Never work harder than your students

I had the privilege of hearing Robyn Jackson speak at two different conferences and finally had a chance to sit down one-on-one with her over lunch at the ASCD conference in Chicago in March. Robyn is a former high school English teacher and middle school administrator who now shares her passion for supporting teachers through her Washington D.C.-based professional development firm called Mindsteps™ Inc.

I love hearing Robyn speak because she has a really contagious energy and an obvious love for what she does, and I think it’s cool that a big part of her mission is to help teachers feel the same way about their work. One of the keys to regaining your enthusiasm for teaching, according to Robyn, is to tap into principles of great teaching. In both her speeches and in her book, she explains how such principles transcend the ever-changing district mandates that distract us from what’s really important. Her message is a breath of fresh air to those of us who are tired of learning to teach one way, and then suddenly told to do it another way.

“Never work harder than your students” is the part of the book title that jumps out at the reader the most, but Robyn explained that it’s actually the focus of only one chapter in the book. The other chapters delve into 6 other principles of great teaching that Robyn defines. In the book, Robyn shares lots of stories about mistakes she made as a teacher, and I’ll be the first to admit that I made almost the exact same ones. Over time, she realized the errors she was making centered mostly around an over-emphasis on strategies rather than principles of great teaching. She lists a number of new strategies she tried, and concludes,

Sometimes, these things worked really well. Other times, at least I did no harm. What I eventually learned was that there was no magic in the strategy. It wasn’t so much what I did that made a difference, it was how I thought. I started to ask myself why certain techniques worked and others didn’t. I soon noticed that when a strategy was wildly successful, it had more to do with the fact that I honored a principle than the strategy itself. When a strategy was less successful, that too could be directly related to a principle I violated. Almost without realizing it, I was slowly incorporating principles of effective instruction into my practice.

That passage is from the preface of the book, so right from the beginning, I was on board with Robyn’s perspective. I don’t belive that there is one “right” way to teach, or that all teachers need to teach the same way. I see schools full of teachers who are mandated to all use the same strategies, and yet they get extremely different results in terms of student acheivement. Thats’s because there’s so much more to great teaching than just instructional strategies! Robyn explains that being a master teacher is about having the right mindset (a way of thinking about teaching) and adhering to principles of great teaching.

So what is the “master teacher mindset”, that disposition toward teaching that creates results across different strategies? In large part, Robyn believes that it has to do with this:

Many of us think that in order to be a good teacher, we need to have all the answers. We focus our time and energy accumulating strategies and skills, hoping that if we have a big enough bag of tricks, we will be prepared to face whatever happens in the classroom The master teacher mindset means knowing that having all the answers isn’t nearly as important as knowing what questions to ask…Master teachers spend more time refining their inquiry skills and their own curiousity than they do collecting strategies and skills…Master teachers spend more time thinking about why the problem is occuring than they do trying to find solutions. They examine the problem from all sides…Master teachers are willing to confront the brutal facts of their reality and account for those facts when developing a solution. The master teacher mindset means not trying to teach like anyone else. Instead, you teach in ways that fit your own style. At the same time, you look for ways to make your teaching style relevant to your students’ needs.

These are empowering words for those who feel like their teaching style is being restricted and they’re forced to conduct their classroom in ways that feel unnatural for them and their students. What I find really refreshing about the book is Robyn’s ability to stay true to the core beliefs outlined above while still working within a data-driven, accountability-obsessed school system.

Never Work Harder Than Your Students is a difficult book for me to summarize in a review, because its real value comes from digging in to Robyn’s stories, examples, and “try this” suggestions, and then reflecting on how those things apply to your own practice. Robyn draws you in with real-life examples (many of which are “fails” that will have you nodding along in unfortunate agreement), shares a principle, and combats rebuttals. It’s a powerful approach to explaining something as complex as the mindset of a great teacher, and somehow Robyn manages to make it a very down-to-earth read that sounds just as conversational as when she’s sitting across from you and chatting.

