I think that there are hundreds of thousands of teachers, coaches, and administrators who are dying to be told, “If you and your students are working on this handful of things, repeatedly and with increasing skill, throughout the school year as you move through your curriculum, you’re okay.”
Those last words, especially, are important: “You’re okay.” Not in the sense of “average” or “mediocre”; I’m talking about “You don’t need to feel like you’re not doing a good enough job every day.”
The legacy of accountability and the over-sciencing of teaching
When people subscribe to my free newsletter, I ask them to complete a simple survey (it’s literally three questions long, and only one of the questions is open-ended). At the time of this writing, over 3,500 educators have answered, and they’ve literally written more words than were contained in my first book — 58,531, to be exact (see Fig. 1).
3,500 educators is not a lot when compared to the total number of educators in the USA, which stands at approximately 3.5 million; my survey represents only about .1 percent of them. And yet, there’s enough information to see some clear trends:
- Educators are highly stressed and highly pressured. It is one thing to read Gallup poll data finding that 57 percent of educators are “not engaged” in their work ; it is another to read an earnest human being pouring out a paragraph of stress and pressure and impossibility. Optimal amounts of pressure do help increase human performance (e.g., I produce more writing when I’m on a deadline than when I’m not), but I don’t know of many teachers who work within anything approaching “optimal amounts of pressure.”
- Much of that stress is from insane expectations. Teachers feel that they are expected to solve all of society’s problems, every kid at a time. All of their students are to be well-fed, on grade level, and flourishing by March, no matter what. If the teacher isn’t reaching a student, then she must not be using the latest strategy or technique correctly; it’s her fault.
- Much of that stress is avoidable. I think there are very few folks in education who operate out of ill motives; the majority of us teachers, administrators, and coaches live in a perpetual Survival Mode that leads to ill-thought decisions, data for data’s sake, hours studying evaluation rubrics, and “Let’s learn 1,000 strategies this year” approaches to PD. We have no sight of Everest; we’ve given it up long ago, trusting, instead, that data and technique and bureaucracy will somehow take us to the mountaintop.
But here’s the good news; this is my point: it is still possible for teachers, teams, and whole schools and districts to stand firmly on the timeless truth that humans cannot do all things with excellence, and that it is therefore wise to focus on a few things.
That is essentially what all of my work around literacy instruction is about. I think every teacher should be told, “If you and your students are working on this handful of things, repeatedly and with increasing skill, throughout the school year as you move through your curriculum, you’re okay.”
That’s where the “non-freaked out” framework comes in (see Fig. 2).
The life and times of the “non-freaked out” framework for literacy instruction across the content areas
In March 0f 2013, I was coming to the close of my first year of blogging. (If you were around then, you’ll recall that my first year was an extended study of and meditation on the Common Core literacy standards; that first year’s thinking can be found, in polished form, in my first book, A Non-Freaked Out Guide to Teaching the Common Core: Using the 32 Anchor Standards to Develop College- and Career-Ready Students.)
While the 32 anchor standards were helpful to me, there were still too many of them — far too many skills for my students and me to master through a standard-by-standard approach. We could probably “hit” them all, but we’d become excellent at none of them. Problematically, the CCSS didn’t clearly prioritize itself — it didn’t have the “Hey, if all hell breaks loose, just work toward these five things, again and again, as you go through your curriculum all year.”
And so that March, I put forth some rough draft thinking that I called the “non-freaked out approach to the Common Core.” My intention was to simplify quality literacy instructional habits to the point where I could tell myself, “Okay Dave, in this week’s lessons, if you can just make sure that you and the kids worked on this handful of skills, you done good, kid.”
That approach eventually became a five-part framework. A brief timeline:
- March 2013: My initial post hardly mentioned writing (fail — I told you it was rough draft thinking); a reader helped me add that with “Write Like Crazy.”
- 2013-2014 School Year: Interactions with students, readers, publishers, and workshop participants helped me to simplify and clarify the framework and begin creating the graphic element.
- June 2014: I put forth a version of the framework that included an additional “research” element, which I ultimately abandoned in favor of simplicity.
- August 2014: I published the version of the framework that I’ve been using to this day (see Fig. 2), both as a teacher and in the workshops and keynotes I give around the country.
Every iteration was aimed at something simple and powerful. I wanted it to tell teachers what they’re dying to be told: that this work hasn’t lost its nobility; that simple wisdom trumps gigs of data; that there’s a way to be okay again.
And the framework started to do that for me. I found that, if I was helping my students become better at thinking (argument), reading, writing, speaking, and life (growing character) — just five things — as we studied the middle ages in World History or read Fahrenheit 451 in English 9, I was okay. I was hitting not just the most important standards from any list, but I was hitting life’s standards. And every day, rather than shoving down a stomach-full of anxiety, I was guiding my students on a trek toward Everest, rather than a test. I was remaining true to my calling.
In short, it became increasingly easy for my readers and me to be able to fight the stress demons; we started being able to tell ourselves, “Hey, you’re doing the right work.”
“You’re okay.” 
- The Gallup poll that I’m citing surveyed some 6,711 educators — Gallup’s sample size isn’t drastically larger than mine, though I’m sure it’s much more randomized — and you can find a summary of it here (that’s an EdWeek link, so a free sign up is required). Also, for a critique of Gallup’s broader employee engagement survey, read this from Forbes; I think the authors make legitimate points and that, as a result, Gallup’s teacher survey results are likely skewed toward the negative.
- Later this month, I’ll share how that framework is continuing to develop in my mind. But for now, look: if you’re giving students lots of chances to argue, read, write, speak, and grow character, all while you teach your content, and if you’re getting better at helping students master those things, then hey — you’re doing a good job.
There are too many readers, colleagues, students, authors, and other people to thank for this framework, and there are about 3,500 folks to thank for providing me with so much food for thought in the survey responses. If you have ever prodded my thinking through the survey or just through interactions with me, I dedicate this to you and pray that it helps more teachers and students to flourish in our work despite the pressures and stresses.