Saturday, December 14, 2013

Improvement, Like So Many Things, Comes Down To What You Enjoy

For purely selfish reasons, I've spent a lot of time worrying about how teachers get better at teaching. That's lead me to write a series of hystericalish posts over the past couple years.

  • In July 2012 I argued that we need to find more "drills for teachers", whatever that means.
  • In January 2013 I said that taking on tough challenges was the key to continuous teacher improvement. I made a commitment to finding those tough challenges.
  • In May 2013 I reported that I'd picked a bad set of challenges, and that I was ditching them for new ones.
  • In August 2013 I made the case for writing your own lessons as a high-impact challenge for teachers.
I have a quick thought to add to this story, and it starts with "I was wrong."

I was wrong about how normal people become great at their craft.

I've got a long-term writing project that I'm working on, and it's absolutely terrifying for me to spend time with it. The chances of this project failing are high, and the product will almost certainly suck. It's absolutely crucial that I finish the project, though, because the only way that I'll ever get good enough to do this well is by practicing.

The only way that I can psychologically wrap my head around working on such a difficult, ill-fated project is by finding joy in the process itself. Any investment I have in the result is debilitating, since the result is almost certainly going to be crap. But if I'm enjoying the process then I've got a decent shot of chugging along.

In my thinking about how teachers become great, I've focused on finding routines that will artificially impose challenges and reflection. That makes some sense, since working through challenges is the way that we human folk get better at anything. 

But drills? Artificially imposed challenges? My imagined model for becoming great was the perfectly composed saint, the priest worshiping at the altar of his own self-control and diligence who forces upon himself the routines and habits that lead to greatness. And certainly such priests exist, toiling away and kept to task by some angel or demon that keeps them focused, maybe it's obsession or ambition or maybe it's just desperation.*

* Sorry for the ridiculous sentences. I've been reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy this weekend. He told Oprah that he prefers "short declarative sentences," so apparently Cormac McCarthy is not exactly the biggest fan of Cormac McCarthy.

But normal people can't spend their lives motivated by obsession or ambition or anything else. Normal people don't do things that they hate. They do things that are fun, or interesting, but mostly fun.

The best long-term strategy I can see for continuously getting better is for the process of improving to be fun. If I want to get better at teaching, it's got to be fun for me to do so, because that's the only way for me to stare down the abyss of my current craptitude and the probability of my own immediate failure. That's going to look different for different people, because we've all got different tastes. I enjoy planning lessons, so I spend a lot of time on that. You like giving feedback, so you spend your time on that and you get great at that. I hate it, so I suck at feedback and am decent at curriculum.

I feels a bit silly.  To have spent a year thinking about how to become a great teacher and landed on "Enjoy the process" seems, like, duh, but there it stands.


  1. This is definitely true for me. I have access to a bunch of forms of PD--I can solicit feedback from peers, talk to my principal, observe other teachers. But I choose primarily to spend time reading blogs and developing lessons based on ideas from more skilled and experienced teachers than me. And I do it because I enjoy it. Would I learn more from dedicating some of that time toward peer observation or instructional feedback? But I don't engage with it, the same way my students don't engage with content when they aren't challenged and perplexed by the questions they are asked.