Here’s an example of how Robyn takes a basic principle of mastery teaching and sheds light on it in an entirely new way. One principle is “Expect your students to get there”, and focuses on having high expectations for students. We’ve all heard this before: it’s not a new directive. But Robyn’s approach is completely unique and in my opinion, transformative.

So many teachers struggle with high espectations because, in many cases, in order to have high expectations of students, you have to ignore or at least tune out the students in front of you. For instance, if you are teaching a calculus class, and your students cannot multiply or divide whole numbers, it is difficult to expect that they are going to master calculus by the end of the year…And yet, we are told that we must, that indeed the key to reaching these students is to first have high expectations of them. On what do we base these expectations? Certainly we can’t always base them on the evidence in front of us, especially when that evidence directly contradicts what it is we are supposed to believe about students. Do we base our expectations on the belief that that students have an innate ability to learn? Do we doggedly hold onto that belief even when confronted with students who do not seem to be able to motivated to learn?

Wow. Robyn says the things the rest of us are feeling but can’t seem to articulate, much less find solutions for. She states that “most teachers believe that they have high expectations for their students, but when you examine what they are saying, what they really mean is that they have high standards for their students. It’s a subtle but important difference.” Robyn then illustrates the key to having high expectations for students through George Bernarnd Shaw’s play Pygmalion (which the musical “My Fair Lady” is based on), concluding with this:

Pygmalion is not about a professor’s belief in his subject; Pygmalion is about the professor’s blind belief in his own talent. Professor Higgins does not care about Eliza Dolittle’s background, or her parents, or her own innate ability. The play is about his ability to take anyone and turn her into something better….We are waiting to believe in our students before we get to work. That’s not the way the Pygmalion effect works. The professor and the artist [from another example given] begin by having a vision of what it is they will create. They go to work believing that they will end up with a masterpeice, not because the raw material they are working with has some innate potential, but because the power of their own ability to create a masterpiece.”

So, we can’t do anything about the “raw material” that our students bring to class, but our high expectations for them aren’t supposed to be based on that: our high expectations must stem from factors within our control. If your mind isn’t already reeling from the implications of this, it will when you read Robyn’s example of a teacher named Katherine who insists her students are too far behind to master the curriculum. Robyn writes how “The question shifts from ‘Can I teach these students?’ to ‘HOW can I teach these students?’ Rather than be disheartend by contraints outside of your control, suddenly, you see what you can do to make a difference.”

I have starred about thirty other passages from the book that spoke to me like that example, but for the sake of brevity, I’m going to leave you with this video of Robyn that lets you experience some of her contagious energy for yourself. The background noise is a little distracting, and I’m sorry for that. I hope you can hear Robyn as she explains that her goal for the book is to help teachers regain their enthusiasm for their work, as challenging as it can be:

Want to win a copy of Robyn’s book? Check out the Rafflecopter contest below–it ends on April 22nd. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 86 comments… read them below or add one }

1 D Goshorn April 15, 2013 at 1:24 pm

In the same vein as the infectiously enthusiastic Harry Wong. Love it.


2 Chris A April 15, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Sounds great. Likely fits with the whole “edupirate” mindset as well. I’m in!


3 Mary Ashley April 15, 2013 at 7:43 pm

This looks and sounds like another must have for my teacher shelf! Thank you for sharing this inspiring book!


4 Tammy April 15, 2013 at 7:46 pm

Can’t wait to read more!!


5 Jen April 15, 2013 at 7:55 pm

This sounds like exactly what I need to read right now!


6 Michelle Reagan April 15, 2013 at 8:16 pm

I’ve wanted to read this book for a while now; it would be great to win it and read it over the summer!


7 Karen April 15, 2013 at 8:23 pm

What a wonderful, thought provoking post. I am definitely adding this book to my must read list. I really appreciate the concept that there is not one way to teach, but we must hold true to our principles. If you really believe in children’s ability to learn, you are more motivated to investigate what is standing in the way when they are not successful. Thanks for this great post!


