In my first few years in the classroom, it seemed like every time I thought I had figured something out, I soon realized I was mostly wrong. In fact my pattern was this:
Step 1: Go to a professional development session that promises to make failure not an option anymore. Or read a book that offers (Insert Number of) Ways to Guarantee Students Will (Insert Lofty Achievement)!!!!
Step 2: Get all pumped up. Aha! So, this is why my fourth graders aren’t understanding long division! This is how I can get my high school students to stop texting under their desks! This is how to get 8-year-olds to stop leaning back and forth in the bathroom line and knocking into each other until the student in front bumps into the door! All I have to do is… (see Step 3).
Step 3: Front-load many, many hours into overhauling a classroom system. Or put that time into designing and printing a new classroom currency, or making 30 copies of every page of my new timed reading prompt workbook, or teaching students a new set of classroom rules.
Step 4: Brag to at least one other person about how I have it all together now.
Step 5: Watch my plans fall apart. Sometimes this would happen right away. I’d explain the directions for the new classroom currency and the kids would just stare at me blank-faced. Or there would be technology glitches. Or the kids would have so many questions I couldn’t answer that finally I’d just say, “Never mind. Never mind! Just do things the way we did them before.” More often, however, things just degraded over time. The new folder system just took too much willpower to keep up with. Or the 15-minute warm-up activity kept growing until it took 43 minutes … every day… until one day we just started skipping it.
Step 6: Realize everything I thought I’d figured out was mostly wrong. Get mad that I’d wasted so much time.
The sense that I’d wasted time always stung. After all, time is one of the scarcest resources a teacher has. Especially a new teacher. But now, after helping thousands of beginning teachers make the transition from training to the classroom, my perspective on this pattern has changed.
It’s true: Every time you feel like you’ve figured everything out as a teacher, you’re mostly wrong. But mostly wrong isn’t the same thing as completely wrong.
Most of your frantic, aha-moment-driven overhauls do leave you with something you can use. Maybe you can scale back your big plan into something the kids understand. Maybe you can turn part of that new system into a classroom job that one of the kids can do. Or maybe you can dig out the one little piece that worked and graft it onto one of your existing classroom systems.
Each time you go through the process described above, you become one real, permanent step better.
Each time you read a book that claims to give you 12 foolproof strategies for getting students to succeed but really only has three usable tips, you get three, usable tips.
The time you spend trying to become a better teacher may not always pay off as quickly or as noticeably as you want it to. But it is never wasted.
Roxanna Elden is the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers and the creator of the New Teacher Disillusionment Power Pack, a free, one-month series of emails meant to help new teachers through their toughest days.