I led a training this summer where teachers were introduced to a new science curriculum newly adopted by our district. The room was filled with excited but nervous energy. Many teachers commented about how they were excited to teach the new content and how the new curriculum would be so much better for their students. However, on the flip side of that coin, I also heard, "I'm not sure how I'm going to do this." The echos of this statement are familiar to me because, as an educator, I have whispered those words to myself multiple times over the years. I know how it feels to be presented with something new and being overwhelmed with the time and energy it will take to implement it into my teaching practices. During this training, these teachers were presented with the obstacles of time and technology, and I could almost read the defeat on some of their faces when they realized they were going to have to overcome challenges they weren't prepared to take on this school year. I cannot count how many times I have felt this way myself over the years. Usually, this defeated feeling comes when I'm told I need to collect behavioral data, or when I have to come up with Plan F for student intervention. But what I have learned recently is that it is these moments that are allowing me to grow as an educator. When I lean into the uncomfortable and overwhelming situations with a belief that there is a solution, then I find myself trying instead of letting the feeling of defeat win.
The "F" Word
The teachers left the training that day with the excitement of a new, rigorous, and engaging curriculum, but also with the feeling of uncertainty of what it would look like in their classroom. They left with a natural fear of the "f" word—failure. What I wish I could have told them, and my message to all of you who are facing obstacles in your instructional practices is: Take a deep breath, and then give yourself permission to fail. You are not going to get anything accomplished if you are paralyzed by a fear of failure. I always thought I wasn't afraid to fail in front of my students, because it would just be an example of how humans make mistakes, and how we can learn from them. This strategy works for me when I make small failures such as misspelling a word or making a math error in front of the class. This shows the students that these mistakes are fine and can be easily corrected, and we can move on with our lessons. However, these are not the failures I am talking about. The failures I fear the most are the ones students may not even recognize. It's the failures that come in the shape of a disengaging lesson leading to boredom and disruption in the class. The failures that come in the form of being inconsistent with my consequences for a day because I am distracted by something personal that is happening outside of school. The failures that come with teaching an entire lesson wrong because I had my own misconception about something and I inadvertently taught it to my students. These are the failures that punch me right in the gut and make me feel like I am failing my class. These are the failures that make me afraid to try something new, because I have lessons I am comfortable with even though I know they might not be the most effective strategy to use. However, I have found a secret to facing these bigger failures that had been paralyzing my instruction for years. My secret is: I do it anyway.
Do It Anyway
I feel like the classroom is one of the scariest places for taking risks. We have very little time to waste, and we need to make sure our students are engaged in learning every minute of the day. We are pressured to teach right up to the bell ringing, and some of us even try to fit some learning activities during transition times so we don't waste a moment. However, if we are not taking risks with our instruction, we are doing just as much harm. As educators, we continually expect our students to take risks in order to learn something new. We expect them to fail from time to time and we understand through those failures is where the real learning happens. Unfortunately, we don't always hold ourselves to the same standard. Most of us are afraid of big failures and because of that, we stick with something that is comfortable for us. I know there are many lessons I have overlooked because it included a strategy I wasn't very familiar with and I was afraid to try it because I didn't want to lose control of the lesson. This is not a terrible thing to do and I encourage you to be comfortable with most of the lessons you teach, but my challenge to you is to step outside your comfort zone for at least one lesson a week to see what else you are capable of. You might fail, you might not, but one thing is for sure, you will learn and grow from the experience just as you expect your students to learn and grow when they face obstacles.
Whether it's challenging content, new technology, new research-based instructional strategies or a new intervention for a struggling student, I encourage you to just put your head down and get to work. Even if it doesn't work at first, you will have learned what doesn't work and you can try a different approach the next time. Just don't quit. Keep trying even when you are not entirely certain how you are going to pull it off—do it anyway.
I feel it necessary to mention, but I am sure you already know, that when you do take a risk and are unsure of the outcome, you should have a back-up plan in place. As I mentioned earlier, every minute does count, so if you feel the new lesson or strategy spinning out of control make sure you have a back-up plan to help you get back on course. Diligent planning is something we have been trained for since the very beginning of our professional training, and that should not be something you sacrifice when you step out of your comfort zone during a lesson. The goal is to move forward so you don't plateau or worse, move backward. It's time to become the best teacher you can be for yourself and your students. So get out there and do it anyway.