Lately as I have been coaching teachers, I have noticed something disturbing. Many teachers do not trust themselves. In fact, I believe that we have teacher-proofed teaching so much that now teachers are afraid to teach. Many turn off their brains and simply do what they are told.
Just recently, I observed an elementary teacher who stood in front of the class and read to them from the teacher guide. When I met with him afterward to give him feedback, I asked him why he had made some of the instructional decisions he made. His answer? It was in the teacher’s guide. Finally, I asked him,
“If you didn’t have the teacher’s guide, would you have taught the lesson differently?”
He nodded vigorously. “Oh yeah.”
“How?” I asked.
He then excitedly described exactly how he would have approached the lesson. I sat there flabbergasted. This was not a bad teacher. In fact, his lesson was much more powerful and quite frankly much more appropriate for his students than the one in the teacher’s guide. I told him as much and asked him why he didn’t just teach the way he knew would work better. He shrugged.
“That’s the way that they told us to teach. I didn’t think I had a choice.”
I was coaching a team of middle school teachers in another district across the country and the same thing happened. I was showing them how to use the rigor template to unpack Common Core Standards and create unit plans. The teachers initially didn’t want to meet with me at all. They later told me that they thought it would be a waste of time. After all, they’d been to several CCSS workshops already and didn’t really think I could offer them anything new. But, as I pushed them to think about why the standard was important and to reconnect with their own passion for their subjects and bring that into their teaching, they began to get really excited. One teacher at the table, the one who was perhaps the most resistant initially looked at the unit that she had created during our session and said,
“I didn’t think I was allowed to teach this way.”
Another group of teachers at a different school sat down to plan units with me and pulled out their district-created unit plans and their district-mandated lesson-planning templates. Then they sheepishly explained to me that they created one set of documents to submit to their principals and district office and another set of plans that they actually used to teach.
I conducted a workshop recently in a different part of the county with a high school staff on planning rigorous lessons and units. During the afternoon, I had them bring their own materials and apply what they learned in the morning to create a rigorous unit plan by the end of the day. A group of math teachers really struggled at first so I sat down with them to help them untangle their standard and start planning their unit. I kept asking them why they were teaching their standard and they kept referring me to the book, the curriculum guide, and the state standards documents they had dutifully downloaded. Finally, I asked them to put all of those documents away and just talk to me about why they taught math and what they hoped their students would ultimately learn. The more they talked about why they loved math, the more clear they became about how to help their students learn math. Once they had reconnected with their own passion, then they found a way to teach their students. But as soon as we pulled out their documents again, they put their passion away and started talking again about what standard went where.
Another teacher in that session, a science teacher, kept trying to put the right answer in the right box on the unit planning template. I told him that unit planning is not about getting the right answer and that he should focus on his goals for his students and figure out the best way to reach his goals. He looked at me and asked, “I’m allowed to do that?”
It saddens me so much to see teachers who are smart and passionate and committed to their students stop thinking, and feeling, and believing when they sit down to plan. Planning should be one of the most exciting parts of our jobs and yet we have managed to suck all of the joy out of it in the name of our templates, and forms, and SWBAT-speak. We’ve forgotten what planning should be and made it a paperwork task, another hoop we have to jump through, a burden we must bear.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, it shouldn’t be that way. Planning can become a time where you reconnect with your passion, figure out how to help your students discover their own passion, and ensure that you and your students learn something in the process. Planning can become one of the most powerful and energizing parts of your job if you do it right.
The first step is to start with the why. Why are you teaching a particular standard? Why is it important? For now, forget about filling in the boxes on your district-mandated planning templates or covering everything in your textbook and find your why. It’s hard work to figure out why we need to understand the difference between area and perimeter, or the move from industrialism to imperialism after World War I, or how to trace a theme, or the significance of plate tectonics but it is the most important part of the planning process. Once you understand the why, the rest of your unit will unfurl itself in front of you. From there, the rest of the unit planning process is easy. (You can watch the rest of that process here)
I understand the pressure you’re under but don’t let the demands of the Common Core or the stress of helping students pass the big test, or the pressure to perform rob you of the joy that rigorous unit and lesson planning can bring. Instead, fight for your own why and b.y.o.b. (bring your own brain) to the planning process. Think through your units and find your own passion before you put one assignment in one box on your district-mandated unit-planning template. Free yourself to create powerful lesson rather than handcuff yourself to the teacher guide. While these are great tools, ultimately when you think rigorously about your instructional practice, you will know what’s best for your students. Trust yourself.