How To Make Good Teaching More Sustainable

by Terry Heick

Simple premise, as titled: what sorts of ‘things’ make teaching unsustainable, and what sort of advice can help teachers reflect on these ideas to mitigate any damage and make the profession more enjoyable, and thus sustainable.

10. Grow a healthy and useful professional learning network.

Human connections sustain humans. See 10 Reasons Every Teacher Needs A Professional Learning Network.

9. The school year is a marathon, not a sprint.

And this should have significant implications for instructional design–spiraling, for example. Some ideas students can ‘get’ right away, while others will take all year. Continuously spiral those sufficiently complex ideas so students have a chance to master them.

8. You don’t need a million tools and strategies to teach well.

You don’t need a million tools and strategies to teach well, so use a handful that are flexible and powerful.

The 40/40/40 rule is a wonderful on-the-fly measuring stick to help prioritize content, teaching, and assessment. Other useful tools that can come in handy? Metaphors, similes, and analogies (using them to teach complex ideas–“a thesis statement is the _____ of an essay a…”; “The Civil Rights movement was like…”; RAFT assignments. Choice boards.

Be picky.

7. Never take it personally.

Teaching is a deeply human endeavor and so of course it’s natural to ‘take it personally.’ By all means, do so. But as much as possible, endeavor to be a professional in the same way a surgeon is. While surgeons undoubtedly care about their patients because they care they have to be professional, calculated, and objective. You never know what a student is going through, or ‘where they are’ in their development as human beings. Have a short memory, and be their best chance to become something great.

6. The students should talk more than you do.

This one’s easy to forget, especially when you have so much to teach. There’s the shift though–try to focus on what students are learning and how rather than what ‘you’re teaching.’

5. How you frame your thinking is everything.

This isn’t much different than a relationship, marriage, money, or any other career.

You can’t teach if you’re exhausted, misinformed, too hard on yourself, disconnected, or misunderstand your role in some critical way (as a colleague, a peer, a teacher, a department leader, etc.) It’s not your job to save the world. Every child needs something differentIn response, try to adopt learning models, tools, teaching strategies, and more–and use them in a way that doesn’t require superhuman effort from you to make it work.

They should work harder than you do.

4. You’re a professional and you control your own attitude.

You see what you want to see, so choose to see and assume the best in people and circumstances, and move forward from there. Schools can be places full of bad policies and absurd bureaucracy. You probably can’t change most of that, so focus on what you can change–and that starts with how you think.

The students are always watching you. How you treat people (even the ‘problem students’); how you show compassion or model accountability. Where you go for resources. How you define ‘success.’ What you do when you’re frustrated or upset. Your dedication and craft and expertise. They may not see it all every single time, but they never stop watching.

This means your voice carries on outside the classroom, where they’ll continue to talk about you–for years to come if you’ve done it well.

3. How you make students feel can last a lifetime. Careful. 

You are a larger than-life-figure to most students. You’re a teacher–you may be the loudest voice in their already busy mind. Consider the character you play in that mind accordingly. Further, how you frame students in your mind absolutely changes how you’ll think about and respond to and teach students.

2. You come first

This is counter to what teachers have long practiced–and been conditioned to believe.

While student-centered classrooms are what we strive to provide, it doesn’t have to come at the cost of teacher well-being. In fact, any teaching or education practices in general that come at the cost of teacher well-being are inherently unsustainable.

And any system (e.g., public education) that misuses and ‘destroys’ the parts (e.g., teachers) it depends on to function is, at best, flawed and irrational and, at worst, destructive and unsustainable. Just like airlines remind adult passengers to put the oxygen mask on themselves before their children, educators, too, must put themselves first. You can’t teach if you’re not ‘okay’–and you can’t consistently be ‘great’ if you’re not thriving as a human being and professional educator.

See also Examples of Student-Centered Teaching

1. Find your thing

While teachers have to possess and demonstrate skill and expertise in a wide range of areas, from psychology to technology to content areas and people and communities, we also often have a ‘thing.’

Whatever ‘it’ is, it’s equal parts identity, purpose, love, and curiosity. Whether it’s the students, your craft, your content, your community, or something else entirely–be clear in your own mind about why you do what you do, and never let it go.

Advice For Teachers? 10 Things To Not Lose Sight Of This Year; adapted image attribution flickr user sparkfunelectronics