Teaching Ace Blog


8 Laura April 15, 2013 at 8:44 pm

I want to read this book… because I feel like if I followed the title, I’d never have to do ANYTHING in many cases.

It sounds really interesting.


9 laura April 15, 2013 at 8:55 pm

YAY! I love give aways and I am crossing my fingers I win :)


10 Donner April 15, 2013 at 9:17 pm

With all the recent budget issues and mandated programs in my district, I want to be positive and focus on what I can control! Thanks for this opportunity.


11 Renee S April 15, 2013 at 9:21 pm

Sounds like an interesting read! Would love to win it!

Renee S


12 Karen April 15, 2013 at 10:26 pm

This sounds like a great read!


13 Jill B. April 16, 2013 at 12:04 am

As a teacher returning to the classroom after (many) years, I am so inspired by passionate instructors and effective examples of instruction! Would love to chew on this over my summer break. :) Thanks for this opportunity.


14 Terri April 16, 2013 at 6:47 am

Sounds fascinating and curious if it will also apply to elementary grades.


15 Valerie April 16, 2013 at 6:54 am

Always looking for inspiration and guidance!


16 Anna April 16, 2013 at 7:21 am

I would love to read this and get more inspired by passionate educators! As a new teacher, I would love to find ways to make teaching be more effective for my students and me!


17 Jessica Z April 16, 2013 at 9:15 am

I would love to read this book because as a prospective first year teacher I don’t want to be more overwhelmed than I need to be!


18 Ellen April 16, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Looks like a book well worth reading!


19 Kimberly April 16, 2013 at 9:05 pm

Sounds like a great read and book study.


20 Bev April 16, 2013 at 9:30 pm

I could really use this book!! I am finding myself working harder than my students this year! It’s just a difficult year!!


21 Keri April 16, 2013 at 11:43 pm

This looks great! I’m creating a list of summer professional reads, and I need to add this one!


22 Nicole April 17, 2013 at 8:17 am

This sounds amazing! I def want to read this. Some of the issues described are exactly what I’m struggling with right now.


23 Sara April 17, 2013 at 8:52 am

Always looking for inspiration to take my teaching to the next level.


24 Christyn King April 17, 2013 at 7:33 pm

I would love to read this as my school has begun using a scripted curriculum. At times I find it hard to teach the way I am suppose to when my students would benefit from a different style.


25 Suzie April 17, 2013 at 7:34 pm

Sounds like an interesting read :)


26 Jen April 17, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Sounds like an interesting and relevant topic to read about. :)


27 lori reynolds April 17, 2013 at 7:41 pm

I would love to read this book for inspiration during these times of stresses for high results. I need reminders of what I can and can’t control and how to tell the difference.


28 Daurian Hogan April 17, 2013 at 7:43 pm

This book seems like a wonderful addition to my professional library! I am interested in applying the techniques next year!


29 Corey N April 17, 2013 at 7:43 pm

I love gaining new insight


30 Lindsay April 17, 2013 at 7:44 pm

I would love to read this book bc as a middle school teacher I’m always looking for new ways to make my students more self reliant, independent, and responsible! :)


31 Angie April 17, 2013 at 7:44 pm

Sounds like a book all teachers should read.


32 Sue Collin April 17, 2013 at 7:45 pm

Sounds like a great read!


33 Brian April 17, 2013 at 7:45 pm

Thanks for sharing this! Looks like this should be a very interesting read.


34 Linda April 17, 2013 at 7:47 pm

I’m looking for a book to read over the summer. This sounds great.


35 Susan Damato April 17, 2013 at 7:48 pm

Great hints! Sounds like a good read…


36 Meg April 17, 2013 at 7:51 pm

This looks like an amazing book and I am looking forward to reading it!


37 Lyn Chapman April 17, 2013 at 7:51 pm

I would love to read this book to validate may belief that every teacher has unique talents that can help students in different ways…


38 Ann April 17, 2013 at 7:52 pm

This sounds like a great, affirming book. I would love to read it!!


