The Best Teachers Don’t Do What They’re Told


woodleywonderworks-do-what-theyre-toldThe Best Teachers Don’t Do What They’re Told

by Terry Heick

When I became a teacher, I wanted to be like Robin Williams in Dead Poet Society, bringing students to the thinking of old, dead (is that redundant?) white dudes. I figured their ideas had endured for centuries for a reason, and the students would benefit from a relationship with that kind of thing.

So I pored over a variety of academic standards (this was before Common Core helpfully clarified for all teachers everywhere exactly what it meant to read and write), and created units stuffed full of all sorts of “best practice”: choice, rigor, backwards-design, assessment for learning, authenticity, etc.

Every compelling post I read, PD I attended, or interesting trick I found on another teacher’s desk, I’d make room for it. It was all there. If nothing else, my units curb-appraised pretty well. 

Part of it is because I’m rabidly insecure. I’m not good at finding out that I could’ve done more. That this would’ve been better than that. That other teachers in other schools are making miracles happen, and my students are stuck with less.

I wanted to see what principals were writing during observations, and couldn’t wait to read the post-it notes district folks would leave stuck to my monitor when they did their 90 second walkthroughs. So I did all I could to head off any issues before hand. Tried to make Marzano, Tomlinson, Stiggins, Wiggins, Kallick and every other education expert I respected proud. (I tried to plan as if they’d be in for a walkthrough of their own the next morning.)

And it more or less worked. The bar graphs at the PLC meetings implied I wasn’t the disaster I feared I might be, and so in that way, my insecurity as a teacher worked for me. It wasn’t so much about being “the best,” or even Robin Williams, but rather working hard to stay ahead of the curve so that I never got caught in that broken, endless, lifeless looping of doing what I was told.

Of course, if my principal wanted something done, or my colleagues needed a change, I’d make it happen, but I was really, really nervous about becoming a limp, compliant teacher. The thought was mortifying.

In some of the schools and districts I work with now, it’s really pretty depressing how many teachers just want to be told what to do. It’s not that they don’t care–it’s just a human defense mechanism kicking in. An insecurity of their own that’s tired of reaching and having their hand slapped, so they don’t.

They’ve learned to do what they’re told–they start with “district expectations” and work backwards from there. We toss around fun phrases like “team-player” to normalize this hurtful fascination education has with alignment and standardization. But by the time teachers turn policy and expectation and standards and curriculum maps into units, lessons and activities that actually reach the students, the zest for teaching and learning is barely recognizable.

And both approaches are wrong. Me for trying to fit it all in, and those that refuse to try and resign to being a mirror for “district policy” and “state-led initiatives.”

I do realize that, on paper, there’s no reason a teacher can’t do what they’re told and be amazing, but think for a moment about the best teachers you know. Do they do what they’re told, or do they simply do what needs to be done and navigate any fallout better than everyone else? 

So how can you get there? Unfortunately, it’s my best guess that the ability to please everyone is a charisma thing, and you either have it or you don’t. (I don’t.) But there are some ways you can try.

For starters, less is more. As you design curriculum and instruction, only give the students just enough to get them going, then get out of their way. By all means, look for new strategies, tools, and technologies, but if you’re having to reach for the defibrillator every 15 minutes to shock their curiosity, try something else. And when you do, replace rather than add to. 

Secondly, remember that your audience is the local community. Not China. Not universities. Not even Marzano or your principal. The students are the most visible and immediate part of that, but the need to educate is a communal thing. Every single afternoon those kids leave your classroom, pour down the hallway and out into the world. Parents, community leaders, mom and pop shops, farmers (yes, farmers), artists–these people make the village. Use them.

And lastly, stay ahead of the curve. By all means, be a team-player. Love your school and your administrators and your PLN.

Don’t be defiant, be clever. 

Check the non-negotiables off for every lesson. Write your learning target on the whiteboard where they can see it in walkthroughs. Keep your blue binder by the door. Raise your hand at staff meetings and applaud the new vision for the district.

But never do what you’re told; do what’s necessary.

Image attribution flickr user woodleywonderworks; The Best Teachers Don’t Do What They’re Told

  • Ambler

    Wow, so this teacher thinks writing the learning goal for visual exposure is a compliance issue, rather than a learning and teaching strategy?

    • terryheick

      More or less, yes.

    • Erin Little

      Isn’t it?

    • Kristie

      I think the comment was meant to point out that during walk through a this is what admin pays the most attention to. Not necessarily that it isn’t bring used as a teaching strategy.

