Your Style of Teaching Is Different…And That’s Okay

It’s been some time since my last post, not so much because I didn’t have ideas bouncing around in my head as I didn’t  feel particularly qualified to be writing about teaching lately and the words just wouldn’t come.  There’s been a few bumps in the road of late that left me both humbled and questioning.  For multiple reasons, I felt like I was spinning my wheels without getting any traction with my teaching and my other roles at school. Spring Break thus came at the perfect time.  Having this week off to simply read and think and have some genuine non-work-related fun seems to have worked.  The words are coming a bit easier now.

On Tuesday, I drove over to the new school at which I will begin working in August.  I met with the veteran teacher that I will be…well, not replacing. One teacher can’t replace another.  Let’s say instead the veteran teacher I will be taking over for as she enjoys a much-deserved retirement after over 40 years in the classroom.  We spoke for approximately 45 minutes about her career, her methods, and the school culture.  Anyone who can contemplate taking over for someone who has had success as a teacher for 4 decades without nerves setting in is not human in my opinion.  I left that meeting feeling both excited and a little anxious.

I’ve spent some time since that meeting looking at some of the resources she gave me, and this, perhaps more than anything, has assuaged some of the anxiety.  She currently uses a different textbook* than I have used in the past, and as much as I have liked using Brinkley’s American History, I am actually really excited to try something different.  Sometimes we get into a “successful rut.”  By this, I mean we figure out what works for us and our students, and we keep using it again and again.  We are fearful of trying something new and rocking the boat, of perhaps not having as much success.  I would say in the last two years this has happened to me.  I found what works, and I’ve stuck to it.  I’m not suggesting we throw the baby out with the bathwater, by any means, but I am suggesting we ask ourselves, “What if?”  What if I changed this or that?  Would the students and I as a teacher be even more successful?  Would I enjoy my work even more?  Would I reach even more students?  When I focus on the “what ifs,” I am less inclined to want to stay in the rut, even a successful one.

Part of easing the anxiety of starting a new job involves accepting that you won’t teach or interact with students and faculty in the same way as your predecessor.  That’s okay.  It’s not necessarily better or worse; it’s just different.  For example, the veteran teacher explained that more students have signed up to take AP U.S. history next year than in previous years, and she ruminated that this might be because they hoped/thought/assumed I would be easier than she.  Since I don’t have firsthand experience of her classroom practices, I can’t really speculate about this.  By “easier,” does she mean less homework, less reading, easier assessments?  I don’t know. Some students may find that I am “easier,” while others may disagree. What is easy for one group of students may not be so for another.  I have this discussion with my own students all the time.  If we are talking simply about the volume of work, then I suppose I may in fact be a bit easier, since I don’t assign much in the way of “busy work” and I think I give my AP students a lot of freedom in the way they take notes, study, etc.  All that I can say for sure is that I will be a different teacher than she, and that’s fine.

As I was thinking through all this, I came across this video which seemed to support my thought process.  In the video, Silver explains how as an administrator he had to learn that there was no single method to great teaching.  He at first wanted all his teachers to be like him, or like what he deemed a successful teacher to look like.  He realized, through a painful process, that he was wrong.  Great teachers are not great because they all teach the same way; great teachers are great because they know and understand their own style and how it works best in any given school culture.  Thus, in a single school, you can have a wide variety of teaching styles in evidence, all mission-aligned and appropriate to a given school culture.  Great teachers then make great schools.

Enjoy the video!

*In my next post, I will be exploring issues related to textbooks – writing one’s own vs. adopting that of a publisher, the pros and cons, etc.

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Teacher Leadership*

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it will be like to start over at a new school and remembering what it was like to first start teaching at Trinity, my current school.  When I began teaching at Trinity, I had no experience teaching high school.  I had taught third grade, and I had taught at the collegiate level some, but high school was entirely new to me.   It showed in my teaching, in my interaction with my students, and in my interaction with my colleagues.  It was not an easy year.  The second year got a bit easier, but it wasn’t until my third year that things really started to run smoothly.

When one starts teaching at a new school, it would be so much easier on the teacher to be able to self-select his or her students.  Imagine having a month or so to get to know the students, figure out who you gel with and who you don’t, and then pick your rosters for yourself.  Fortunately, that’s not how it works.  I say “fortunately” because that way does not lead to authentic teaching or leadership.  It is a kind of teaching that has at its heart the convenience of the teacher, not the students or the institution as a whole.  The students are not following the teacher because they made the choice to do so; they are following because they have no choice.  Many will not follow for long.  Even if you could self-select your entire class, if you do not have true teacher leadership, the students will not follow you once they figure this out.  They may have some loyalty in the beginning to you, feeling special because you handpicked them, but they are more savvy than you think.  They will see through your actions and words whether you truly deserve their respect or not.

Authentic teacher leadership takes time to develop.  You can’t rush it.  You have to be willing to spend time getting to know your students inside and outside the classroom, you have to be willing to suspend judgement for a time so that you don’t inadvertently write students off or favor them over others, and you have to be willing to work on repairing relationships that you (and they) have inadvertently damaged in the early days when mistakes are bound to happen.  This means saying you are sorry to students to their faces even when it is embarrassing and humbling.  This means asking your students for forgiveness when you spoke without thinking and stepped on some toes in the process even when it wasn’t your intention to do so, perhaps even when you don’t understand why what you said upset them so much.  There is no shame in an apology; there is only shame when the apology never occurs.  There is no shame in mistakes; there is only shame in continuing to make the same mistakes.

When you begin teaching at a new school, whether you like it or not, the burden is on you to prove yourself, not on your students to prove themselves to you.  They have been at the school much longer than you. They have built relationships and formed reputations already.  Now, it’s your turn.  The three things students look for in teachers are knowledge, empathy, and passion.  If you can prove to students you understand this – through your words and actions – then you will have them; if you can’t, they will not follow and there is no one to blame but yourself.

Of course, even when you do all this, there may be one or two that you can’t reach, but if you are a true teacher leader, most will end up following you.  If you are looking out at your class, however, and the majority are distant or disdainful, ask yourself what the common denominator is in that situation.  Before you assume that the fault lies with them, make sure you give yourself a good, long look in the mirror.

*I know we often use this term to mean teachers taking on leadership roles amongst their faculty, however, in this post I’m using it to mean teachers who lead their students well.