Why is it that it is so easy to become complacent as a teacher? When we first start teaching, every class is a new experience. We’ve never taught a topic in a certain way before, because it is our first time. We are risk-takers, not because we necessarily like taking risks, but because we have no choice. We look to more experienced teachers to discover tried and true ways of dealing with things. We try things out and make them our own.
But somewhere along the line, our “bag of tricks” gets bigger and we stop thinking of how we could do something and we rely on how we have addressed a similar situation in the past. We have our favourite lessons. We “know what works.” This is both good and bad. Our experience informs our decision-making, but it often shortcuts our thinking through of a situation. While “it works” to paste a tried and true lesson on a new group, the reality is that the group that we developed this approach for graduated long ago. The group we are working with now is very different and they bring different things to the table.
Why do we fall in to these patterns? I think that it’s for a number of reasons:
- We’re lazy. Ouch! That’s a harsh one to start with, but there is truth to it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Why would we put effort into something that we already fixed? It’s easier to fall in to established patterns.
- Maybe we could re-frame this as we are more efficient. The longer we teach, it seems, the more things get piled on our plates. We take on more and we’re not good at letting go of things. We have more things to do and it is efficient to rely on our habits to address known or similar situations from the past.
- We are victims of our own success. We, presumably, are good at what we do and we don’t like it when we fail. Changing things up invites risk and exposes our weaknesses. We’re the experts and we don’t like it when that fact is called into question.
- We already have the obvious answers. We’ve been using them for years. Finding new solutions to old problems is hard!
But when we do take risks, nine times out of ten, it is invigorating and rewarding. Of course there are epic fails, but for the most part, doing something a new or different way will have at least some success. Those successes might simply be a new energy in a class, or they may be the truly transformative learning that we were hoping to see. We ask our students to take these same risks every day as they are learning something new. It is energizing to be learning alongside them as we all grow together and puts us in a better position to empathize with them.
Why do I reflect on this now? Mostly because I have just completed my NSRF Coaches training where we spent five days looking at structuring conversation and learning through the use of protocols. Learning and experiencing new ways of teaching (and structuring conversations with colleagues) was risky, at times emotional, and thoroughly energizing. The National School Reform Faculty has a long list of different protocols that can serve a variety of needs and intended outcomes, and it is somewhat scary to think of the fact that I will be inviting failure into my classroom and meetings much more often as I continue to look at my teaching through a protocol lens. But it is also exciting that I will be developing an expanded “bag of tricks” that can be used when I encounter new (or old) teaching situations.
I get mocked by my colleagues for making this comparison, but it holds a lot of water. Teaching is like improvising for a musician. Listening to a great jazz musician feels like they are simply speaking a language or saying something unique every time they play. The reality is that all jazz musicians have patterns that they fall into. It is just that the better ones have a much bigger vocabulary and are constantly looking for new ways of saying what they want to say through their instruments. This involves a certain amount of risk in trying something new and effort to find new ways to express themselves. A great teacher is the same. Every class will feel like it is a unique learning situation, because it is. But if you spend enough time with the teacher, you will see patterns. Certain things that a teacher will come back to in the way they set up learning, explain things, or help students make connections. But the vocabulary that a great teacher has is large enough that those patterns are hard to spot and the use of certain tools is so appropriate to the situation that it is hard to differentiate the tool from the situation itself. The learning feels organic.
I’m looking forward to learning new routines. I understand that they will feel awkward and won’t always give me the results that I’m looking for, but that is OK. That is better than OK, that it exactly what I want because if I’m not moving forward and trying new things, I’m failing in a much bigger way. This is a lesson that I’m learning from Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, in his book, Creativity, Inc. Catmull gets into a great explanation of what embracing failure really means and talks at length about why avoiding failure is an act of failure in itself. One doesn’t set out to fail, but one takes the risks that have a higher chance of resulting in failure in order that one is constantly growing and moving forward. In teaching, as in many creative fields, if one doesn’t constantly open one’s self up to the change that is around them then staying static in the face of change is failure. Not learning and not growing, is not an option.
So, in the coming weeks, I’m anticipating a lot of awkwardness, a lot of failure, and a lot of growth. I’m going to expand my vocabulary, learn some more structures and, as a result, become a more creative improviser and teacher. I’m looking forward to it!