Today's the day. The book is out. I hope you'll read it, and I hope it spreads. Let me know what you think.
Writing a book on top of teaching ninth grade isn't something I'd recommend to anyone. It's taken a supportive spouse, patient kids, and lots of failure. I thought it'd be good to share some things I've learned about teaching — the internal work of teaching and the external work we do with students — from the book process. In case you can't budget the next five years of your professional life to researching, discussing, drafting and so on, all toward a single topic, here's the gist of what I learned.
1. We do the work with a limited view of our biggest goals.
As a teacher, I want the courses I teach to be 1% of the reason that my students go on to lead flourishing lives.
In a similar vein, my highest goals for These 6 Things are that it will bring teams and schools together around a few high-impact areas of the work, that it will create a more coherent school day for kids, and a more coherent workload for teachers. Ultimately, I want it to keep great people in education for their whole careers, fully engaged in sustainable work.
The thing is, while you're writing a book or teaching a class, you can't know for certain if those things will come to be. That's the part of the work that can keep us humble. We've got this life-changing potential in every lesson we teach, just as an author has life-changing potential in every chapter he crafts, and yet there are ultimately a million other factors that also matter in our students' lives or in the lives of my readers.
So you can't know if you're making something powerful while you're making it, but there are still things you can do. On to #2.
2. You've got to settle in to doing the right work, day after day, for a long time.
It's possible to be an okay teacher by just showing up and doing a few things well. And in a sense, I want more of us to be okay with being okay. Down with the savior archetypes, up with the goal of being professionals with full lives.
But a central argument of the book is that once we see that we're okay and that it's okay to not be the teacher-savior in the latest made-for-TV movie, then we can focus on a few key things and, through letting go, actually attain a manageable greatness. That's where the title comes in — if we just become great at six things, at making these six things make sense in our own setting (versus following a recipe or a prescribed set of strategies), then we'll start producing consistently good, and eventually great, work.
So in preparing to write These 6 Things, I've written over 400,000 words on this blog — good, bad, and ugly. I've given workshops on “the non-freaked out approach to literacy across the school day” — an early form of this book's material — in 25 states. And again and again in the book-drafting process, I asked myself, “Is this helpful? Is this necessary? Do we need this?”
All of that makes me happy to share the book with you, and it makes me happy to teach my classes.
3. We don't need new.
An early reviewer of the book asked me, “Where's all the new stuff? Why aren't you coining more strategies? Where's the slick packaging?” But the book isn't about being slick, and neither is teaching. Teaching is about results — and don't conflate the word “results” with mere test scores. How does today's lesson help kids master the course material? How does all of it add up to them flourishing long-term?
The same with the book. My question wasn't, “Oh my goodness, I need a bunch of new things so they'll be impressed with me!” It was, “What matters most? What are the simplest ways to effectively impact key beliefs or student reading?”
After all, neomania is making us crazier (and less effective) teachers. New only makes sense when we clearly understand why what we already have isn't working.
4. I have to get over myself. Every day.
Teaching offers the constant temptation to think, “It's about me.” You don't think that explicitly, of course, but you think it when you take a student's misbehavior as a personal affront, or when a kid is unmotivated you think, “Well, I've tried everything, so I'm moving on.” Great teachers don't magically come into work with this other-oriented bent — they cultivate it, day by day, through earnest, internal work.
Even more so, writing a book is intense, internal warfare. There are all these voices saying, “They'll think you're dumb. That doesn't make sense. Your prose is bloated.” And so the writer must persistently remind himself that it's not about him. It's about the reader and their journey. It was the book that forced me to take three index cards and write on them, one word each: EQUIPPED. ENCOURAGED. UNDERSTOOD. Those hang over my writing desk because those are the answers to how I wanted the book to make readers feel: equipped with a coherent way of thinking about teaching; encouraged to do the right work for a long time; and understood, as in, “Here's a guy with a book who understands the teacher guilt, and the sense of overwhelm, and the love for the work because he, too, lives inside and wrestles with those. If a guy with a book can be like that, like me, then I'm okay, and I can get on with doing the work.”
I think this “it's not about me,” humility thing is the lifelong mountain, the one that's always got another peak. The job is to just keep climbing it.
5. Some things take a really long time.
Since 2014, about .05% of the teaching world was taken by storm 😉 by my first book, A Non-Freaked Out Guide to Teaching the Common Core. (Here's the book page I made for it back then). The book is what it is: something I wrote quickly on the blog, and then turned quickly into an ebook, and then finished quickly once I received a few quick contract offers from traditional publishers.
During a time when most states were still calling their standards “Common Core,” it was a decent book, and it had heart. Today, however, it's little more than a neat collector's item. About 2,000 of them have sold, and there's no chance of a second print run. I can't think of a single time where I've met a teacher and said, “Oh my goodness, you seriously need to read this book.”
Before the Common Core book even came out, I was working on These 6 Things. I didn't know it was called that at the time — heck, I didn't even know there were six things — but I was saying to myself,
My gosh. I just wrote a book on the 32 anchor standards, and as a classroom teacher I'm too overwhelmed to sit and micro-analyze those things like I just did for writing the book. That doesn't feel good.
I need to have something, a sense of the whole of teaching, that's simple enough to hold in my head but robust enough to explore for a lifetime.
So at the very end of the Common Core book, there's this conclusion chapter where I share a super early draft version of the six things. Here's the list:
- Regularly grapple with grade-level complex texts
- Go big on argument
- Ensure that every student speaks, every day
- Write like crazy
- Teach grit and self-control
And by that time, I was starting to run these all-day workshops for teachers at different schools around the country, and each time I'd work from this list. All that talking and conversing about the list helped me get clearer, clearer, clearer, clearer, clearer, and clearer until, a thousand or so micro-iterations later, we have the book.
(This diagram gives you a sense of the changes at one point, and here's the post I wrote to go with it, called “It's Not the Work, It's the Re-Work: Version 4.0 of the Non-Freaked Out Framework.” What's hilarious is that, at the point of creating this diagram I totally thought I was done. Like, it's time to get a book contract and do this. But this was in October 2016 — I was still over a year from having the thing written and a few hard months away from even having a contract for the book!)
And that's basically the story of my teaching life, too. Year by year, I've moved from the guy who quit to the guy who sees himself doing this for his whole career. But it has taken over a decade, and it's still happening. Sticking with the right work for a long time is a key.
6. There's risk.
The blog is really easy to write in one key way: If you don't like it, who cares? I've only taken a minute or a second of your time, and you can opt-out whenever. But with the book, it's not like that because teacher books are expensive. I'm asking you or your school to pay $30 for something, so it'd better help. At the blog, you get what you pay for 🙂 But for the book, you need to get what you pay for, too. So there's more risk with the book, for me and for you, than there is with the blog.
And there's all kinds of risk in teaching, too — especially teaching at the edges of what you're capable of, with an eye toward getting steadily better over the years. When you add onto this your need — and mine — to teach with our doors open, a lot is at stake.
So, here's me on a limb: The book is worth it, and it's out today. Let me know what you think.