Anyone who has been teaching for a few years knows that teachers face huge amounts of stress. It comes unremittingly from 20-120 students all demanding attention, and from administrative requests for meetings and paperwork, and parental requests about how Johnny’s doing. In the midst of this, a teacher has to prepare daily lessons, correct assignments, plan ahead for special projects, tests, and field trips, and somehow respond sincerely to each student’s needs.
So, the measure of a good teacher is not the presenting of brilliant lessons or having a class of high achievers on standardized tests. Rather, the measure of a good teacher is the ability to survive the daily onslaught with good humor, a pleasant disposition, and staying power!
In psychological terms, this is called resilience. Resilience is the ability to return to the original form or position after being bent, compressed, or stretched – that is, elasticity. Or, it is the ability to recover quickly from illness, depression, or adversity – that is, buoyancy. I think all teachers would agree they get bent, compressed, and stretched while facing adversity every day.
So, what’s a teacher to do? I think we need a new definition of what it means to be a successful or good teacher. By holding onto some lofty definition of success in terms of lessons or scores, we set ourselves up for failure. So here are my six qualities that comprise real teacher success. Note that these are based on principles we see in nature and that they are process-oriented, not results-oriented. I believe that by focusing on HOW we do things, the results will take care of themselves. The goal, if we have to have one, is to do each moment well. Then our time will be well spent, and maybe we can go beyond resilience to impact (lasting influence).
In order for a tree to grow tall, it must have solid roots. In order for us to achieve what we want as a teacher, we have to have a stable foundation in our lives. This means balance. We can’t be all work and no play. And we can’t just crash in front of the TV and not focus. We have to do recreation that re-creates our energy and motivation. In practice, this means making time for hobbies, friends, family, sports, church, and more. But this can’t be just more people we have to give to – especially after giving our all to a class of children all day every day. These activities have to be an anchor that will keep us steady in rough waters. They should be ways that we sharpen our tools, so to speak. We need to find ways to make time for ourselves, to become a better person. This can be as varied as learning to dance or speak a new language, participating in a sport, traveling with friends, woodworking, weaving, writing, or involvement with a religious or spiritual organization. We need to take our roots deeper so we can grow stronger and taller. This will give us stability.
In a big windstorm, the flexible tree bends with the wind, while the stiff, inflexible tree breaks. Adaptability means being flexible. Most teachers have this quality in spades! We have to be adaptable in order to handle the constantly changing demands of our day. In fact, a classroom is a balance of rigid rules and flexible situations. The rules give structure to the situation, but, within those rules, all kinds of unique responses, questions, and needs arise. A good teacher is able to navigate with a foot on the shore and a foot in the water, so to speak. In order to be most adaptable when called upon, a teacher needs to maintain a solid routine in their daily life. Just like rules in the classroom give structure that allows spontaneous adjustments, a good routine keeps a teacher organized so he or she can adapt to the changes of the day. A good routine means taking care of our own personal needs of food, sleep, exercise, and inspiration regularly. If we get off our routine, then we get stiffer and more inflexible about handling what is thrown our way. Adaptability means developing a good routine so we can be flexible.
A big tree constantly integrates sun, water, and nutrients into its system. We should do the same in terms of our teaching skills. We don’t all of a sudden become a “Teacher” with a capital letter. It’s a process that takes time. We can’t come at this role as a know-it-all. We may know our content thoroughly, and that’s good. But teaching is not just the transmission of content to students. It’s the process of how we interact with our students; it’s the quality of our interactions. To do this well, we need to constantly pick up new skills, and add them to our repertoire. We have to adopt the attitude of a learner and plunge into the unknown and take ownership of new skills. It’s a great modeling for the students. Regularly, we can add techniques such as: new ways to ask questions (CFUs, higher-order questions), new ways to call on students (random selection using sticks or numbers or iPads), new ways to use technology (SMART boards, PowerPoint), new ways to use language for English Learners, new ways to assess (constructed response, performance tasks), and so on. The list is endless. Good teachers are always integrating more into their teaching.
A tree takes in carbon dioxide through its leaves and releases oxygen. The oxygen is not needed so it is purified from the system. In the same way, we teachers can purify our actions by choosing what we focus on. After being in many teacher lounges in many schools, I can attest to the range of conversations that are heard. Inevitably, someone will be complaining about the administration, about the parents, about the meals, about the student behavior. I realize these teachers are frustrated and venting a bit. But I would suggest that all of us would be wiser to focus our conversations on more positive things. I’m sure we would all enjoy hearing more about solutions than problems. We also enjoy hearing positive, funny stories of the amazing antics of our students. And we enjoy hearing the questions that other teachers or we ourselves have. Asking questions is part of developing a professional community where we look to each other for support and sharing. Purification is the art of selecting what we focus on. It will make your day – one way or the other!
A tree keeps growing – from seed to sapling to tree. We can see its growth if we monitor it over time. This is a crucial quality for teachers too. We need to monitor our growth as a teacher. Too often, we get in our classroom and develop the lessons, and then just act. We don’t often review how effective the design or the delivery of the lesson was. Usually things happen so fast that we forget what just took place. In recent years, I started keeping a journal of sorts, trying to write down what worked and what didn’t. I would try to do this after each class, but usually it happened at the end of the day. Just taking five minutes to review and reflect on your day in terms of how you interacted with the students and the content will yield huge dividends in becoming a better teacher. This kind of monitoring of one’s teaching can also be done by in-situation coaching. In that case, you can apply a new technique right away when someone reminds you. Then you don’t forget. Growth comes when we consciously realize how we have progressed from one stage to another. We have to monitor it in some way, or else we just go through the motions.
Finally, trees are always sending out new roots for water, or new branches or leaves to catch the sun. They are creating themselves anew regularly. Teachers need to do this too. Being creative is often thought of as something that artists or musicians do. But I would argue that creativity is a natural function of all of us; it’s any way that we re-arrange or organize things in a new way. How can teachers express this quality? By re-designing the bulletin boards; by re-arranging the seating; by adjusting the schedule of the class or the day; by asking students to do something new; by re-designing lessons; by bringing in new content that adds to a lesson; by developing new kinds of tests or projects; by using new technology or using current technology in new ways; by bringing in guest speakers; by having a word for the day or a riddle for the day. Creativity brings a freshness to our classes and to our teaching. It actually opens the door to learning by stretching us and our students in new ways.
There you have it – six ways that we teachers can excel at teaching. These qualities, when applied, will keep us from burning out. They will help us be more elastic and buoyant. They will help us have a greater impact on our students without even trying. We will be paying attention to HOW we do things and living each day better and better. We will become a Good Teacher – maybe even a Great one!