Going for Gold

• The bell rings before you reach the lesson’s close.
• A befuddled question from a student translates into a moment of clarity for you: The student doesn’t understand. You’ll have to back up and start over.
• Kids aren’t listening, so you interrupt the lesson to redirect them. But then other kids lose the thread because your intervention is far more interesting than the lesson.
• Your explanation is unclear. You’ve even confused yourself.
• Three boys are spending more time fooling around than completing the task at hand. You shouldn’t have put them in a group together. But too late now. The lesson is underway and there isn’t much you can do.
• The technology fails–the ENO board won’t work right, perhaps, or a bulb blows on the overhead–and your lesson depends on the technology. You spend 10 minutes trying to get it to work. It never does. Worse than that, you lose your cool.
• Eye rolling and snickering from teenage girls: it’s unnerving and makes your knees jump. You can’t shake them off, and you can’t concentrate on your lesson, either.
• The activity you planned is too complex–the kids are not moving into and through it smoothly.
• A parent calls to register a complaint that seems to come out of left field. How could you have anticipated that?

Plenty of things can go wrong every single period of every teaching day. A teacher is a human being interacting with thirty other human beings every period. That can mean 150 kids—sometimes even more—in the course of a day. There’s a text to be understood, a concept to be explained, or a skill to be taught—and an array of technological supports that can fail at any time. When any one of the infinite number of variables goes wrong, any teacher is troubled.

I have experienced every one of the scenarios sketched in the text above.

Imagine if all them (or even just several) happened on the same day. A novice teacher could easily be thrown: her confidence shaken; her resolve, dissolved. Even one such incident can haunt a beginner, and one hour that goes badly can color the whole week. You can feel like a failure within a very short time.

I remember spending one whole weekend, when I was a beginning teacher, obsessing over something that happened on a Friday afternoon and second-guessing my response to it. I had had a “horrible week,” I declared to my husband, but in reality, I’d had one bad incident on Friday. By Monday, whatever had happened had been completely forgotten by the students, and I felt silly for letting it ruin my weekend.

This fixation on failure happened to me more than once. I’d let one or two “disasters” during a week dominate my assessment of myself as a teacher. The optimism and confidence I’d started the year out with were soon gone, and I really was in danger of failure. What was I going to do? I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of children—and not a negative difference, either. After a lot of fretting and frustration, I hit upon a strategy for dealing with disaster: I created a mental calendar to set the record straight.

It was like this: I taught six classes a day, five days a week, so (I told myself) there were thirty chances for success. Each week began with—in my mind—a blank white page gridded like a calendar: five squares across, six squares down, one for every period I taught. If a period went well–nothing spectacular, but nothing awful, either—the square remained white. If a class went badly, I colored the square black. But if the class went well, I made the square yellow, a cheerful color, one most people associate with happiness.

The object, of course, was to achieve a solid yellow page. In the beginning, I was gratified if there were no black spots on the grid. A page that was still white by the end of the week was a huge relief, and on the few intermittent yellows, I rode high. Gradually, my grids started looking like a case of measles—my yellow squares were sprinkled throughout the week. A whole day that was solid yellow was cause for rejoicing; a week of yellow–which took a long time to achieve—provoked a celebration equivalent to the Fourth of July. As time went along, the black days disappeared and the yellow ones dominated. Occasionally, one of those dreaded black marks did occur, but because of the grid, I could put that period into perspective. It was one period in a matrix of thirty opportunities. Not the whole picture, not a portrait of failure. My confidence increased, square by square, and with the confidence, guess what? More and more yellow squares began to appear.

Naturally, as the years passed by, I raised my standards, expected more of myself. Yellow became the new norm. I started going for gold. My explanations became clearer and were illustrated with examples kids could understand. I learned how to structure groups and keep students on task. Through trial and error and a lot of deliberate action, classroom management moved from nightmare to second nature. I learned about learning styles, adjusted my instruction for students at various levels, developed better questioning techniques and pacing strategies. And so on.

I got to gold. One square at a time.

I tell this story now to beginning teachers and others who are temporarily off their stride. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t let one bad day spoil the weekend. Don’t let one bad hour define you. You’ll get to yellow. One square at a time. And then you’ll go for gold.