Just before Christmas, one of our school’s mentors reached out with a simple request. She wanted her mentee — a fantastic young language arts teacher — to spend a class period in my room. “He’s great,” she wrote in an email introduction. “You’ll learn a lot from him.”
I was excited about the visit mostly because I wanted to model the use of student unit overview sheets — a practice that I really believe in. I also decided to model a willingness to take risks and try new things by tackling a hands-on activity that I had never taught before — introducing photosynthesis by making marshmallow molecules — recommended by my learning team. My rationale was a simple one: Photosynthesis is a difficult concept for students to understand, so using a hands-on model to rearrange molecules SHOULD have made the concept more approachable.
The day started well enough. My students are comfortable with our unit overview sheets and the mentee in my room was challenged by the notion that teachers should be using unit overview sheets with students in order to bring clarity to their lessons and to integrate metacognition and goal setting into their classrooms. “We use unit overview sheets for planning,” she said, “but I’ve never really considered using them with students.”
But my hands-on lesson was a complete and total disaster.
Students didn’t read the directions for the activity carefully at all, so they ended up with the wrong number of marshmallows from the beginning. Worse yet, the marshmallows ended up being stickier than any of us expected — so our models were messy and hard to learn from. Finally, the models that students built weren’t uniform — so groups couldn’t compare their work to one another to see if they were on the right track. That meant I was all over the room answering questions and making corrections during the lesson.
I knew that the lesson was bombing and was pretty darn flustered. Not only was I disappointed in the task, I was embarrassed because I knew that the mentee observing me was seeing a disaster.
So as the class period ended, I pulled her aside and let her look inside my mind. I told her some of the reasons that I thought the lesson bombed — my students didn’t have enough knowledge about what models of molecules looked like, I didn’t provide a sample of a molecular model to compare to, and I should have counted out marshmallows in advance of the lesson so that students had the right amount from the beginning. I also told her that all of those mistakes were preparation mistakes that could be easily fixed if I wanted to try the activity out again.
Finally, I told her my plans for making changes for the rest of the class periods that I still had to teach. I wanted her to see that a part of being a good teacher is recognizing when a lesson doesn’t work and being able to adjust in the moment. I also emailed her later during the day to tell her how my adjustments worked — and to apologize for wasting her time by having her observe a lesson that went horribly wrong!
Her response, though, was incredibly instructive. “I’m actually glad I came,” she wrote. “It’s nice to know that those kinds of things happen to other teachers too!”
You see the power in those words, don’t you? New teachers DO struggle with their instructional design. Instructional disasters ARE a part of their work lives — and those disasters can be disconcerting. It’s hard to build professional confidence when you are a TEACHER who struggles with TEACHING.
The lesson that I had inadvertently passed along to her was that EVERY teacher struggles with instructional design. We ALL have lessons that bomb on us. The only difference between an experienced teacher and a novice is what we do — and how we feel — when instructional disasters happen. Rookies doubt themselves while veterans draw on our experience to identify the reasons lessons failed and make revisions to our instructional plans to ensure that things go better the next time.
Interesting stuff, right? Stated simply, new teachers NEED to see others fail.
But more importantly, they need to see others respond to failures. When we model a cycle of failure, reflection and revision for the new teachers in our buildings, we steal the power away from struggle. The message we send is that instructional challenges aren’t crippling or embarrassing or a sign of professional incompetence. Instead, they are a normal part of our everyday lives.
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