May 14th, 2009

Striking a Balance between Who You are and Realizing Your Teaching Potential


Here’s what I’ve been trying to figure out this weekend—how teachers balance between accepting who they are at the same time they push to realize as much of their teaching potential as possible.

All teachers can improve, even very good ones. But I’ve come to believe that you can go further with your strengths than you with your weaknesses. I have always struggled with organization. I can do a detailed plan for the class. I can do a great overview of what’s to come at the beginning of class, but as class unfolds I am easily sidetracked. I like to go where it looks like there might be student interest. I like to use student responses to get to the main points, and their comments may take us there via some unplanned route. When I teach, there’s a lot of wandering around, a lot of interesting new stuff that may or may not relate to the stuff on the agenda. Regularly, the new stuff is not well integrated into the other stuff, but I can’t always see those connections when I’m trying to triage the discussion. To students, the class session looks disorganized. They don’t know what they should have in their notes, and they don’t see any pattern in the patchwork of ideas we’ve laid out in class.

I try to improve my organization. I use skeleton outlines. I pause and ask, “Where are we?” I stop five to 10 minutes to summarize and pull it all together. I have improved, but organization is not something that distinguishes my teaching. I need to keep working on it, but am I ever going to be exceptional? I don’t think so, and I think that with instructional maturity comes the ability to accept that some parts of your teaching are not ever going to be great.

This is why I think it makes so much sense to know your instructional strengths and see in them your true potential as a teacher. You can do so much more with your strengths. Often they derive from who you are as a person and so there is a compelling authenticity and genuineness about how you use them. If diffused more broadly across your teaching they can sometimes replace what isn’t working or compensate for it. And working on your strengths is way more motivating than always trying to fix what isn’t working.

I’m not at all implying that you give up on the weaknesses. They can and should be improved. But I think teachers need to attack them with insight and sensitivity. Could it be as simple as teachers accepting who they are but at the same time never being satisfied with what they do?