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There Are No Silver Bullets, but There Are Swords

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Post Image- Silver Bullets & Swords

I'm writing this on the afternoon of my first day back to teaching after a nice winter break. And merely one day back into the thick of it, my body is telling me that, indeed, teaching is work.

This isn't my first goat rodeo, though. As the week matures, I know I'll re-acclimate to the pace, to the thousands of daily interactions with hundreds of people (I'm an introvert — that's a lot of interacting), to the thousands of decisions a teacher's day requires, to building relationships with kids and colleagues, to the paperwork, to the frustration of desiring so much for a kid and seeing that, today too, he's not quite ready to fully own his education.

The silly thing is, there's a part of me that somehow expected a work schedule to make today all unicorns and rainbows and “Wow, my blood must be lightning because I got some energy, baby!” But sitting down to write this, I chuckle at that silly, unspoken expectation that I brought into today because there simply aren't any silver bullets for our work.

Accept this: there will always be a gap between theory and practice

Here's the thing: whether we're talking about an approach to literacy instruction across the school day or a work schedule to force us into greater efficiency or working better with administrators, there's no way around the simple fact that teaching is work, and with work there are no guarantees, no silver bullets. There is just the persistent, dogged, stubbornly joyful, Never Finished pursuit of wisdom and skill and character.

So: if you tried a work schedule today and it didn't work well (mine didn't do super hot), dust yourself off. That's part of getting better. As Daniel Coyle says in The Little Book of Talent (one of my favorite reads of 2014):

There is a place, right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest. It's called the sweet spot. [When you're in your sweet spot, you'll feel] frustration, difficulty, alertness to errors. You're fully engaged in an intense struggle — as if you're stretching with all your might for a nearly unreachable goal, brushing it with your fingertips, then reaching again.

Feel like you failed today? Take heart: Coyle goes on to say that when we're in our sweet spot, we'll only be successful 50-80 percent of the time.

Yet cling to this: theories can be swords

Theories can't be silver bullets, but when we understand that getting better at teaching requires working in our sweet spots (and therefore experiencing failure 20-50 percent of the time on a given skill), they can be swords.

If you're a nerd, it may help you to literally envision the fact that when you're working on sticking to a work schedule or dominating some non-freaked out literacy instruction or experimenting with noncognitive skill development, you're just working on your sword skills. Or your bo staff skills, nunchuk skills, etc.

Side note: Most of my 9th grade students have never seen Napoleon Dynamite. [I got this gif from here.]

Do me a favor

Whenever I share any tip or approach or technique or anything on this site, even if I'm super excited about it, remember: it's not a silver bullet.

It can't be. They don't exist in teaching.

But it is a sword you could use to try slaying the dragons that stand between you, your students, and long-term flourishing for all of you.

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22 Responses to There Are No Silver Bullets, but There Are Swords

  1. Jenni January 6, 2015 at 8:19 am #

    Thanks, Dave for the reality check and the clip from Napoleon Dynamite put a big smile on my face. That’s one of my favorite movies – hilarious . . . and sad that most of your freshmen have never seen it. Does that mean we’re that old now?

    • Denise Ahlquist January 6, 2015 at 11:49 am #

      Or still young, Jenni, as I’ve never seen it either (b. 1960)! 😉

      • davestuartjr January 6, 2015 at 12:01 pm #

        LOL Denise — yes, it’s a movie from 2004 that became a cult favorite of sorts; I was in college at the time but still got a kick out of it 🙂

  2. msdayvt January 6, 2015 at 8:38 am #

    Dave, I can’t thank you enough for this post. You have put into elegant, vulnerable prose the truth of our daily lives. If we are to be right on that edge where we are efforting at our best and truest, we are going to tip over sometimes. I think of it as tree pose in yoga. You can find a way to avoid tipping, but then you aren’t stretching. When you stretch, you are working the pose. Therefore, you will tip. It’s how you recover and respond to the tip that allows you to become stronger and better balanced. We need to allow ourselves permission to stretch, tip, and recover. Thank you for you beautiful reminder.

    • Denise Ahlquist January 6, 2015 at 11:50 am #

      Nice yoga metaphor!

    • davestuartjr January 6, 2015 at 12:02 pm #

      That yoga metaphor is the bomb. I’ve never practiced yoga but you’ve made me want to with a single paragraph. Great illustration of your point.

  3. Kelly Messerly January 6, 2015 at 8:50 am #

    Thanks for the reminder! All we can do is keep picking up our favorite swords, keep swinging, and keep aiming for that sweet spot.

    • davestuartjr January 6, 2015 at 12:02 pm #

      That’s it, Kelly — kind of makes our work simpler 🙂

  4. Lissa January 6, 2015 at 9:54 am #

    I love to remind my students of this idea that it is discomfort that leads to growth. I read this as I am supposed to be on my way to a PLC meeting 🙂 Thanks for the inspiration!

    • davestuartjr January 6, 2015 at 12:03 pm #

      Your students are well served by the reminder, Lissa! I hope the PLC meeting went well.

