A Terrible Teacher Tells All

As a new teacher starting out almost 14 years ago, I had no idea how terrible I was at the time. Convinced I would revolutionize the craft with my engaging lessons, dynamite presentations and outrageously strong rapport with students, compassionate observers gave me gentle proddings and consistent advice that eventually taught me to shut up and listen. This gave me a chance to watch and learn. Like any fine craftsmanship, good teaching comes from many long hours spent making small mistakes and polishing worthy pieces. So much can be learned from watching a master at work and, if you’re lucky, you’ll have the opportunity to apprentice under a great one.There is certainly the potential for raw talent capable of producing masterpieces, but more often, I found myself sweeping up the pieces and moving on to the next project without time to critique my work.

After 14 years of practice, I now know exactly how terrible of a teacher I am. Shocked? Don’t be. This is precisely the sort of teacher you want in your child’s classroom. I’ve watched masterful moments unfold on my watch. Students are engaged, excited to be there, and grasping concepts outside their reach from when they walked in the door. They are applying what they’ve learned in a lesson to a real-world problem and worked together to generate a solution.They walk in before the bell rings to tell me about something they’ve noticed that relates to what we’ve been learning and left my room with connections to what they’ll be learning in another classroom down the hall. This happens precisely because I’ve realized that, in any lesson, there are things I’ve done terribly and that I need to study, observe, learn and make more mistakes, if I ever hope to improve.

Complacency is the death knell of innovative teaching.

As a new teacher, you have no hope of keeping your head above water. The first few years of teaching feel like violently drowning and washing up on the shores of Spring Break. You may think you are innovating, and indeed may find yourself in the midst of a truly engaging lesson, only to be hit with a wave of ungraded, disorganized papers you’d rather recycle than sift through on a Saturday morning. As you learn from advice and experience new systems to help you tread the currents of parent-teacher conferences and classroom management, you begin to grasp success more often and eventually (usually around year five) begin to sail through waters that used to leave you swirling. Be careful.

The Sirens’ song of sticking to “what works” is tempting.

I’ve heard it calling lustfully from my file cabinet on a Friday afternoon when I’m fighting off the flu. It tells me it’s okay to use a lesson plan from last year that delivered content- but did not necessarily encourage collaboration. You’ve finally found footing on solid ground, which makes it hard to step off into uncharted waters, like trying new technology or introducing new methodologies. It’s these times when being a terrible teacher makes me want to be a better student.

Learning from other teachers is essential, and we can only do this well when we recognize where we are weak.

People with huge egos rarely go into teaching. If you do start off that way, a few well-aimed outbursts by parents and students certainly bring you down to eye-level. What shreds of confidence you can swaddle around you after listening to what’s wrong with education these days still needs to come down. We must be vulnerable to both failure and ridicule if we hope to learn anything new. Fortunately, we’ve had lots of practice by now.

Professional development comes in many forms, but the best kinds rarely come to your school auditorium on PD days.

Only we know what makes us a terrible teacher. I lose papers and have taken ten days to grade an assignment, but there’s an app for that, literally. Using technology like Learning Management Systems to help design short assessments that self-grade have freed me up to give more valuable feedback on formal assessments. I suck at student-centered learning. My default pedagogy is pedantic lecturing. Attending inquiry-based conferences has helped. Buying some initial curriculum based on student collaboration has improved this. Watching masterful teachers gives me strategies for implementing new approaches that support this model. I’m still terrible, but I am so much better than I was last year.

To be comfortable admitting where I’m weak, I need to know I won’t be attacked for struggling.

There are many sharks circling the waters of education these days. I don’t know what currents you are swimming against in your practice, but you must save yourself. Find the educators out there making waves in 21st century education and cling to them like a lifeboat. Buoy yourself up by applying for grants to attend conferences offering training you need. Seek out experiences like IREX’s Teachers for Global Classrooms, or one of Fulbright’s several programs that expose teachers to global best practices in education through travel and cultural exchange. Attend that webinar. Try something new. Fail at it miserably. Try again.

Heather Ridge (Author)