June 26th, 2008

Improvement is Not a Dirty Word


I wish I could erase the negative associations that surround the word improve. Improvement is not a dirty word, but it is somehow equated with the sense of deficiency—the sense that something is not right or needs to be fixed. Unfortunately these connotations premise the quest for better teaching on notions of remediation and deficiency. This doesn’t make improvement a positive, affirming process.

There is a better way. Teachers can also improve by building on their strengths, by diffusing what they do well more broadly across their teaching. In a workshop yesterday I asked participants to make a list of their teaching strengths. Most did not write quickly or with confidence. When I asked how many were having trouble, more than half the hands went up. This better way works, but only if teachers start with an accurate understanding of what they do that effectively promotes learning. Why aren’t teaching strengths considered more often? If those strengths are known, they can be diffused more broadly across the teaching and that means there is less time for what doesn’t work well. It’s a simple truth but one with powerful implications for motivation and continued development.

Add to this more positive stance the fact that working to improve doesn’t necessarily imply incompetence. More than once I’ve heard Tiger Woods talk about golf skills he’s working to improve. Most certainly that is not because he plays golf poorly. Improvement is a possibility for every teacher. Taking that position renders moot the delicate and debilitating task of separating those who need to improve from those who don’t. How inspiring for a new faculty with much to learn about effective functioning in the classroom to see a senior faculty member still seeking to get even more of a handle on those aspects of instruction that expedite learning.

How teachers orient to growth and development does make a difference. If the process is positive and affirming, that means more of it happening across the career.

—Maryellen Weimer