Confessions of an Ineffective Teacher

During my first five years of being a teacher were times that I felt like I was ineffective. It was a feeling of never being sure enough in oneself and also a healthy dose of needing to check in with others on how well you are doing.

The picture was from my third year of teaching. But it wasn't until my fourth year, when I was working at a college level at Texas A&M University (Whoop!), that mastery began to appear. And even more, it wasn't until my fifth year, also at a college level, that I knew I was a master teacher because I could advise others on their teaching craft while also having happy classes of students that were likewise excelling.

But the transition -- from NOVICE to MODERATELY-EXPERIENCED to MASTER TEACHER -- was not an overnight transition or even marked all the time by specific plateaus. Rather, it was a process of gaining confidence and passion in the classroom that only came by doing.

As I have reflected on the glass half empty for a moment, it's important to reflect on some of the things that a master teacher is:

  • Able to effectively guide students in mastery of content,
  • Able to effectively help a struggling students while not losing the high achievers,
  • Able to work compassionately and collaboratively with coworkers,
  • Able to learn -- because the biggest skill any teacher has is their ability to adapt and improve.

An illustration of the importance of seeing a glass half empty came through a 2013 Facebook post. In this story, a psychologist was reported to have asked people to describe what they saw -- a glass half full or half empty - and why. The presenter then shifted the focus to say that important thing about the glass of water was not its size, but the length of time it was held! Holding it for a short amount was no problem, a longer amount, a nuisance, or an incredibly long time, a strain.

The same can be said about a teacher's persistence to learn mastery in teaching. If they do not persist, the strain of being an ineffective teacher will grow, and grow, and grow.

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One day in my fifth or sixth year, while I was a coordinator over the level of teachers I worked with, I had the occasion to teach a class for which I had not thoroughly planned the night before. It was not an expected error, but just a time that the work of the day before (grading, coordinating, working with students in my office) had not let up until the end of the day. Surprisingly, when I entered the room the next morning -- the world as a stage -- my students did fine and in fact it was a better lesson than some of the ones I had worked on for hours.

I learned something that day, and it was the last day I thought of myself as an ineffective teacher. I learned that effective teaching does not come through a multitude of plans (though we need those every day and throughout a semester and beyond), but through being fully present in our classes.

Times certainly have changed from a generation ago. Students today expect so much more to be instantaneous when in days of old we understood much better the concept of waiting. Perhaps a lesson is yet to be learned on the instantaneous nature of students and how to capitalize better on that.

In my early days of teaching, two books were like Bibles to me. One was Harry and Rosemary Wong's The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher. I repeatedly scanned and read it from cover to cover wishing that I could use it to instill mastery in my lessons. Also, there was a classroom management handbook like Dr. Howard Seaman's Preventing Classroom Discipline Problems: A Classroom Management Handbook. These two texts served to guide a lot of my practice as I transitioned to becoming a better teacher. Yet there was a capstone step that led to a new level of professional learning.

Somewhere around my eighth year of teaching, I had the chance to take a month-long, full-time professional development seminar for teachers of speakers of languages other than English (TESOL). The seminar was called the CELTA, or Certificate of English language Teaching for Adults. In this class, I learned in distilled form some of the lessons of mastery and pedagogy that had only been gained over the years by blood (my own), sweat and tears. It was such an honor to be with decades-long master teachers that gave me a final boost that I needed.

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Ever since I first became a teacher, I was always concerned about all the other teachers during their first five years in the classroom. I was concerned because I had seen over the course of time working in education management a number of teachers who crashed and burned. Or there were others who experienced hardship in those years and gave up on teaching without ever reaching mastery. Sadder yet were teachers with a lifetime gift for teaching that simply left the profession because they felt it had not been good enough to them. Quite a shame.

So how do we as a nation get more teachers into the place of confidence so that (a) they feel like a teacher who has mastery and (b) their students scores, advancement, and successes -- along with coworker relations -- reflect this accomplishment?

Possibly that is a conundrum as big as a fifty state education agencies and a multitude of education organizations around us. Perhaps as well, we need to explore new ways to help teachers over that five-year water mark wherein they might be able to find a solid sense of stability, confidence, and results.

I know -- there are some saying that not every teacher gains mastery in five years -- and I agree. But five years seems to be a gate upon which some exit the craft of teaching perhaps for a lifetime and they need some encouragement to stay in and persist and grow and achieve.

Here are some tips that I learned along the way from teachers who were much more gifted than myself:

  1. Find master teachers and learn from them. Where you can, visit classes. Consider even finding an excellent teacher that you can connect with virtually.
  2. Record your lessons. If you want some real feedback on your teaching, be bold enough to document your work. Harvard University's Graduate School of Education has a great project that has introduced the idea of recording teaching as a means for potentially improving the teacher evaluation process.
  3. Be the first person to ask your students and colleagues for feedback. They alone can identify what you are doing right and what is not going as well. Learn from their feedback. Be sure to thank them for their feedback even if you regularly seek it during your improvement.
  4. Journal, journal, journal. If you do not think a lesson went well, write down some reasons and things you'll do better shortly after the lesson. Then reflect on it a few days later.
  5. Avoid the blame game. There can be some negative sentiments in teaching and you need to avoid them or, where appropriate, confront them. Sometimes students also fall into this trap, so your behavior models a better solution for them.
  6. Dream big and teach your students to do the same. Begin each year by asking students what their highest hope is for the school year. Collect these letters, read them thoroughly and sensitize your teaching. Give them back at the end of the year and ask if you exceeded their expectations.
  7. Drive your own professional development. Don't wait to grow. Instead, seek ways you can improve your teaching craft at every opportunity.

A last bit of advice is to remember that we are not on an island as a teacher, but a part of a network and a nation. Find ways to foster and be a part of a positive climate in your school. Push the envelope of school effectiveness so you can participate in the larger changes you want to see. Finally, find ways to continually celebrate your students and coworkers as well. Praise folks as you see little changes and little positive things because there might not be enough people doing that in their lives.

I look back on the fine principals that schooled me in the world of being an effective teacher. To them, I want to say thank you! Thank you Jim, Ed, Dennie, and Louis. It's not enough to say thanks for helping me when I was an ineffective teacher. Rather, I look at these leaders as having seen the positive potential in me - and that's what being a teacher-leader is all about.

It seems like we as a nation put teachers through a cycle of professional development and improvement so that they can become excellent teachers. And we hope this works. At the same time, the responsibility is on all of us (leaders, teachers, and even our students) to help make this process works.

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Dr. Jonathan Doll is an advocate of school safety and teacher effectiveness. He wrote the book Ending School Shootings and was the keynote speaker at Post University's May 2015 conference, "Building resilience in lethal school violence prevention."