The First Step is Admitting You Have a Problem

As I have found myself immersed in the world of edublogging lately, and I have even been able to work face-to-face with some of the bloggers whom I respect enormously, I have come to a sobering conclusion.

I have known for some time that praise from administrators and fellow educators does not always correlate with sound pedagogy or exceptional work in the classroom. After all, these individuals are basing their opinions and evaluations on (at best) very short glimpses of teachers working (they don’t call ’em snapshot observations for nuthin’). I have blogged in the past about the somewhat empty praise that I have received. But, my ego still gets the best of me.

Over the past few months, I have read posts from the likes of Will Richardson, Dan Meyer, Bill Ferriter, and Scott McLeod extolling the virtue of using digital tools to enhance instruction. Bill, in particular, has described the how he uses these tools to improve what he has always done. All along, I have nodded my head in agreement. After all, I said to myself, anyone who is confident enough to engage in a discussion about what works in the classroom must be already doing it, right?

It was only in the past month, as I began to think about what my teaching assignment for next year will be, that I have felt like the Emperor who suddenly realizes that he isn’t wearing any clothes. A better analogy might be the addict who counsels other users to abandon their habit. I have opened my eyes to the truth, and it has been somewhat painful.

It is far too easy in the isolated world of a public school to frame your abilities within the context of your classroom, team, department, and school. It’s so tempting to look around, without really seeing what others are doing, and tell yourself that you are Great. I’m embarrassed to admit that my measly seven years of experience, along with praise from teachers (who had never seen me teach), students (who enjoy a good joke), and parents (who listen to their children), led me to believe that I was doing all the right stuff in my classroom.

But, in reality, I am that guy. I am the self-absorbed “Sage on the Stage” that turns every class period into a one-man stand-up comedy show. I keep their attention by making them laugh. I bestow knowledge and dispel myth from my lofty residence at the front of the room. I use technology extensively, but I rarely put it in the hands of students. Sure, I use excuses like, “There aren’t enough computers in my room” or “You can’t trust eighth-graders with expensive equipment”. In the end, though, it’s about control and my ego, and when the show is on, it is intoxicating to be anywhere in the room. It’s fun… but it isn’t good teaching.

You’ll notice that I use the present tense to describe this problem, in a similar way to how a recovering alcoholic will always call himself an alcoholic. I will always be that guy. Now, I just have to begin to become That Teacher.

11 thoughts on “The First Step is Admitting You Have a Problem

  1. Paul wrote:
    But, in reality, I am that guy. I am the self-absorbed “Sage on the Stage” that turns every class period into a one-man stand-up comedy show. I keep their attention by making them laugh. I bestow knowledge and dispel myth from my lofty residence at the front of the room.

    Hey Paul,

    Interesting post…..

    One place I think I might disagree with you: Being a “whole-class” instructor who uses humor and storytelling to convey information doesn’t automatically make you a bad teacher.

    That form of instruction—like any pedagogy, actually—-can be powerful in the hands of a master. If your students are motivated and engaged by your presentation, then you’re likely to be making the same amount of impact as those teachers that are driven by group learning.

    I read somewhere a long time ago that no one instructional approach is “right.” Instead, results are determined by the level of belief that a teacher has in the instructional practices that he/she has chosen. Something to do with the passion and commitment that comes through on the part of a teacher when they’re doing what they believe in.

    That means a teacher who is delivering a scripted curriculum—but who completely believes in the power of the program—can be as effective as a teacher who promotes creativity and freedom in their instructional delivery because they are diligent about identifying what works in their instructional approach and “playing to its strengths.”

    For me, that’s meant that I run with what I believe in, constantly polishing it and improving it even if it doesn’t “look right” to outsiders. My passion for my practice drives me to constantly improve it over time. I doubt I’d have that same passion for a practice that I didn’t believe in or one that had been chosen for me.

    The key is that I’m always revising and polishing what it is that I do. That’s where my instruction changes and new practices get introduced. It might take me a year to “tweak” something and make it my own—-but that’s a year worth of reflection—and reflection is never bad.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is stick with what you believe in (because that belief leads to confidence and motivation), but constantly reflect and work to change. Change means you’ve thoughtfully considered—-and reflective practitioners—regardless of the practice that they believe in the most—are the most effective practitioners in every building.

    Don’t look at instructional practices as “good” or “bad,” but instead as a constantly changing opportunity for study.

    Does any of this make sense?


  2. I applaud you for such an honest post. Stepping away from a situation and looking at yourself isn’t easy. It occurs to be that you are an awesome teacher who realizes that it is one of those jobs where there is always room for improvement. Teachers today have to learn new information daily just to keep up with their students. My favorite teacher was a stand up comedian type who made history come alive. I’m kind of glad that we didn’t have technology in the classroom back then because I might have missed some of his antics as he acted out scenes from history. Although I have never seen you teach, your post sounds like you are doing a great job and are on your way to becoming THAT TEACHER.


  3. Bill,

    Thanks for the sound advice. I do consider myself to be a “reflective practitioner” (I guess I wouldn’t have written the blog post if I was not one), and I spend a lot of time looking at what has worked and hasn’t worked, and refining my lessons and delivery. My year-round teaching schedule makes that challenging, but it also allows me implement new ideas quickly (and provides more frequent opportunities for extended reflection).

    I suppose my fear is that I might have the sense that I’m being effective, but be completely wrong.


  4. Wow. Sounds like you’re being particularly hard on yourself. Like the other commentors, I’ve found there are many ways to be a good teacher and someone who CAN hold students attention has a rare gift. I have to think you can work in some of the elements you want to use without depriving the kids of a wonderful sense of humor and a teacher who has fun teaching them.

    I’m a psychologist writing as

    I’ll check back. Assuming I make bail.


  5. You mean you actually teach and impart knowledge? You are the educated adult who knows more than the more uneducated utes in your classroom. There is nothing to be ashamed of in being a sage on the stage.


  6. The effective teachers who seemingly use discovery are in reality sages on the stage, disguised as guides on the side. Getting the students to come up with insights without proper scaffolding in the space of five minutes and which have taken adults (including the teacher) many years to have acquired is the type of teaching that makes students hate school.


  7. When I first started teaching a mentor told me not to worry about guilty feelings in our job. It just comes with the territory. It is either ‘I did not have time to teach …..’ or ‘ I should have …..’ or ‘If I had …..things would have been better for my students’.
    We are not perfect. We are only human. We make mistakes, and so do our kids, their parents, and administrators. The fun part of being a teacher is there is always next year. A new group, new ideas, new techniques. We can always improve.


  8. You’re saying a whole lot here. I like how you humble yourself to the point where the facades come down and you can take that hard look at yourself. I’ve often had to do that when everyone says how great of a teacher I am just by my mannerisms. I’m glad that every observation I’ve done has come out satisfactory, but the need to improve always lingers in the back of my mind, and in that, it seems, we are of kindred spirit. The worst thing to do is to negate all the good that’s come out of these discussions. Use that energy to become the teacher that they’re talking about. The one that actively engages students, the one who demands more, and has higher expectations while maintaining a human side to yourself. You certainly have more years than I do as a teacher, but I’m learning already how easy it is to get down on yourself as a teacher. Well written.


  9. Jose,

    Thanks for the feedback. I think that it’s so critical for new teachers to receive honest evaluations that give them advice about how to improve rather than either “blowing sunshine” or being so negative that we drive the novices from the profession. It sounds like you and I have had some of the same experiences already.

    Keep in touch, and keep fighting the good fight.


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