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


Why The 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, backward-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 beforehand. 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 backward 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, 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