39 Meg April 17, 2013 at 7:56 pm

This is just the book that I need to recharge this summer! It’s been one of those years…


40 Erin Harris April 17, 2013 at 8:00 pm

Awesome site. Great contest. I’d love this book as a summer read.


41 Marie April 17, 2013 at 8:09 pm

This book sounds like a really great read! :)


42 Callie April 17, 2013 at 8:12 pm

Sounds like such a mo


43 Callie April 17, 2013 at 8:14 pm

motivating read!


44 Cathy April 17, 2013 at 8:20 pm

Sounds like a good book!


45 Jaci April 17, 2013 at 8:24 pm

I have been dying to read this book for ages!!


46 Ginger April 17, 2013 at 8:30 pm

I am looking forward to reading this book. Very exciting! I am encouraged about anything that helps me be a better teacher for my students! Reading the blog, I realize this one is a must.


47 Elizabeth Rash April 17, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Looking forward to reading this summer!


48 Jessica April 17, 2013 at 8:38 pm

Perfect book for a summer read.


49 Julianna mann April 17, 2013 at 8:47 pm

Would love to read this :)


50 Learning Girl April 17, 2013 at 8:50 pm

Can’t wait to read this one; it sounds like a breath of fresh air. I’m also starting to catch on that your underlying attitude matters more than specific strategies – while you do need good strategies, of course, piling on more and more ideas isn’t enough to get that forward motion.

Not to mention that the title is irresistible 😉


51 Teri April 17, 2013 at 9:10 pm

Sounds great! I would love to read this!


52 Tara Peach April 17, 2013 at 9:13 pm

I am always looking for new ideas and strategies to help make my teaching more relevant to students while meeting my curriculum goals.


53 Peggy April 17, 2013 at 9:16 pm

I’ve heard more than once that the students should work harder than the teacher. That’s something I need to work on so this book sounds just like something I need in my teaching life.


54 Cindy April 17, 2013 at 9:18 pm

Want it!!! Very much something I need to read. :-)


55 Lorri32 April 17, 2013 at 9:30 pm

This looks like a great book. Looks like something I need at this point.


56 Suzie April 17, 2013 at 10:01 pm

Looks like an interesting book!


57 Susan Mescall April 17, 2013 at 10:02 pm

I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching skills. I am back to teaching reading after teaching science for the past 3 years. I had forgotten how much I loved teaching reading! Thanks for the opportunity to win this great book.
Sue mescall


58 Katie Mc April 17, 2013 at 10:19 pm

I feel like I keep making things more difficult and time consuming for myself. I would definitely benefit from this book!


59 Donna April 17, 2013 at 10:22 pm

I live be this motto. Never work harder than my students. I try to make sure that they go home tired.


60 shree April 17, 2013 at 10:36 pm

I used to be an ASCD member. As a member we are exposed to good books. I would love to have this one. :)


61 Amy Scoles April 17, 2013 at 10:40 pm

Thanks for sharing this book! I would love to read this book to strengthen my teaching principles!!! It is inspiring and invigorating to hear from positive people in our industry!


62 Elena April 17, 2013 at 11:12 pm

I am looking for some good strategies that help me manage my class with 38 students. I really want to be a good teacher and inspire my students although the others don’t bet for them.


63 jennibell April 17, 2013 at 11:13 pm

I am bogged down this year. Not with teaching or planning or grading. It’s all the endless meetings, surveys, observations, paperwork, extra duties, etc. that is killing me. I’d love to read and re-discover the joy of the profession! At this point (less then 5 weeks to go in the year) I am contemplating not going back — something I never dreamed I would say.


64 Natalie April 17, 2013 at 11:14 pm

I am excited about this book. I heard about it in a professional development.


65 Dawn April 17, 2013 at 11:34 pm

This sounds a book that would be really refreshing and would help me remember the important things about being a teacher!


66 Kelli Kercher April 18, 2013 at 12:05 am

I would really enjoy this book! Thanks for the contest!!


