There are thousands of ways to be a great, master teacher, but there is really only one way to be a bad one. It has to do with how the critical juncture is handled.
This is the critical juncture: the moment when you realize a negative difference between how you expected things to go, and how they are actually going. It happens at all different scales: the career-level (for most people, year two); the year-level (for me, about October); and even the unit- and daily lesson-level. It’s not a one-time thing — we are constantly coming upon these fork-in-the-road moments when the essays are terrible or the quizzes are bombed or the workload is unmanageable.
At the critical juncture moments, the road forks two ways:
- The Road Most Travelled is that of disengagement. This disengagement can look all kinds of ways — we ignore the problem, we explain it away, we justify it, we hide it, we move on — but, in the end, it’s disengaging from the awareness of the gap between how we hoped things would go and how they’ve gone. This is the more frequently travelled road because it doesn’t require us to do any serious internal lifting — we don’t need to really deal with the fact that we expected our teaching career would look like the movies or that the AP scores are terrible.
- The Road Less Travelled is that of engagement. It really looks just one way — like digging in. It happens when we ask, “Why aren’t things going like I thought? How could they go better? How can I get better results?” We get productively curious. This is the less frequently travelled road because it means we have to detach our sense of self-worth from our results or our performance. We have to say, “Oh, those essays are really terrible, those scores are so bad, those behaviors are really bad. Why? How could I make them better?” And we have to keep reminding ourselves that answers to those questions are much more interesting than “I just suck at teaching” or “The kids just don’t care.”
Sometimes, we have to disengage — we have to take that road. We have to because there is only so much time in the day to do the work well; if we tried puzzling through every problem, we’d work around the clock and still not make progress. Part of becoming a master teacher is learning when to disengage at the critical juncture and when to dig in.
But if the path of disengagement becomes the default, we all end up at the same old place: burn-out, boredom, complaint, excuse. Ultimately, there ends up being just one way to be a bad teacher, and it’s to live in this place.
On the other hand, strategic engagement at the critical juncture takes us down diverse roads to diverse places. If we keep at it and really keep listening, keep watching, keep an eye on our insatiable tendency to deceive ourselves into thinking we’ve arrived and we don’t need to pay attention anymore, then we find that we’re mastering this thing called teaching, that it’s enjoyable and rich and noble.