I am making my way through Dave Ramsey’s EntreLeadership podcasts. The most recent one I listened to featured Jon Acuff, popoular author of Quitter. The podcast was about fear and opposition in leadership. However, like all of the EntreLeadership podcasts, I found that it applies to me not only as a leader, but as a teacher, a mother, a wife, and really every other aspect of who I am. The topic of fear was brought up–fear of failure. Acuff shared his approach to fear, which is that if you don’t fear what you’re doing, to some extent, you’re not doing something that matters. Fear means you care; it means you want to see something succeed. Without fear, you are not getting out of your comfort zone and you are simply average.
This, I believe, applies to education. I am also in the middle of an education read by John Hattie, called Visible Learning. Hattie compiles thousands of research studies in this book and discusses those practices that yield the highest results. He explains that teachers will help their students make positives gains, no matter what. However, what we should reach for in education is to be highly effective teachers that help our students yield the MOST gains possible by using the practices that research shows helps students significantly.
For some teachers, using some of these high yield practices requires them to step out of their comfort zone and alter how they’ve taught in the past. For many, this, in a sense, brings about fear. I believe all teachers care about kids and we want to be sure what we do positively affects them. Trying a new strategy, a new classroom structure, a new approach brings a tinge of nervousness: will it work? Am I wasting my time? Will my kids learn? Will I be supported in trying this new approach?
My most recent experience with facing “fear” and trying something new was how I structured my math class. Last year, I decided to dump whole-group math instruction and instead teach math in small groups. Using resources such as this one (http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/top_teaching/2010/05/math-workshop) from Beth Newingham, I transformed my math class to one where I only had a surface knowledge of what my students were capable of to having a deep understanding of it. This year, I wanted to perfect my math class even more and add in the high-yield strategy of having students monitor their effort and progress–a strategy Hattie and Bob Marzano has shown to have a huge impact on student achievement. I wondered how I would fit this in with “all” that we are required to teach–you know, the approach of a mile-long curriculum an inch thick. I simply said I would no longer be concerned with bredth of my curriculum coverage, but rather the depth of the essential skills third graders need to have. What I decided was to teach a new skill one day. The next day would be structured as follows: 1) time to finish homework from the previous day (because Hattie found that homework at the elementary level as a negative effect on student achievement). 2) Students assess their effort on the assignments. 3) We grade the assignment together and I answer any questions they have. (The purpose here is to give immediate and quality feedback, another high-yield strategy). 4) Reteach the skill to those who need it.
I was nervous that this approach would take too much time and that I wouldn’t be able to help my third-graders learn to manage this new and very different approach to math. On top of that, I was on maternity leave the first 30 days of school. I had a fantastic substitute, but I did miss those valuable first few weeks of school where you establish routines and relationship with kids. Would I be successful? Could my students handle this? How much do they need to be taught about effort? Would it take too much time to train my kiddos how to do this? Though I had a multitude of questions and I feared it wouldn’t work, I knew it was, as Acuff said, work that matters. For me, it was risk that needed to be taken because it would allow me to use high-yield instructional strategies to a much greater degree than I did last year. My students and I are about a month into this new strategy. It is not as fine-tuned as I would like it to be, but as always, my students are stepping up to the plate. I love how students almost always rise to the occasion when you set high expectations.
If you are thinking of trying something new in your classroom, don’t let fear stop you. As Acuff says, you’re doing something that matters. And, most importantly, our kids deserve the best opportunities you can provide. That means, you must take risks.