If you wander through my school, you'll see numerous examples of teacher excellence. One of our best educators is stern, intense, rarely cracking a smile; another is warm, inviting, and deeply relational; still another is peppy, exuberant, bubbling over with enthusiasm. Each of them are excellent teachers, and I'd argue that their excellence is something separate from personality or teaching style.
Rather, it stems from the way they think about their work as teachers. Let's examine several mindsets they have in common.
1. “Never finished”
The thing about great teachers is that they are professionally dissatisfied with their shortcomings, their weaknesses, their mistakes, their inability to overcome present obstacles. And yet, because they believe that they can change and improve (in short, they have Carol Dweck's famous growth mindset), this dissatisfaction acts as a pleasant fuel that drives them to exert themselves toward improvement with every working hour. It's an acquired taste but, just like beer or coffee, a rewarding one.
Yet this professional dissatisfaction doesn't burn them out. At the end of each day, they are personally satisfied with the work they've put in toward improvement.
In other words, they see teacher excellence as a journey, not a destination, and as long as they're on the road and moving, they sleep well. Notice the sense of liberating empowerment that comes from focusing on what they can control versus pining away over what they can't. They are — or fast will be — excellent teachers because they've adopted what I call a “never finished” mindset.
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2. Work-life balance
Though they possess this never finished mindset, this doesn't mean they never stop working! They set clear expectations for themselves when it comes to what hours of the day belong to work and what hours of the day do not. Some of them leave school an hour after the final bell rings, taking home grading only one night per week. Others work until five o'clock, yet never bring home a thing. Their excellence stems not from the specific work schedule they've chosen, but rather from their commitment to maintaining it, making thoughtful tweaks as they better learn when and how they can maximize their productivity.
Why do they do this? Because they know, either intuitively or because of the research done by people like Shawn Achor at Harvard, about the inter-relationship between social support and achievement. And so they intentionally cultivate balanced lives — completely in contrast to the kinds of success-for-students-at-all-costs portrayals of teachers found in films like Freedom Writers and The Ron Clark Story.
3. Long-term vision
If you watch only a snippet of an ultra-distance race (I write about this as an avid fan of Christopher McDougall's Born to Run — not from personal experience!), you won't see anything too impressive — heck, if the segment of trail you're watching is uphill, you'll even see many ultra-runners slow down to a walk. However, if you follow an ultra for its duration, you'll be steadily blown away by seemingly superhuman feats of endurance as runners push on through one marathon's length, then two, then three — all in a row.
Great teachers are just like these ultra-runners. They realize that a teaching career is a long path, and greatest are the rewards for those who stick to the work until they've put in enough deliberate practice to cross into excellence.
So just like those ultra-runners who walk up the hills (and then go on to win races), excellent teachers maintain a long-term outlook on their daily work and, as a result, strive to build balance in their lives.
4. Clock awareness
If you ask a teacher what they most lack in their jobs, you might expect to hear things like parent support, administrative understanding, classroom materials, or access to technology. Yet while these things are all struggles that many teachers grapple with on a daily basis, in my incoming subscriber survey, the most commonly cited source of frustration for teachers is the lack of something much simpler: time.
And so, when you encounter an excellent educator in my school, you'll tend to notice that, whatever style or personality they may have, they have in common a sacred reverence for the instructional minute. Their students are engaged in some form of thinking, reading, writing, or speaking from bell-to-bell; when kids are listening to the teacher, it's for a focused, organized message or lesson — not an endless, time-consuming string of self-indulgent anecdotes.*
*Don't feel guilty — these have characterized my instructional time more than I care to admit.
5. Aggressive, productive failure
Excellent teachers tend to have a healthy, symbiotic relationship with failure. They view it as their tuition-free, ongoing doctorate degree in excellent teaching. When a lesson doesn't go well, they glean what worked and what didn't. When an assessment shows a lack of student growth or a homework assignment doesn't get completed, they consider what this means for their pedagogy, for their instruction, and for the path forward.
