Educators know that all-too-familiar feeling of desperately trying to teach an important skill or concept, only to be faced with a sea of blank and/or confused faces. We try and try again, convinced that we found the right angle, and nothing changes. It’s as if our teaching has suddenly become ineffective, even if we’ve taught for many years.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.
The next time you find yourself in this situation, try the following 5 steps work your way out of it.
1) Don’t blame the students
Sometimes it’s just so much easier to point fingers at someone else for a failed lesson. I’m sad to say that I’ve heard far too many teachers blame the students for their inability to learn the material. They complain that students should want to learn, and if they don’t, then it’s the students’ fault and not the teacher’s job to make them learn. While it’s true that your students may be unmotivated, there are probably many external factors that are in play here that affect their learning, ones that are beyond their control.
In his book, Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, Paul Gorski urges us to get past the assumptions that parents and children are to blame for their inability to succeed in school. While it may seem obvious, kids don’t get to choose their ethnicity, economic situation, housing, parents, genetics, etc., nor can they easily mitigate the bias and lack of opportunity associated with it. As teachers, we must always keep in mind the effects of poverty and bias on a student’s education. Even being food insecure will greatly impact how well a student can concentrate or how they behave in your class. Ever heard of being “hangry?”
Does this mean that students shouldn’t take responsibility for their actions? Of course not. Teaching them the natural consequences of misbehavior is important. But when it comes to their learning, we have to stop placing the blame on them. Any student has the ability to learn and thrive in the right environment, when they’re engaged, and when they feel safe and valued. When you blame them, you fail to provide those for them.
Students come to us as a mystery package, and you never know what you’re going to get. I don’t fault them when they struggle, or when it seems like they’re so far behind. My mantra for working with the variety of students that come to me every year is:
2) Take responsibility
As educators, we are the adults, have the degree, and make the money. It’s our jobs to teach the students the material, and more importantly to want them to learn. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that we should want them to learn more than they want to learn. Isn’t that why we became teachers in the first place, to inspire generations of learners and responsible citizens? To make a difference in the lives of all students who come from all walks of life?
We have so much power compared to our students. I can change how I approach them when they’re struggling, but as I mentioned before, students cannot control the factors that led them to the struggle. They can’t control the fact that their parents are getting a divorce. Or that they’re being bullied. Or that they have no place to do homework.
When things go awry in my class, I take responsibility for it. I can plan my butt off and think that I’ve perfectly executed a lesson, but if the students still aren’t getting it, then ultimately it’s my fault. They’re unmotivated? My lesson wasn’t engaging. They don’t understand what they’re supposed to do? My directions weren’t clear enough.
Taking responsibility is such an important step in our personal and professional growth. It doesn’t mean you lose face in front of your students and colleagues, it means you’re a true educator that will work hard to refine your craft.
When I find myself at that impasse where I’m frustrated beyond belief, I take a step back and look at my pacing guide for that unit. I reflect on each lesson, and ask myself this very important question:
Look, I can control my teaching, but ultimately I cannot control the result of that teaching. I can guide students to attain certain skills and demonstrate ideal behaviors, but I cannot make them learn. It’s imperative to focus on what you can change, which is yourself and your teaching. Students will come and go, and kids will always be kids, so it’s up to you to make sure that what you’re doing in the classroom is effective.
I look at what and how I’ve taught as evidence of what did and didn’t work. I have a very honest conversation with myself and learn from my mistakes. If what I’m doing isn’t working, then rather than continuing to hammer away at it and failing, I take a step back and regroup. Why should I keep doing the same thing over and over and expect a better or different result?
You don’t necessarily have to throw everything out and start over again. Just adjust. It could be something as simple as a small tweak that can make the difference in their comprehension. Perhaps they didn’t complete or understand a worksheet you gave them. Try giving it back to them and having them work in pairs or groups. Or everyone failed a quiz. Look at which questions that most students answered incorrectly, and analyze how the question was worded, and if you covered that topic thoroughly. If not, reteach and reassess.
4) Use something that has worked before
Not only do I reflect on what didn’t work, but I also do it with lessons that did work. Why? Because I have some basic pedagogical tricks in my bag, and if it worked well with teaching one skill, then I can probably apply it again to another.
Think back to a time when you just KILLED it, when the students were so engaged in the material that they just couldn’t forget it. Now think about how you can apply that to this concept that they’re NOT getting.
Alternatively, you can also research how others have taught the same topic. I’ve searched various blogs, websites, and resources for better lessons, graphic organizers, and ideas. There’s absolutely no shame in that, in fact, it would be foolish to think that you can come up with everything yourself!
5) Ask for help
This brings me to my final step: seek out the expertise of fellow educators. You should find ways to build your professional learning network (PLN for those of us already doing it!), because you will be delighted and amazed by how much people are willing to help you and share what they know. I ask other teachers at my site, in my district, on Twitter, Google+….anywhere I can connect with other educators. I go to conferences to add to my teaching toolkit. I am never ashamed to ask for help, and I’m always quick to pay that knowledge forward.
I marvel at how innovative and life-changing many of my colleagues are. We all try and fail, but we lean on and learn from each other. For many, teaching is isolating if you let it, but it becomes so much more rewarding when it’s collaborative.
This outcome-based decision making has helped me become a more effective teacher throughout the years. It has taken so much failure to really understand how and what to teach my students. But with every failure, I’ve turned it into a learning opportunity, and am better because of it.