  • Alvin Brinson

    Many teaching strategies are awesome – when used appropriately. However, admin and management who are not in YOUR classroom often fail to know what the needs of your mix of kids are. Myself, I teach advanced ESL. What I’m TOLD is that they have to pass STAAR exam to exit ESL. Non-ESL kids also have to pass STAAR exam. Both groups do badly. So therefore, we must all do the exact same lessons and activities to get them to pass the STAAR. Of course, when I tried doing what I’m told in my own classroom, word for word, it bombed and my kids shut down. You have to do what the situation calls for, and be able to have a very good defense when called to the carpet.

    • Oline Wright

      that seems to be a problem more and more Students seem to be being taught to pass test instead of useful principles of the various courses they take.

  • Anne Dirilgen

    “But by the time teachers turn policy and expectation and standards and curriculum maps into units, lessons and activities that actually reach the students, the zest for teaching and learning is barely recognizable.”
    This statement resonates with me so much. My school is in the middle of updating curriculum, MYP is changing in the Fall and we have a new principal. I am spending way too much time “following the directions” and order of things. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Nice to hear that it is okay to not “follow all the rules”. :-)

  • Social Studies Ninja

    “For starters, less is more. As you design curriculum and instruction, only give the students just enough to get them going, then get out of their way. By all means, look for new strategies, tools, and technologies, but if you’re having to reach for the defibrillator every 15 minutes to shock their curiosity, try something else. And when you do, replace rather than add to. ”

    —This is exactly what I tried to tell *ahem*, various people, while writing a more polished version of our curriculum last year. However, after submitting a version of the curriculum where students had choice and more ability to explore and be inquisitive, it was taken by the powers that be and replaced with one that was non-sensical, over-burdening to students and just plain…ignorant. Thankfully, myself and my colleague have found loopholes to get the course back on track…and we’ve been working hard all year to make it worthwhile to our students.

    I will admit though, sometimes when we have visits from our department chair, it makes for a highly entertaining situation 😉

    • rmchief50

      This is interesting because I believe those “District Curriculums” are written by those who have been out of the classroom for years and will not be using the curriculum. The only thing they gain from writing is that they know what is in that curriculum…it is the only way they would know since they will never teach it. I guess I must be too old to expect students to read and study – I am not certain why I need all of these “tools, techniques, and strategies” to motivate students to do what they are supposed to be doing in the first place. When did reading and studying leave the scene?

  • Matt

    Pored, not poured

    • terryheick

      Indeed. Fixed.

  • Daniel David

    Good points. Your teaching practice is your own living ecosystem. District policy may, for better or worse, impact your environment. However, those best adapted to acknowledge but not fundamentally change remain true to the ideals of being a leader in education.

    • rmchief50

      I found that during those little things that administrators wanted to see were cosmetic in nature and the students didn’t pay attention to them anyway.

  • Oline Wright

    interesting enough My boys seemed to most like one teacher in Particular. Their middle school English teacher who basically threw away the book and actually taught them the principles of grammar and had them keep notebooks on it.

    • James Blodgett

      That’s interesting in light of this: Maybe that teacher should have kept the book…

      • Kathy Johns

        I read that article. Don’t believe it just because someone says it in a book! I learned grammar by diagramming sentences, and kids could learn it like that today. Education needs to go back to the basics (at least in elementary and middle school). Kids are NOT learning the basics at all anymore (in any subject); they are just learning how to pass the standardized test. This is not the teachers’ fault; they don’t like it either. It comes from politicians who have no business making decisions about education!

  • Jay

    Not sure I follow the logic here. Didn’t you do what you were told in the books you read? Yet you claim this wasn’t doing what you were told. You just went to a different source: books not admin. In my experience, many district initiatives are based on the work of those you claimed to read when you weren’t doing what you were told. Following orders from a principal or district does not make a teacher less effective. Understanding how these orders fit within the school and class culture you find yourself working within is what leads to personal empowerment as a teacher.

    I can make a delicious meal with lots of different ingredients… whether I choose my own, or whether they are given to me matters very little. Because if I am given poor ingredients, I know how to add flavour and borrow cups of sugar from my neighbours.

  • Dagne Woldie

    I don’t how this work in our country Ethiopia. if the management are not supervised, know what teachers are doing in class, making a follow-up, I am a father and educator, in lower grade it is too difficult to leave every thing for teachers. In college and University it works. B/c student my now what to do and teachers are not obliged to show what they doing.

  • Shani

    Awesome post. Teaching is such a balancing act of expectations, including our own. Some people I work with simply want to be told what to do with the aim of merely keeping the students busy. It’s just about survival for them even though we work in a good private school. I love your passion but don’t burn yourself out!

  • Ethan Arnold

    My teacher lost at least 5 students last year. And she deosnt care if your dead or alive. And a 11 year old talks about port and sex and the teacher don’t care