This intimacy with failure is only possible because these teachers have intentionally sought to detach their sense of self-worth from how well they're performing at work. Doing this is, as they say, “an inside job,” but it's critical if one wants to be able to analyze one's practice as objectively as possible.
6. On the same team
Finally, great educators work against social division. They strive to resist divisive habits like gossip or complaining. Rather, they speak forthrightly, aiming to brag about people behind their backs and speak negative truths to people face-to-face. This isn't just a matter of integrity; it's a matter of doing all in their power to increase social capital in their setting and, therefore, increase the chances that students will flourish in the long-term.
They seek to rid themselves of self-righteousness or arrogance because they know, either instinctively or because the research supports it, that individual teachers do not create whole system change — groups of teachers do.
Obviously this is challenging in extreme circumstances where teachers are literally pitted against one another in an effort to earn merit pay or to avoid test-based termination. Yet the excellent educator knows that practices like these cannot be sustained in the long-term. They refuse to let any regime change their drive toward their central purpose as educators.
Which of these mindsets do you want to work on before school ends?
I'll end with the first mindset: remember that we're never finished working on improving as teachers, and we're never finished letting our work as teachers improve us. This work is a refining fire.
So what are you working on next? Or: did I miss anything?
Linda Forrest says
Hi Dave! I’m in my first course at ACE and today’s article fits perfectly with my first assignment, taking a SWOT Analysis and using it to outline my career aspirations and goals. My “never finished” mindset has certainly led me to seek my Ed.D. Thank you for your comments and inspiration.
Linda, I love hearing about people in ACE! I’m going to write more about graduate school / continuing ed decisions as May. I’m so glad this article helped!
Having a long-term vision will help me deal with the failures and challenges in a more healthy way. When you know you are on a long run you steel yourself and get all zen-like 🙂 Good stuff Dave!
Exactly — all zen-like. That’s what I’m talking about, Joel 🙂 You are on a long run, my friend!
Great list, Dave! Our DC shared this with us, and I agree with him that this is a solid list. I’d say that embedded in #1, but worthy of its own recognition, is “Reflective”. When we think about our lessons and reflect on them right there in the lesson book (even if its a short note, “Don’t do this next year!), we guarantee that we won’t make the same mistakes twice. One of the worst mistakes we can make is to continue to do things a particular way without reflecting on its efficacy.
I would agree, Brian — reflective is an important point. It’s also a key piece of #5. Thank you!
Bryce Fidler says
This came at just the right time. As the school year comes to an end, I always hit the wall of despair. ‘Have my kids learned anything this year? Has my hardwork come to naught?’ This post reminds me that teaching is a journey not a destination.
Kim Schultz says
Hi Dave! I always enjoy your thought provoking and inspirational posts! Akin to the other replies above, this post really hits some key points for me this year. The idea of productive failure as it relates to my ever changing adaptation of my lessons to align with the common core has been a major theme for me this year! I’m looking forward to summer when I can really take some time to reflect back on this year and focus on what worked well and what didn’t 🙂
In the meantime I have about 200 essays that need my attention on this beautiful sunny CA day……ice tea and rubrics in hand will make the job smooth 🙂 Have a great week!
Hi Dave, I really appreciate your emphasis on the growth mindset in education. Your community might enjoy this article which perfectly compliments what you wrote here. http://7mindsets.com/growth-mindset/
I feel myself slipping into survival mode…I am a teacher of almost 20 years and I love teaching and I love the children, but I am having the most difficult time with balance. I can accept “never finished.” It’s “no hope” I’m most concerned about. I’m not ready to survive. I want to thrive right along with my students.
Ann B. Williams says
I’m an 81 yr. old teacher at a city college. Many years in Elementary and now older students part-time. It’s perfect. I enjoyed these remarks of yours and see which ones I can claim as ‘yes’ and the ones I need to work on such as work-life balance. I get caught up in the creativity involved in work and want to keep at it. Setting specific hours will help me. Thank you.
Ann Williams, May 29, 2015