Why Teachers Don’t Like The Term “Best Practices”

In the beginning of last year, I got into a tiff with a colleague around the use of diagnostics in class. On her end, she believes everyone should take the first two weeks to give a diagnostic test, go over rituals and routines, and go over that diagnostic. For two weeks. Only after these elements are taken care of should we start actually teaching our students, according to the colleague.

On my end, I already looked at the Common Core State Standards and thought, “There’s no way I’ll get to cover these in time for me to do this on a deeper level. I gotta be more efficient.” Therefore, I spent the first two weeks doing the diagnostic, grading them, and then ingraining the rituals and routines within my teaching. In other words, I wanted to teach two to three days after I met them.

Boy, that was a problem with some. It was against what people felt were best practices. Even as I got browbeat for standing up for an autonomous pedagogical move, I cleared almost every benchmark in my pacing calendar. I’m not one to count laps, because math requires in-depth assignments and real questioning. I just found myself more and more satisfied with my early decision to teach based on what I felt the class needed.

If I was wrong, I would take responsibility, as I usually do.

Things got even more complicated as I got a new class in December, which is like taking over a sailboat across the Atlantic Ocean that was sailing to Peru when we were supposed to sail to North Carolina. Yet, after a month, the decisions I made for the class helped my kids learn math in a way that mattered. Against the grain. With my vision.

Because no matter what the “experts” say (or didn’t say yet people say they said it), we as teachers have to put their feet down every so often when we need to make a decision that works for our students.

People might ask me, “Why don’t you believe in diagnostics?” It’s not that. I believe in diagnostics. I believe in data. Having timely, relevant, and relatable data can quickly give me information about students, often affirming or disputing things that I see with my students. Yet, when I get students, no matter what level, I almost always have a sense of the deficiencies in the room. For instance, my eighth graders might come in not understanding fractional operations, long division, or the xy-coordinate (Cartesian) plane.

Obviously, I would love for the students to prove me wrong, but in my experience, I haven’t yet. If anything, it tells me that, if I know the existing issues, I can spend more time working with students and getting deeper into my students’ academic and personal needs. Autonomy in teaching is slowly becoming lost in the profession, and we need to take it back. We need to establish our expertise, and have confidence in our decisions when they’re based on experience.

“Best practices” vary from school to school (and school philosophy). Teacher expertise allows us the time to match solutions with the students right in front of us. Our students need that.