The Hidden Cost of Teaching: How to Avoid Professional Plateau and Keep Growing
Updated: Jan 22
If you need a good laugh, do a quick Google search on Charles Barkley's golf swing. As pictured above, it's equal parts painful and comical to behold. The broken technique led to unpredictable outcomes for himself and possible danger to those in the same environment. While there are many things we can critique about Chuck, he doesn't take himself too seriously. He can laugh at his own mistakes and own up to them. As a result, he is resilient. However, if we were to judge based on the gif above, we'd probably tell him to quit now.
I believe that many look at issues of equity the same way. When our technique is laughable, we quit and save ourselves the embarrassment. We won't say it like that. We're too cunning. But we will say things like, "I've got x years in. There's nothing new I can learn." Meanwhile, students and colleagues respond like the young lady in the back of the clip above, retreating for safety from potential harm. Pause and reflect: where do you find yourself at this moment?
When we grow in self-awareness, we disrupt the perfectionism and the need to be the expert that resides in all of us. We give ourselves room to grow. Check the video below for an example.
As we begin this school year, I want to encourage us to implement these tweaks to our teaching practice. We never graduate beyond improvement. When we stop growing, I believe we should stop teaching. Long before the behavior of our most challenging students, the effects of an ongoing worldwide pandemic, and teacher shortages, pride has ravaged the effectiveness of our classrooms. It is a strange phenomenon to be educators who witness our students' learning on unpredictable timetables yet believe that our time in the profession means we no longer need to learn. I hear the objections. I don't have the time. The administration is on my back. I don't know how. I have learned in my teaching career that we must prioritize our learning if we are to going to be the educators that our students need. Here are five ways that you can prioritize your growth this school year.
Utilize The Power of Reflection
An often overlooked tool in your growth is you - the educator. Incorporate a teaching log or journal into your day. For example, if you use a notebook, paste your lesson on the left and reserve the right side for reflections. Questions to ask yourself might include:
What worked well in this class, and why? What didn't, and why?
Where did the students seem to have difficulties?
Were there any noticeable points where the students seemed engaged with the material?
Were there any particular pedagogical strategies that seemed to work well?
What types of things may need greater clarification the next time?
What will I change the next time I teach this topic?
When we continue to use the same lessons without reflection, we risk prioritizing our comfort over their cultivation.
Empower Your Students
Schooling in these yet-to-be United States has been about the regurgitation of data. Critical thinking has not been the priority of our engagement with our learners. While there are many reasons for this, the effect remains that our students believe merely attending class is how they learn. We don't engage them as active participants in the learning process. We must combat this and invite our students' feedback, creativity, and ownership of the learning process. Informal feedback is a great way to start this process. Ask your learners to take out a piece of paper and write down three things that have helped their learning in the class and, on the other side of the paper, three things the students would like to change about the class to improve their experience. After reviewing their responses, decide what you can and will change and what you either cannot change or find pedagogically unwise to change. You can also let the students know what you will change based on their suggestions. Discussing these decisions with your students will invite them to thought partners with you.
If you are not careful, you'll exhaust yourself on the treadmill of others' expectations. Schooling is about the results - we have data to track, meet deadlines, and hit objectives. The problem with being results-focused is that you can quickly become jaded. We don't need to look far to see it - at the time of this writing, the teacher workforce is dwindling. According to The Atlantic, we are down 575,000 teachers. The frustration continues to build with unreasonable expectations and limited support. Schooling is more consumed with appearance than actuality. Educators everywhere must reframe what success looks like as a result. We must remember that we do not teach standards. We teach students. This distinction will help us focus our efforts on the persons in our classrooms rather than the product.
Reframing is having the wisdom to interpret events differently and to choose interpretations that lead to better outcomes. We never respond solely to what a child has done but to our understanding. Interpretation is heavily subjective. Without being able to read the hearts and minds of our students, we will incorrectly apply a correction based on that interpretation. For example, is a student who sticks to his view "resolute," meaning that he doesn't quit when things get tough? Or is he "stubborn and out to get me"? Which interpretation helps you reach the student and leads to a better resolution of the issue? If you see a student in the hall talking to friends when class is about to start, which interaction leads to a better result? In the same way, did you move the needle of progress today in class? Did more students become stakeholders in their educational progress? Were there more hands raised? Questions asked? Reframing these important matters helps us hold the paradox of education properly - we should care about the product and reclaim our love for the process. This tension will help us manage our expectations while pushing for better.
Tweaking our technique as educators takes a commitment to radical humility that consistently assumes there's more to learn. When we stop learning as educators, we should stop teaching. I earnestly desire that educators reclaiming their love for the process of education will produce students who view schooling, not as something to be endured but enjoyed.