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The Secret Skills of Master Teachers: Making Bad Habits Harder and Ambiguous Habits Better

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Often times, the thing that keeps me from doing the deep, non-instructional work of teaching — the planning, thinking, giving feedback, researching, problem-solving — isn't students dropping by (which we discussed last time). Instead, it's me. In particular, it's my bad habits — my time-wasters on autopilot.

When my bad habits kick in — news reading, Twitter scrolling, YouTube watching, or stopping aimlessly into a colleague's room — I derail my chances, that precious hour, of doing the kind of work that will deepen my craft or improve the long-term flourishing outcomes of my classroom.

The trick here, as Eric Barker, author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, aptly summarizes, is making bad habits “a pain in the ass to do.” The harder a bad habit is, the quicker it will stop being a habit.

Here are some ways in which I've made bad habits harder in my own life.

  • For news reading, I use a Chrome browser extension called StayFocusd that only allows me ten minutes per day on news websites. I also don't access the news via my phone.
  • For YouTube watching, I use that same StayFocusd app, and I've got the same 10 total minutes. As much as I'd love to watch a British guy putting an electric guitar back together or a dude eat old World War II rations or a bird-filled, animated discussion of moon bases, these “intellectual pursuits” are not the kinds that tend to proffer teaching breakthroughs or a “take no work home” fixed schedule.
  • For Twitter scrolling, I've got no social media apps on my phone and the same StayFocusd constraint. I check the blue bird once per morning, and really I treat it more like a social email inbox.
  • For stopping aimlessly into colleagues' rooms… well, let's talk about this a bit more in a second because this habit is ambiguous — it can be good or bad.

The first three bad habits I listed are the kinds of things where my brain gets to switch itself into passive mode and feed a craving. Afterwards, I find myself in a place where my mood is typically worse, and I'm not much smarter for it. Maybe I've found some neat resource on Twitter — which I wasn't searching intentionally for, and therefore I probably don't actually need — or I read some seemingly important thing on the news — which could very likely prove to be unimportant next week, since news in our day is always arguing loudly for its importance and therefore nearly always lacks perspective — or I've watched a fascinating and well-produced video on what would happen if you detonated a nuclear weapon at the bottom of the Mariana Trench (spoiler: not much).

The thing that makes these bad habits is that, after carrying them out, I've not made any headway toward improving the long-term flourishing outcomes of my classroom this year or getting better or saner as a teacher.

So, those things are fairly straightforward — they are bad habits, seductively drawing me away from what I want, and I need to make them as annoying to do as possible.

What if a habit is ambiguous — not always bad, not always good?

But what about this aimlessly stopping by a colleague's classroom once the school day is over and the building is relatively quiet?

The problem is the aimless part.

Sometimes, impromptu drop-ins like this have created the strong social bonds that make working where I work a richer and much more rewarding experience. I've had way more than one professional breakthrough because of an impromptu conversation with someone in my school. I'd be a much poorer teacher if you subtracted these moments of insight from my experience.

But then there are probably an equal number of impromptu collegial conversations that have devolved into complaining or left me anxious or otherwise used up deep work time in return for minimal relational gain.

I think the key here is, when we do drop in (or get dropped in on), we have to own up to our role in keeping the conversation productive. That doesn't mean we always push for problem-solving. It just means that, in a given encounter, we want to make sure we're genuinely connecting — as people, not as complainers — or encouraging or solving problems or just being more fully known by the people we work alongside.

In the language of Shawn Achor, what we're doing with intentional (rather than aimless) colleague drop-ins is social investment.

Here's Achor in The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life:

In the midst of challenges and stress, some people choose to hunker down and retreat within themselves. But the most successful people invest in their friends, peers, and family members to propel themselves forward. This principle teaches us how to invest more in one of the greatest predictors of success and excellence — our social support network.

So let's keep those drop-ins investment-oriented. Otherwise, the kind of hiding that I described last time is useful. When we limit our availability for impromptu drop-ins, sure, we do miss out on some good things, but we also save up the mental and relational energy it takes, when we do converse with colleagues, to keep things oriented in the right directions.

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