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Tuesday / April 23

Teaching “Decomplexified”

“We need to ‘decomplexify’ things for educators.”

A senior official in the U.S. Department of Education shared this with me as we prepared for a meeting with educators. I pause and then asked, “Do you mean ‘simplify’?”

The fact that a federal bureaucrat had complicated the word “simplify” seemed fitting. She would decomplexify things for the people that do the work of educating students every day.

Teaching has always been challenging, but the past few years have been especially and uniquely complex. Policymakers ask more and more of teachers and administrators while teacher morale is at an all-time low. 63 percent of parents (including many teachers) do not want their children to become teachers. Some states are resorting to filling classrooms with untrained educators.

Teaching is about three things: feedback, engagement, and well-being (F.E.W.).

We need to decomplexify classroom practices for policymakers and educators, for the sake of our teachers and the future of our students. I talk about much of this in my new book Just Teaching: Feedback, Engagement, and Well-being for Each Student, but here are the three essential steps that it all boils down to.

1. Feedback, Engagement, Well-Being (F.E.W.).

Teaching is about three things: feedback, engagement, and well-being (F.E.W.). If we address these three areas for each student – not some students – we teach for justice and flourishing. The problem is that others continue to add procedures, paperwork, and policies that take us away from the core mission of teaching. If we can focus on these three areas, we can find the joy and meaning that most of us sought when we entered the profession. For the sake of the acronym, feedback appears first. But as educators, we know that we need to address well-being before we can get to engagement or feedback. In fact, we do not even start with student well-being. We start with our own well-being. If teachers are not well, we cannot serve students well. Flourishing people lead flourishing communities. When we are well, then we can attend to our own engagement and feedback, so that we can effectively address F.E.W. for our students.

2. It’s not about us.

If we have addressed F.E.W. for ourselves and colleagues, then we can put our focus on our students. Their engagement and feedback are definitively not about us. I taught some science labs 25 times, and they were always interesting to me – not because I wanted to know what was going to happen in a demonstration, but because I could see the lab through my middle school students’ eyes. When we were simulating digestion and producing the waste that we create in a day’s worth of eating, I experienced engagement from their perspective as they squeezed the remaining water from our nylon that simulated the large intestine. Maybe more importantly, when students did their work, I built on the work of Jim Nottingham and applied his eight-step feedback process:

1) We agreed on a target for an assignment.

2) The students made a first final draft—the best work they could do on their own.

3) They checked their progress toward our agreed upon target.

4) They revised.

5) I provided feedback.

6) They revised again.

7) I graded

8) We reflected on the progress we had made and identified what we would do next.

I did not provide feedback until the fifth step and then gave students a reason to revise – not for grade inflation, but so they could improve upon their work. The focus was on their work and growth rather than my ability to entertain or perform.

If teachers are not well, we cannot serve students well. Flourishing people lead flourishing communities

3. You’re not “just a teacher.”

Have you ever referred to yourself as “just a teacher?” If so, we need to banish that from our collective vocabulary. We serve in the profession that makes all others possible. When we say that we are “just a teacher,” we are diminishing ourselves and the meaningful work that we get to do each day.

If we can simplify our work for each student, we will be “just teachers” in the best sense of the phrase.

Written by

Jonathan Eckert was a public school teacher outside of Chicago and Nashville for 12 years. He earned his doctorate in education at Vanderbilt University and served as a U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow in both the Bush and Obama administrations. Currently, he is an associate professor of education at Wheaton College where he prepares teachers and returns regularly to teach in the district where his career began. In addition to leading professional development across the country, he has published numerous peer-reviewed and practitioner articles on teaching effectiveness and education policy. Jon is the author of  Leading Together and The Novice Advantage: Fearless Practice for Every Teacher.

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