67 Jeremy Josh Walters April 18, 2013 at 2:04 am

I am always on the lookout for examples of principle-centred teaching practice and this book looks like a great handbook for experienced and novice teachers alike. I look forward to reading it!


68 Toni Nicholson April 18, 2013 at 5:17 am

I have always been aware that I should not work harder than my students. This could be the book that will help me to get to that point.


69 MP Vital April 18, 2013 at 6:21 am

My favorite technique: Meeting each student right where they are!!!!


70 Suzanne April 18, 2013 at 8:17 am

I would love to read this book! I am a new teacher and I think this could help me when I finally get my own classroom


71 Monica Krzak April 18, 2013 at 6:20 pm

Sounds like a book every teacher should read.


72 Lori April 18, 2013 at 10:39 pm

I need to read this!!!!! I believe I am guilty of quite the same~!


73 Rachel April 19, 2013 at 7:04 am

This book looks awesome. The author presents professional dele opener seminars at my school and I have heard awesome things about her.



74 courtney April 19, 2013 at 9:41 am

I am always looking to add more to my collection of inspiring and informative education books. Sounds like something I would like to share with other teachers and leaders after I read it!


75 Tori Kelsoe April 19, 2013 at 10:27 am

The title of the book caught my attention while perusing Pinterest. I want to gain ideas an how to put the learning into my students hands without giving them too much in a lecture. To give them too much would be to limit their thinking. If we want our students to be able to think on their own, we have to allow them to struggle without offering too much assistance. I hope this book can help me “let go” a little more!!



76 Kanese Shavers April 19, 2013 at 11:29 am

This looks like a very informative book that can alter the practices teachers currently use in a positive way.


77 Jennifer April 19, 2013 at 12:59 pm

I am always looking for ways to help me be a more successful educator


78 Shanna D April 20, 2013 at 9:13 am

I’d love to win this book because just from reading your review, I can tell that Robyn has the same mindset as me. I would love to know more of her ideas!


79 Andrea Runnels April 20, 2013 at 6:50 pm

I’m really excited about reading this book this summer. With stress coming at teachers from all angles, it’s important to be reminded that if you are applying best practices and kids are making gains it’s “all good.”


80 Nicholas Kleve April 20, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Robyn Jackson’s book, Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching, seems like a fascinating read. The little “nuggets” of information already shared through this blog post have sparked my interest in getting my hands on a copy of the book.

I can relate to what Robyn shares about expectations. I work with students at a various levels of academic achievement. I am a fifth grade teacher. Some students come to me reading at a 1st grade reading level, while other students come reading at a 6th grade reading level. Let me just say, I have extremely high expectations for my students. I expect every one of my students to “work their butt off” each day while in my classroom. I have to differentiate my instruction a lot in order to help students where they are currently at socially and academically. When I take students where they are at, I am able to help them achieve and grow so much more.

I have learned a lot of tips and tricks allowing me to help each of my students; I am sure Robyn’s book is jammed pack full of many tips that would definitely help me become an even more effective educator.


81 Cori Lyons April 21, 2013 at 12:26 am

This books sounds like a great book for me to read. I am always looking for ways to improve.


82 marianne April 21, 2013 at 8:10 am

Always want to hear new ideas and thoughts on being a better teacher. I’ve seen this book reviewed by others and it looks to be a good and insightful read. Thanks for the opportunity!


83 Michelle Pfeiffer-Johnson April 21, 2013 at 4:49 pm

I was looking for a teacher book to read and this book has been on my wish list on Amazon for quite some time. I really want to be a better teacher. I want to better my craft and be a better educator. I believe that we never stop learning.


84 Karol April 21, 2013 at 5:38 pm

Smarter, not harder… Would love to know how! :)


85 Beth Ann Thornhill April 21, 2013 at 7:15 pm

because I AM working harder, and not smarter! :(


86 Carissa May 9, 2013 at 3:28 pm

I was lucky enough to catch a webinar with Robyn! (More on that here: ) she was a blast! Differentiation does make things a bit easier for my students, and myself.


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