Bad Advice | Mindsteps Inc.

Bad Advice

All of us can use a little advice. But there is a lot of bad advice out there. Below are the top 5 worst pieces of advice given to teachers we’ve heard.

Bad Advice # 1: You Need a Teaching Make-Over. Whenever you struggle in one area of your teaching, it is tempting to attempt a radical overhaul. In fact, your mentor or whatever teacher advice book you’ve turned to in desperation may have even suggested an “extreme make-over” as the solution to your problem. Even if it’s true and you could use a make-over, it’s not likely that it will happen over night or require as huge a change as you think.

But, rarely is a radical overhaul needed to fix even the most major problems in your practice. In fact, I have supported thousands of teachers as a coach and mentor and I have never met one teacher who would have benefited from an extreme make over. Sure, many of them needed to make major shifts in their practice, but whenever they tried to make more than one or two shifts at a time, their entire practice would fall apart. I’ve learned that you need to make one shift, and get used to that one, before you make another. Over time your practice will radically improve, but it has to happen one small move at a time.

Bad Advice #2: You need a bag of tricks. This one has been around for a long time and has survived largely because it has a ring of truth to it. It’s true that every teacher needs a collection of tried and true strategies, activities, and lessons. But, I hate to tell you this: at some point, your bag of tricks will let you down. If we apply those “tricks” indiscriminately to our students, we are not only doing them a huge disservice, we are doing a disservice to ourselves instead. Here’s why.

Relying on “tricks” keeps us from developing a fully-evolved approach to teaching. It keeps us focused on pulling the right trick out of the bag versus developing and operating by a set of principles that govern our practice.Not only that but relying on a bag of tricks limits you. One of my favorite sayings is “If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” That’s the main problem with depending on the tricks in your bag. If you only have a few tricks, you tend to treat everything that arises in the classroom with the strategies you have. If you meet a new challenge for which you have no trick, you will try to use the only tricks you do have, whether or not they actually are best for the situation.

Bad Advice #3 -You just need to work harder. Teaching is a tough job, especially at first. You are probably working as hard as you can. So, when someone tells you that the answer to your early teaching challenges is to work harder, it’s hard not to become discouraged.

You will work hard as a teacher. That’s the nature of the job. But, there is usually a better, easier way to do most of what you will be asked to do as a teacher. The virtue isn’t in the hard work itself; the virtue is in working hard at the right things.

Bad Advice #4-All you have to do is… Any time advice starts out with “All you have to do is…” look out. Typically you’re in for a very pat and canned solution that worked (or not) for someone else but may not work for you. That’s because this phrase is flip. It immediately oversimplifies your situation and ignores all nuance.

There are no quick fixes in teaching, no magic cures or miracle methods. What may have worked amazingly for someone else may not work for you. Anyone who starts his or her advice with “all you have to do is…” hasn’t taken time to understand your situation, your own style of teaching, or the unique nuances of your classroom.

Bad Advice # 5: Fake it before you make it. A lot of teaching advice out there asks you to mask your personality in order to be successful. They suggest that you must “Fake it before you make it” whether that means pretending to like children you really dislike, feigning proficiency in an area where you are struggling, or affecting expertise to your colleagues or supervisors when they come to observe.
I understand why people suggest that you fake it until you make it. When you’re nervous or intimidated, or unsure, it feels better to fake confidence, or surety, than admit that you are afraid and risk being vulnerable in front of your students for fear that if they sense any weakness, they will take advantage and eat you alive. But vulnerability isn’t the same as weakness. Vulnerability, when done right, can actually be a very strong position to take with your students.

Faking it makes you hide from discomfort. Vulnerability forces you to lean into discomfort and ultimately master it. Faking it is about hiding from the risk that is teaching. Being vulnerable is about taking the risk. And when your students see you fighting and learning and getting better at teaching each day, they learn something important. They learn that it is okay to take risks themselves. They learn that your classroom is a safe place to learn, to make mistakes, and to try again. They learn that it’s okay to be themselves because you’ve already shown them yourself, your true self.

At the end of the day, it’s your classroom. Yes, you have standards to meet, observations and evaluations to survive, test scores to gain, and an intense amount of scrutiny from your students, their families. I’m not suggesting that you go rogue and do your own thing in spite of the expectations of your supervisors and your district. I’m also not suggesting that you ignore the advice that’s out there. Some of it is pretty good and will save you a lot of trouble in the long run. I am simply suggesting that you sift every bit of advice through your own growing understanding of your students, and your own developing teaching style and do what is best for students. A friend of mine always says in his workshops that participants should adapt, not adopt his advice. He’s right. The best thing to do with advice -- good or bad -- is to test it with your gut, and adapt it to make it work for you.

What's the worst advice you received as a teacher? Share below.

  • Gayla says:

    Give the troubled kids a JOB. They just need to feel useful and wanted.


    • Tony Novak says:

      I teach fourth grade; one of my students needs “heavy work” to help expend his coiled-spring energy. He loves to help stacking chairs, moving desks, picking up lit sets from the library, and a variety of other tasks that are helpful and meaningful…no busy-work. He knows how grateful I am for his help, and I always make sure to let him know that. He earns special privileges and feels valued by his classmates and his teacher. In this particular case, it’s a win-win.

  • Kathy Kent says:

    Don’t smile until second semester.

    This advice never worked for me because I am a “smiler!”

  • >