Those who wish to succeed must ask the right preliminary questions.
–Artistotle, Metaphysics, Book II, as cited by CS Lewis in Miracles
Teaching and learning in the USA suffers from murkiness of thought. We aren't clear on some very, very basic things, and this is often because we don't ask the right questions at the start. Instead of asking “How do I keep my students under control?” or “What's a fun activity for the first day of school,” we're 1,000 times better off asking three preliminary questions:
- What are schools for?
- What matters most in making schools great?
- What stands in our way?
Below, you'll find links to the many attempts I've made so far on this blog in answering parts of these questions. Stay tuned (for years) for unified answers; I'm in this for the long haul.
What are schools for?
The fact that we need to ask this question, and constantly bring ourselves back to it, is perhaps the greatest obstacle that faces American educators.
- Since schools often lack clarity of purpose, we need to Defin[e] Everest at a personal level. Here is a simple, 5 Minute Activity to help us do that.
- I've long written about how the point of schooling is long-term flourishing. This isn't terribly specific, and so I've also shared Marty Seligman's PERMA and the Science of Flourishing.
- Recently, Barrett Brooks wrote a guest article on what he sees as the role of education.
- Our goal is to help students master the skills and knowledge they'll need for life in the modern world. Good news: Your Students Want to Master What You’re Teaching Them. They enjoy challenges and Hard Things.
What matters most in making schools great?
Let's look at this from both internal and external angles.
Teacher motivation and mindset: the inner work of teaching
When teachers lack the skill of managing their motivation and mindset, they become an attrition statistic. It's too challenging to stick to this work — in a meaningful, improving way — for the length of time it takes to get pretty good at it, unless you can remember a few things.
- Why We Teach: The single day where I received both public and private recognition for my work as a teacher, and why the recognition cannot be the point. Also, this post features insight into my first year as a teacher.
- When teaching makes you feel like a hypocrite, that's actually a good thing: Character Strengths, Integrity, and My Three-Year-Old.
- I Would Love If My Children Became Teachers because teaching is, all by itself, a noble profession. Things as fickle as government policies and public perceptions cannot change things as timeless as the nobility of teaching.
- We can view our most challenging obstacles this year as definitive — they are what they are, and that's that — or as opportunities. I talk about that in How to View Teaching Situations Where the Odds are Against You: A Personal Case Study.
- My grandfather taught me how to be courageous, how to lead, and, even though he wasn't a teacher, how to build a teaching career you can hang your hat on: “I Love You and I’m Proud of You” — What Dean L. Stuart Taught Me About Teaching.
- We often forget (or feel bad admitting) that Teaching is Work. I can't stand that.
- Unless we place constraints on our time, we'll never increase our efficiency; I write about that in Setting a Work Schedule to Make Us Better, Saner Teachers.
- And of course, Jedi Mind Tricks for Avoiding Burnout. (Thank you to Lynsay Mills Fabio for reminding me to include this!)
Lessons, curriculum, classrooms, and co-workers: the external work of teaching
The inner work matters, but only if we do the inner work while pouring sweat and diligence into the stuff we're paid for: teaching, planning, etc.
- First, let's start with These 5 Things, All Year Long: An Overview of The Non-Freaked Out Framework for Literacy Instruction. (Free ebook)
- We need to appreciate that there is strong evidence for the lasting power of single lessons; I share one study in One Simple Lesson, a Scientific Study and Life-Changing Results.
- Not everything has lasting impact — including insanely time-consuming grading practices. Does grading take up a majority of your non-instructional time? That may be an unnecessary problem, as I (with the help of Kelly Gallagher) discuss in How Long Do You Spend Grading Articles of the Week?
- Feeling pressure to entertain your kids? Down with edutainment; you were hired for Education, Not Entertainment.
- Want to know if your students are reading or writing enough? Start by Giv[ing] Me a Number.
- School of Ed classes don't tend to teach you how to develop strong, productivity-enhancing (versus gossip-filled, productivity-draining) relationships with other adults. Here are 14 Tips Toward Better Relationships with Administrators, Parents, & Support Staff, 9 Principles for Working Better with Fellow Educators, and Working Better with Parents.
- Relationships, Awesomeness, Consistency, Academics, and Character: My keys to good work in the classroom as told through 15 Practical Tips for Promoting Long-Term Student Flourishing.
What stands in our way?
Once we clarify what schools are for and then agree on what methods best achieve those purposes
- Obviously, there's the problematic situation that arises When Your State Reduces Your Profession to a Test Score.
- In a high-stakes era of complex teacher evaluation systems, it's dangerously simple to live by an Outer Scorecard. Learn why that's problematic and how to avoid it in The Dangers of Externalism.
- Schools that produce great results in student achievement are always schools that are clear about their purpose. Clarity of purpose doesn't magically make things happen, but it's a prerequisite for success; read more here: The #1 Problem with New Years Life-Changey Stuff: Clarity of Purpose.
- Our students live in the most distracting world ever. It is hard Teaching Success in a Noisy World. It is also hard Dealing with Teacher Information Overload.
- It's both disheartening and heartening to know that we know a lot about What Does, and Does Not, Work in School Improvement. The trick is, from the top level of administration on down to the teachers, parents, and students, we need to act on what we know.
- Teachers are masochistically proud of the ten clubs they sponsor, etc. Unfortunately, many of us don't get picky about the things they say “Yes” to; here's how to Make Better Choices with Warren Buffett’s 25-5 List Technique.
- In the shortest survey ever, I ask new subscribers of this blog to tell me what frustrates them. What I found out is that 3,500 Teachers Can’t Be Wrong: We Need Permission to Focus.
- We are constantly on the lookout for silver bullets; solutions or programs or people who will make the good metrics go up and the bad metrics go down. Unfortunately, There Are No Silver Bullets, but There Are Swords.