Teaching Smarter, Not Harder: 7 Strategies For Performance Teaching

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Teaching Smarter, Not Harder: 6 Strategies For Performance Teaching

by Terry Heick

Good teaching is a major undertaking.

Make no mistake–teaching has never been easy. But as we come upon 2014, as a profession teaching is increasingly characterized by its possibility, accountability, and persistent mutation. Which makes it a challenge to do at all, much do well. 

The response to these challenges is a mix of building-level professional development, self-directed teacher improvement, and a troubling amount of teacher burnout. So how can you teacher smarter rather than simply grunting harder?

How To Work Smarter, Not Harder As A Teacher

1. Place the big rocks first

This is not a matter of simply “prioritizing,” but rather aggressively and strategically prioritizing.

As a teacher, my primary survival strategy was to prioritize. And the highest of those priorities? Deep understanding of power standards. That’s what made sense to me in light of the academic expectations of the school and the reality of the students sitting in front of me. It may be different for you, and that’s fine, but whatever your priorities, choose them carefully–the stuff that will endure, and that can be leveraged to make other things possible. (More on this in another post.)

It might not make sense to suggest to focus on certain things, because that implies that you neglect others. And to an extent, that’s true. You can’t do everything, and if you’re only going to be able to do certain things, better start with what’s most important.

My dad used to tell me that if you’re filling a jar with rocks, to get it all to fit you need to place the big rocks first. So that’s what smart teachers do.

2. Use technology to automate

Using technology to automate learning has gotten a bad rap, and for good reason. It’s the way of the lazy, unimaginative, and inefficient.

But if you’ve got to do a multiple choice test, why not make it self-grading test using Google Drive Forms? Need to reach all students at once? Use Google+ Communities or twitter. Students learning vocabulary? How about an adaptive learning app?

You absolutely, positively can’t replace a teacher with an iPad. Using whiz-bang technology to automate bad teaching is the formula for awful. But you can use technology to automate those parts of the teaching and learning process that detract you and the students from what’s important.

3. Know yourself

Know yourself–your sweet spot as a teacher, facilitator of learning, colleague, teacher leader. Know your good side, your weak spots, and the needs of those around you.

Do what you can to support the busy machine that most public learning institutions are. But be honest with yourself as well. Know what you do well, and when you’re prone to be average or worse. Know what you’re prone to forget, where your best sources of ideas are, and what helps you see the big picture when the day-to-day gets all blurry.

4. Teach in the moment

Take a zen approach to your teaching. No matter how the last class went, the fact that grades are due, or the unscheduled walkthrough that missed the best part of your lesson and caught you the only 90 seconds you weren’t setting the classroom on fire with wisdom, teach in the moment without regret for the past or worry for the future.

Don’t let the stack of on-demands you have to grade or the 90 minute staff meeting after school stifle your joy for the interaction with the children in front of you. That’s easier said than done, but the surest first step is to dwell in the moment. Right here, right now, everything is possible. The majority of the friction you experience are illusions in your own head–products of living in the past, or trying to lean forward into the future.

5. Advocate for yourself

Especially in terms of time. Protecting your planning period by shutting your door isn’t “backwards teaching,” it’s a survival strategy. Just because your doors are shut for 25 minutes doesn’t mean they’re shut metaphorically. There’s a difference.

Asked to join too many committees, or other projects that distract you from your priorities as an educator? This one is tricky, because there is a thin line between advocating for yourself and shirking your moral and professional responsibility to help the school run. Try first to respectfully decline, and offer other ways you can help. Suggest time-saving alternatives. Or join in a slightly diminished role, but spin it to where it sounds like you’re all in.

When asked to do something that seems substantive, out of your sweet spot, or simply comes at a bad time for you, try to understand the big idea of the request as much as the details of the request itself. In this way, you can better support the school rather than simply doing what you’re told in a dizzying tornado of daily to-do.

6. Find new measures of success

This one is simple. It’s not your classroom. Those are not your standards. Those assessments aren’t for you. Your name isn’t on the school.

The uptick or downturn of their reading levels, or the movement of all of the high apprentices to proficient or proficient to apprentice–even the student who tearfully and in great detail explains that you are the alpha and omega of their educational experience and they only come to school for your class–aren’t your failures or successes.

That iconic view of the teacher as the penultimate change-maker in education is dated and harmful, setting a lot of teachers up for the worse kind of failure, akin to comparing your own marriage to that of Noah and Allie in The Notebook.

If you want to work smarter and not harder, as we move towards classrooms that focus on literacy, critical thinking, self-direction, and innovation, we as teachers have to find new internal measures–and evidence–for our own success. This isn’t shrinking away from accountability, but restoring logic and rational thinking to an industry seemingly bent on manufacturing its own demise.

7. Open your classroom doors wide

When things get hard, depending on your personality type you may be tempted to do more in a here, let me do it approach. And it’s this kind of thinking that gets us in trouble as educators. You need help. Admit it. Shout it out. Stand on the rooftop of the school. Tweet it. Blog about it. Text parents. This isn’t a sign of a weak teacher, but of an honest and strong teacher.

And not just help doing better on tests, but asking questions, developing new thinking habits, growing as learners, and reflecting on wisdom instead of whimsy.

Reach out to teachers within and beyond your building. If you don’t think you need help, you’re already suffering from some pretty significant blind spots–probably the products of self-defense mechanisms to keep you sane.

Try place-based education in authentic and local communities. Consider project-based learning that connects your students with a caring network of peers, or even niche experts themselves. And those open classroom doors don’t just allow traffic in–they should enable students to move out in pursuit of mobile learning experiences that untether them once and for all from your well-intentioned classroom walls.

Image attribution flickr user micky; Teaching Smarter, Not Harder: 6 Strategies For Performance Teaching