  5. Megan January 6, 2015 at 11:02 am #

    “…the frustration of desiring so much for a kid and seeing that, today too, he’s not quite ready to fully own his education.”
    I cried over this very thing just yesterday — thank you so much for the encouragement!!! You’re totally right. Let’s dust ourselves off!! We’ve got this! Or…we’re GONNA get this! 🙂

    • davestuartjr January 6, 2015 at 12:04 pm #

      Exactly, Megan — we’re going to continue getting this more and more. That is one of the hardest constants of the job for me too.

  6. Stan January 6, 2015 at 3:31 pm #

    Education has become overgrown by too many priorities. We need to use our swords to prune our education gardens. This does not come without something or someone being critical of our work as teachers. Pruning makes every bit of sense to create a bountiful harvest of fruit in the long run. Best comments I get from former students are five and ten years down the road when they come back and tell me thanks for making them produce quality work.

    • davestuartjr January 10, 2015 at 10:49 pm #

      Stan, couldn’t agree more! When we have many priorities, we’ve got none. Pruning is apt.

  7. kaz Mck January 6, 2015 at 8:41 pm #

    Thanks Dave for another reality check. I hit the ground running yesterday, leaving my students in the dust. I had to laugh when I came home because I gave them absolutely no grace period to acclimate and I found myself totally exhausted last night. Today was another day and with one less cup of coffee I was able to take a step back and give them and me a break. We connected and set goals today. This was totally self imposed stress but like you said teaching is about setting limits and not getting it right all the time.

    • davestuartjr January 10, 2015 at 10:50 pm #

      kaz, I relate to that! We’re never done getting better at this work.

  8. kimolsen January 8, 2015 at 4:21 pm #

    Your introduction described me perfectly this week. Another good read, Dave.

  9. Debra Ehara January 10, 2015 at 7:23 pm #

    Thanks again for the powerful idea of keeping a strict schedule. I spent this week dedicated to keeping a strict schedule, and what I’ve found is that I have more energy. I know it’s only been a week, and I did make a few variations for myself. I decided to try the 7-5:20 schedule, but truth be told, I get to school at 6:30. I like the morning hours when nobody is around, yet. Also, I allow myself to make up time. For example, if I have an appointment that takes me away from school before 5:20, I am allowed to make up the time. I don’t have younger children that need attention when I get home. My children are 16 and up. But, I set a timer for myself, and I put it away when time is up. As you predicted, I’ve become more efficient. I am more smart about my prep time, and because I am not working late into the night, I can spend time with my kids at dinner, go to yoga, or make other healthier choices. It’s only been a week, so I can’t say it’s a habit, yet. But, I am beginning to feel like a human again. Thanks again.
    BTW, you might not remember, but I am part of the Learning Leaders in my school. I had told you that I was not happy about the direction we were going (technology and PBL), but over the break I rather impulsively bought “Focus” by Mike Schmoker for all the learning leaders, and happily my AP got on board. Now, we have some planning to do for our PD. I’d love any tips that you might have to offer about implementing this model.

    • davestuartjr January 10, 2015 at 11:13 pm #

      Wow, Debra. This is awesome.

      1) Your runthrough of how setting a work schedule is working for you and the tweaks you’re making to it; I love, too, that you’re adapting it to your life situation (e.g., with older kids). Comments like yours make the hours I put into this blog well, well rewarded.

      2) I do remember! I’m blown away that your AP jumped on so quickly; Focus basically defenestrates tech/PBL initiatives in favor of authentic literacy instruction. Tips:

      A) The more people who can read and get on board, the better.
      B) Keep it simple. His authentic redundant literacy template is the bomb. Allow people to get awesome at that template.
      C) Count texts. How many texts are kids going to read in X class during Y time period? How much will they write? What will they write? How often will they speak? Etc. Quantify the number of reps you want kids to have in their classes (or at least in yours).

      Slow and steady wins the race. Keep in touch.

  10. josephsiloblog November 27, 2017 at 1:21 pm #

    I clicked this post because it reminded me of the fact that in the chapter Revelation in the Bible, the sword of God is His Word. This aside, the topic of this post is something that I have been reflecting on quite a lot in the last week. It seems easy, as the teacher, to put a lot of pressure on yourself in search for the silver bullet lesson plan or trick of the sleeve that will enlighten dozens of students with just one fell swoop. I liked the fact that you embrace the high failure rate that occurs in this profession. It confirms the conclusion that I had previously reached–experience is the best teacher–by using positive and empowering imagery.

  11. Anna Knowles December 9, 2018 at 8:33 am #


    Thank you, first of all, for the thought put into these resources and your own writing. This has been helping me my first year of teaching. I’m at a school where there are limited resources and mentorship for new teachers. Do you have a post or video on advice for teachers who are thinking of quitting their jobs, finding new horizons outside of education, teachers who have been disheartened to the extend of seeking out new identities? I know you have mentioned you also quit teaching at one point. After student evaluations and lack of administrative support I’m really considering leaving. I’m struggling with general defeat, as all teachers do at one point I assume. Questioning why I got into this in the first place. Thank you for all you do!

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