in my college classes. Some of those are outside of my usual brush technique, and I think you are right that occasionally extending past your comfort zone is important in growing as a teacher.

  6. Thank you, Michael, for this reflective and thoughtful post. I'm always grateful when I read posts about failures because surely they are so much tougher to write. But you won't see me writing too many of them because there's only so much time. To spend that time brewing on something negative would suck the life out of me. I'm my toughest critic, so when I fail I'm already quietly beating myself up, I don't need to take more time to air it publicly. I could give out my husband's phone number so he could share them with anyone who's interested.

    People think I'm crazy to spend so much time doing lesson plans. (I am crazy.) It's rare if I get to bed by 1:00 a.m. After 23 years, I'm still scouring for resources. While I look forward to summers to sleep in, most of my summer daytime is more lesson planning, summer is when I REALLY go to work. Great lessons are out there. And if they aren't so great, at least they'll spark ideas and you get to make them better. There are no two ways about this, like you said, "creating great stuff is hard" and it takes A LOT of time.

    We teachers come with our own personalities and teaching styles. A great lesson from one teacher may not transpire in the same manner in another. Then you have the student group dynamics too. Throw out a "cooperative" activity with a group of kids who haven't experienced this structure can be asking for trouble.

    I'm interested in ALL ASPECTS, not one over the other, as I think it takes all of those elements: great curriculum (although I haven't really found one in 23 years), so more like great individual lessons, great execution to include great embedded structures, and great tools and technology.

    True, a novice teacher may not carry out a great lesson as well as a master teacher, but just imagine if it *weren't* a great lesson to begin with. A novice teacher's game is only elevated when he/she gets to deliver high-quality stuff. Shitty stuff drags us down.

    Hope you're looking at me with adoring eyes because I got nothing but mad love for you, Michael. Thank you.

  7. Dear Michael,

    What Fawn said.

    Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  8. Yeah, what Fawn said. Except the "mad love" part. I mean, I like you, but love?

    Between the video you made and this, I'm just having a Michael Pershan kind of day. I think your drive is inspiring and I really look forward to everything you put out.

    Nathan Kraft