When Theory Breaks Your Heart

I recently spent time in the classroom of a newish Language Arts teacher. He works in a high school school in one of the poorest parts of the city. Every life story of every student is hard to hear. The day I visited, fewer than half his students were present; he says that’s typical.

This teacher finished school to earn his teaching credential less than two years ago, but he’s been working with kids in other capacities far longer. He may be “new” as a teacher, but he is wise and highly experienced.

Yesterday, he did everything “right.”

He told kids what they’d do that period then he did it. He used technology to show examples that were colorfully illustrated.

He did the assignments alongside his students and shared what he’d come up with. He was understanding, caring, yet never stopped urging kids to pick up a pencil, their response packets, their books.

There was vocabulary, there was silent free-choice reading.

There were mentor texts to help students work on their own writing. All the right stuff. The so-called Best Practices.

But what I also did was watch a dedicated, caring, committed man play– and lose– a sophisticated game of whac-a-mole.

Whac-a-mole arcade game

Whac-A-Mole by Sam Howzit

Every time a phone came out, he was on it. Through the entire silent reading time, as kids swatted one another with notebooks, punched each other in jest, tossed the F-bomb across the room, he was on it.

He reminded them about how much time they had left & what they should be doing. He talked individually with students to get or keep them on track. He encouraged, he cheered, he moved the instructional ball down the field. Almost every kid left that period having done a chunk of what he’d asked.

He never lost his cool. He never raised his voice in anger. He never scolded or shamed.

When we talked afterwards, he said he wasn’t sure if he could keep doing this.

He loves the kids– being in relationships with them is everything to him. But the teaching? He shook his head slowly from side to side.

He just didn’t know.

This is a teacher with some support. There’s a literacy coach who stops in periodically– he is inspired by her. There’s an off-site teaching collaborative he participates in monthly; they talk about great strategies, how they relate to Common Core, etc.  Mostly, though, it’s him and the kids. When I said it could feel lonely, he looked startled. Then he agreed.

Theories are supposed to help you when you close the door to your classroom. They’re supposed to shore you up in times of uncertainty, help you think through the right moves when whac-a-mole starts. They’re supposed to be at the foundation of the so-called “best practices.”

But the term “best practice” does a huge disservice to less experienced teachers.B&W photo Middle school hallway

By emphasizing practices, the phrase masks how interwoven theory and action really are. The hardest, and most important, part of becoming an educator is being able to always say why you are acting, thinking, planning, relating in a particular way. “Best practice” puts the attention on the easy part.

The phrase implies there is a set of practices that, once “mastered,” mark one as a professional. But, teaching is no cookie-cutter operation. One never stops learning to teach.

And there is no manual, no one-stop shop of gadgets; there is no one set of anything that can guarantee any outcome. There are strategies, stances, tones of voice, facial expressions, etc. that become part of a teacher’s go-to collection. In fact, seasoned teachers have a vast arsenal. But these collections are highly personal; they’re specificto personalities, situations, and personal philosophies. It takes time and reflection to develop these.

Do new teachers have enough time, energy, and/or support to engage in meaningful– actionable– reflection?

“Best” for whom? In what circumstances? According to whose priorities and values?

Sometimes what works isn’t considered “best.”

Sometimes what is considered “best” is just stupid.

Whac-a-mole makes you tired. Whac-a-mole makes you numb. Sometimes, best practices start to feel like a life preserver.

Even the best-intentioned ideas can promise more than they deliver. “Best practices”? The idea gets drilled into us. It fools us into thinking that it’s we who are to blame– if we would only try harder, we would do better; our students’ test scores would rise.

And once we believe that, the promise of “best practices” breaks our hearts.



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6 responses to “When Theory Breaks Your Heart”

  1. Lori says:

    What a thoughtful and sad at education. Thank you!

    • Karen says:

      Thanks for reading, Lori. It’s also miraculous too– he, and all teachers, keep getting up, heading into the classroom, hanging out with their kids. I hope I get to be someone who can support this teacher, or others. We just need to stick together….

  2. No matter where we are in the world, we are having the same conversations, similar thoughts. Recently, my colleague and I were talking about best practices. In my home, I have younger kids and intermediate/middle school kids. They are trying to be sporty, so I remind them often that practice makes us better. I talked about this idea of practice alongside the idea of best practice (in teaching). As much as I know that I am an exponentially better teacher than I was 10 years ago, I also expect to continue to practice, following what research says in the best way to practice, in order to continually improve.

    Thanks for sharing and spurring on my thinking.

    • Karen says:

      Thanks, Emily. I love your sports-practice analogy. I’m also glad for the ongoing nature of research– new knowledge inspires us to re-see, re-think, and re-envision. I don’t ever want to get stuck in something just because it’s supposedly best.

  3. Teaching is so highly contextual that the concept of “best practice” is usually an irrelevant distraction.

    Your young friend sounds like he has good teaching bones. I hope he continues to find support and learns to look for the roses that sometimes spring up in the concrete’s cracks.

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