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The “Disappointing” Key to Impactful Teaching

By Dave Stuart Jr.

On the first day of my teaching career, I gave my students a rehearsed, hooyah speech. I'm pretty sure it involved standing on a desk, and I know I was decked out in the only suit I owned. I can still picture that classroom in Baltimore, filled with terrified sixth graders. You could almost see the thought bubbles over their heads: What is this guy on?

I wasn't on anything, but I was suffering a bit from silver bullet syndrome. Here was my thought bubble during the hours of preparation that led up to the speeches I gave that day: If I can just nail this speech, then everything else will be awesome.

There was a part of me during those first years — and still is a part of me, sometimes — that wanted to believe that the right thing — the right speech, the right unit, the right instructional approach, the right words — was all it would take to create an impactful classroom. If I could just find “it,” then I'd finally see my students getting the kinds of results I was hoping for.

The reality, it turns out, is a little disappointing, especially for teachers who want to be special and stand out. (In other words, teachers who aren't yet aware of the work beneath the work.) The key to being a great teacher is this: faithfully show up and do the right work.

Anyone who's been teaching more than a minute knows not to underestimate the “showing up” bit; it's hard work bringing our full selves to school every day. It requires cultivating an integrated, poised life, one in which the way that we're working aligns with the priorities we profess. For me, I'm most able to show up fully to work when I'm loving my wife and children the way I want to be loving them, and I'm only able to do that when I'm thinking sharply about my work and the constraints I've placed around it. Eleven years into my career, it seems as though I've only just begun down this path; I'm a novice.

And that “right work” part is a lot trickier than it sounds, too. First of all, the right work can't be many of the things we're expected to do because the sum of all the things we're expected to do is more than any one person can actually do. And so the first step to doing the right work is figuring out what the wrong work is — and that's typically the kind of thing that you learn on the job. For what it's worth, I suggest that the wrong work is all of the things that are furthest removed from the long-term flourishing of kids. We should never become teachers who dismiss everything we're presented with at staff meetings or professional development — cynicism isn't part of the calling. But we should always ask about the costs of new initiatives: If I start doing X, what will happen to Y and Z? When Y and Z are the right kind of work, the work smack dab surrounding the long-term flourishing of kids, then that question is of life-and-death importance — actual students can have their life chances reduced at the behest of good, though ill-advised, intentions. Just because we believe we're doing “what's best for kids” doesn't mean that we always are.

The right work, I've found, is targeting six key things.* I want to become expert at helping my students to:

1. Cultivate key beliefs
2. Build knowledge
3. Argue
4. Read
5. Write
6. Speak & listen

What I find is that when I seek to immerse myself in studying how best to leverage these six things toward the mastery of my course material, good things tend to happen. Kids tend to grow, and their flourishing tends to be advanced. And, sure, the high-stakes tests happen to go our way more than they should, too. But the tests aren't what I'm after — I'm just after faithfully showing up and doing the right work, today and then the same thing tomorrow.

*I've written a book about these things, and it's set to come out sometime this summer. The book is called These Six Things: A Focused Approach to Long-Term Flourishing In and Beyond the Classroom. To get an early look at that book, sign up here.

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