If you’re a teacher, the world is awash with people who know how to do your job better than you. Just ask them. Or, better yet, don’t even worry about asking, because they’re going to show up and tell you anyway.
Whatever corner of the internet you live in or stumble across, no matter how tight the research or well-regarded the expert is, no matter how many books or followers whatever White guy your district hires to kick off your school year has, they will, at best, be giving you something to do first. They will tell you this thing is the right thing; this is the thing that works.
But what do you do when it doesn’t work? What do you do next?
It matters what you do, the intention in your planning, the research and reflection that goes into picking the right style, the right curriculum—it matters. It really does matter, but it’s even more important what you do next.
Even if there is a perfect way to teach a novel, or to run a lab, or introduce a new mathematical concept (and I really doubt there is), and even if you taught it perfectly, what are you going to do next?
Even if there is a perfect way for some teachers, in some places—it’s OK if it doesn’t work for you. Not every kid will learn from the way you did things the first time, and not every teacher will work well in every style. Sometimes, the perfect thing doesn’t work at all in your room. So, what next?
We all make mistakes, big ones. We have bad days, we lose our temper and raise our voices. We will not be perfect. It matters when we mess up. Every day matters and a day spent in anger can be a wasted, or even a damaging one. But it matters even more what we do next.
You Can’t Find What’s Next Without Listening to Students
Last year, I had a group of boys I struggled with all year. I tried all the things I know to try to get them to care, and they never really seemed to. They were always causing low-level ruckuses in my room and just out of my door by their lockers. They did little, dumb middle school stuff that made me lose my mind, like drinking huge bottles of lemonade (even typing that, I can’t imagine why it mattered, but it got me so, so mad).
I would react too big, and they would react to my reaction, and pretty soon there was no trust between us. I was losing them, a whole group of truly bright and exceptionally obnoxious kids, just for being truly bright and exceptionally obnoxious. You know, just exactly like I was in school.
These were the boys I carried with me for months, the failure I hung backward around my neck and lugged around everywhere I went, and they made me so mad that they just wouldn’t figure it out. At the end of the year, worried about a repeat next year, I invited them all to come in for pizza over lunch. I knew what I had done, knew it hadn’t worked, knew I wanted to blame myself and blame them because nothing worked as it should have, but I got myself to focus more on what I would do next.
It took some convincing for them even to join me for pizza, so broken was our relationship, but they came. When they figured out I would be listening more than talking, they shared honestly and frankly many things about their year, their struggles, their feelings. We all felt lighter, better, when lunch was over. Had I done this earlier, allowed myself to listen and adjust, I have no doubt I would have had a next thing for that group and me.
Let’s Take the Weight of Perfection off Our Kids and Ourselves
I worry about the weight we put on ourselves to get it perfect every time, especially when the year is starting and we’ve forgotten how difficult teaching really is. I worry about the weight on our students to perform as expected because the expert or the research or the sort-of-celebrity said so, or because it worked last year or last week or last hour. I worry about all the messages all the time that tell us how easy this can all be if only we just do this one thing. I worry who we will blame when that one thing doesn’t turn out to be so easy.
There’s a reason I don’t put a lot of faith into anyone who acts like they have all the answers. I don’t believe teaching is a pursuit with many answers. Teaching means asking good questions, asking them often, and being ready for the answers to change.
To anyone involved in any step of raising and educating a child: We are doing a very difficult thing, and doing our best to do it well. We owe it to our children, our students, to do our very best every day, and when things don’t go perfectly, which they never ever will, to learn what we can, never give up on them and try what’s next.
Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching on his blog. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called "IT WON’T BE EASY: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching."