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: