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Month: August 2016

Great Teachers – Get Better

This summer I finally got around to reading Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande. This is not a new release; in fact, I think it was published about 8 years ago, but I am just getting around to checking it off my list. Gawande is the author of other books and practices general and endocrine surgery in Boston. One the great things about the book is that even though he describes scenarios related to medicine and public health, there are learnings for any other industry in his stories–including education.

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Whenever I read books, I usually try to pull out a few major understandings or learnings that stick with me. In this book I found it early, on page 9 in the introduction.

Gawande writes:
“Betterment is perpetual labor. The world is chaotic, disorganized, and vexing, and medicine is nowhere spared that reality. To complicate matters, we in medicine are also only human ourselves. We are distractible, weak, and given to our own concerns. Yet still, to live as a doctor is to live so that one’s life is bound up in others’ and in science and in the messy, complicated connection between the two It is to live a life of responsibility. The question then, is not whether one accepts the responsibility. Just by doing this work, one has. The question is, having accepted the responsibility, how one does such work well.”

This quote, in my view, is completely transferable to teaching and education.

I think about the best teachers I know and this describes them perfectly. They work long hours, including nights and weekends. They give of their time and energy freely to serve their students. And most importantly, they accept the enormous responsibility to ensure that students learn and grow year after year. In addition to this, they all epitomize the heart of this quote–they are tirelessly focused on getting better and increasing their impact. If you think of the best teachers you have known, I imagine you see this in them, too.

According to the most recent and reliable data from the Dept. of Education, 17% of new teachers leave the profession after 5 years. Now, of course, there are many factors that contribute to this, but I think that one reason is that many new teachers don’t understand the “responsibility” they have signed up for. Teaching is a profession that requires 100% of your heart and commitment. There is no place for ego. Great teachers do not get sad or offended when something doesn’t work or their students didn’t learn something; instead, They Get Better.

If I were ever to teach an undergraduate class to aspiring teachers, I think I would make this quote the focus of the entire semester. In fact, it would be the only question I think they would need to answer in the course. We would focus the entire time on what it means to accept the responsibility and what it means to constantly strive to be better. Teaching is something you never totally master–it will always be an unfinished art. The best you can do is to seek to improve your performance day after day and year after year.

This is the defining quality of the best teachers I know – they are constantly seeking to get better and increase their impact on the students they serve. Here is the cycle of teaching practiced by the best teachers I know:

Great Teachers:
Reflect: Great teachers are constantly evaluating their performance and impact. They reflect on their teaching in a student-centered way. They are constantly in tune to how students are learning and how their actions and teaching is contributing.

Learn: Great teachers never think they are finished learning. They are continually reading new ideas and connecting with other educators to expand their knowledge base. They attend conferences and workshops, they ask questions. They never consider their practice finished.

They Take Action: Great teachers take what they are learning and try it. They go out on a limb and do new things that have not been done. They get out of their comfort zones and constantly try new things to improve their performance.

Then they repeat this process again and again.

Great teachers work hard, accept the responsibility, but most importantly focus relentlessly on how they do their work well.

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