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3,500 Teachers Can’t Be Wrong: We Need Permission to Focus

By Dave Stuart Jr.

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).

Post Image- Reader Survey

There were so many words in the extended response that my computer froze when I did the Paste command.

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 [1]; 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:

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.” [2]

Footnotes: 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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8 Responses to 3,500 Teachers Can’t Be Wrong: We Need Permission to Focus

  1. Diane -- Kansas City August 12, 2015 at 9:42 am #

    Hi Dave! As you so aptly title it, the “Over-Science of Teaching” sadly appears to have eroded confidence in many of the gifted educators I encounter in my work. This year I’ve challenged myself as a facilitator of PD, teacher coach, and classroom teacher to encourage folks to “use what they know”. Thanks to you and your simplified process for starting a WP blog, I was able to create a space for myself to reflect on my work as an educator (ELL Instructional Specialist). One of my first posts touches on what you’ve expressed. In my blog I publicly made the commitment to give teachers more room to breath this year. Thanks, Dave for continuing to share what YOU know!

    • davestuartjr August 12, 2015 at 10:24 pm #

      Diane, thank you for writing in and for sharing your blog; if anyone is reading these comments, check out http://classroomwithin.org. (By the way, Diane — how do you make those footnotes? Those are super cool.)

      Cheers to both of us this year as we seek to write, reflect, and do our work in ways that increase sanity and effectiveness while decreasing stress and overwhelm.

      • Diane -- Kansas City August 21, 2015 at 8:27 am #

        Hi Dave. Thanks for the shout-out about my blog — inspired by your easy-to-follow “how to create a blog” challenge. The footnotes? I’m embarrassed to admit that I type all of my posts in Word before I cut and paste them into my blog. Word has a feature to create foot notes. I wasn’t sure if it would work or not, but the footnotes transferred seamlessly into my WordPress blog. Depending on what version of Word you’re using, the insertion command might be under “references” or simply “insert”. In either case you’ll find a drop down feature called “footnote”. When you click and insert, it automatically begins the numbering process for you and opens the footer space at the bottom of the page where you can insert the verbiage for as many footnotes as you care to make. So…footnote away!

  2. janielwag August 12, 2015 at 5:09 pm #

    Hola Dave!
    So good to finally read something you have written! I plan to read much more after such a busy summer.
    What you say here resonates so strongly with my experience that I want to jump up and yell, ‘YES!’ I love the title: ” A Non-Freaked Out Approach to Literacy Instruction…” I just wrote about focusing on the ‘Big Rocks’ (Stephen Covey) on my blog today, though I didn’t identify them. I’d say what you have in your framework works very well for elementary as well, though I’d expand the writing to include informative and narrative. Like you, I don’t want to add to the teacher-overwhelm, but I love the idea of making sure students have a balanced approach to developing and expressing their thoughts.

    Your post is inspiring me to write a piggyback post. Hmmm, wonder when I’ll get to that? I already blogged today…and there’s a gillion things on my plate just like all the other teachers out there!

    Again, I so look forward to getting to know your work better. I am impressed. Like, VERY.
    Thanks for sharing your thinking! What you’ve written here will help so many. I’ll refer colleagues to your blog.

    Have a fantastic year!
    -Janiel

    • davestuartjr August 12, 2015 at 10:21 pm #

      Janiel! I am still bummed we didn’t connect at ILA last month. I appreciated reading your post, as well as the few preceding it. I love that a key benefit of your Booster Lessons book is its simplicity; you are right in saying we so need that!

      I am sure you will get to that piggyback post very soon, as you are clearly not a busy person at all 🙂 You are crazy, Janiel. It is good having a like-minded friend who knows the insanity of teaching/writing/speaking and who isn’t satisfied with simply accepting the insanity. Here’s to a saner, better year for both of us.

      Can’t wait for our next meeting!

  3. aliciaf35 August 12, 2015 at 7:32 pm #

    In the past couple of years, I honestly felt like I had forgotten how to teach! It is very frustrating to feel like you are failing your students by not covering every standard. Thanks for the post – you’ve helped a discouraged teacher today!

    • davestuartjr August 12, 2015 at 10:16 pm #

      Alicia, that is incredible to hear and is one of the largest goals of my writing 🙂 Thank you so, so much.

  4. aliciaf35 August 23, 2015 at 10:02 pm #

    Dave, I’ve been working on implementing your framework in my class and I love it! I have one question – something that I’ve struggled with for years. I teach in a high poverty school with quite a few struggling readers, so it is difficult to get them to read. Do you read the text aloud or do they read independently, or do you mix it up?

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