This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast, you’ll hear a coaching call where I’m exploring the issue of whether a teacher can ever feel like s/he’s offered “enough” learning support and re-teaching.
The questions of What is enough? Am I doing enough? tend to weigh perpetually on teachers. I think it’s really hard to find the answer because no one wants to be accused of giving teachers permission to do less or imply they should give up on kids. I will say up front that this a fear of mine, and yet I think it’s necessary to open the door for the conversation to happen publicly rather than leave teachers to struggle with the answer on their own.
In Season 3 of the Truth for Teachers podcast, I did an episode called When is it okay to say you’ve done enough for a student? It’s related primarily to kids who have extreme behavioral issues or are multiple grade levels behind, where you’re focusing 80% of your time and energy during a lesson on that handful of students and ignoring the rest of the class. I encourage you to listen to or read that episode if you’re thinking about a specific student who is really draining your energy and you need to figure out where to draw some boundaries.
In this episode, we’re focused more on what’s “enough” in lesson planning, particularly when you do standards-based grading or mastery grading and are required to keep re-teaching and supporting kids until they achieve mastery.
The dirty little secret in education is that not all students are going to achieve mastery of every single skill we teach them. They’re not all ready for mastery at the same time, because they’re children and not programmable robots, and there’s a lot of other factors at play, including their own drive to master the content. It’s extremely hard to learn something you don’t want to learn, or when you’re distracted by other things that are more important. The teacher doing more re-teaching is not always the answer.
That’s what I’m going to explore here in a coaching call with a teacher named Ericka. She’s a graduate of the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club and has put a lot of strategies in place to streamline her workload and focus on what really matters in her instruction. Ericka’s been teaching for 16 years, so she also has a lot of experience and is a talented instructor. Currently, she’s teaching 6th-8th-grade science but the conversation we have will feel familiar I think to all teachers.
I will tell you up front that the answer to what is “enough” in terms of re-teaching and offering lesson support is not clear cut. You will not be able to fast forward and skip to an obvious solution. Instead, I want you to listen as we weight various considerations, and use my conversation with Ericka as a springboard to help you reach your own conclusion about what makes sense for your teaching context.
All I’m doing here is guiding her to reflect on what she’s doing that works for her students, what is preventing them from being more successful, and then determining for herself what solutions or interventions would be best.
Because what kids need from us is not necessarily more amazing lessons or extra credit or tutoring. Sometimes what they need has very little to do with academics at all.
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Tell me about your lesson planning and differentiation process, Ericka.
I teach at a STEM school and our students have to score or earn 90% on all mastery assignments, final exams, etc. to master their classes. There’s so much preparation that goes in to be able to give them what they need to do that, and then once they do it … once they do an assignment and they don’t hit that mark, then we either re-teach or give extra time for them to learn it or fix it. It’s not like a traditional school where someone turns in an assignment, and they get the score that they get. We always have to give them the opportunity to remediate and show their additional learning.
As a teacher, I’m not only prepping really good lessons, making sure that they have everything that they need, but I’m grading assignments once, sometimes twice, sometimes even three times, over the course of a quarter.
Every student needs to get to 90%.
Who do you think is putting in the majority of the work to get them there? Is it you, or is it them?
It’s me, and it shouldn’t be, but we’ve not figured out systems and processes that make it where it’s not like that. I mean, If you had talked to most of the teachers in the school, that’s how they feel.
Yes, I’ve heard this before about mastery teaching. The tracking of the assignments and the re-teaching, and then going back through is a tremendous amount of work for the teacher. Some of the kids really benefit from it, but others know if they’re not gonna pass the first time, the teacher is gonna jump through hoops trying to make sure that they pass the next time. I’ve even heard teachers say “My students don’t even try on the first time I give a test, because they know they’re gonna be retaking it over and over again, so they don’t even study the first time around.” Do you see that with some of your kids?
Yeah, again, there’s a big gap, and it’s a mindset for the student. We have those with the mindset that will give everything they have and not do a whole lot on the back end, just the little things they need to tweak. Then you have the other group that doesn’t even bother until they take it the first time and they figure out what it is.
I have a rough reputation because I have really high standards, but I will give them things like study guides at the beginning of units, which are worth two bonus points if they have them done when they take their test. I will give them CYUs, or Check For Understanding questions, and they’re multiple choice, fill in the blank, true and false, anything that can be self-graded through a computer system. I give them several of those prior to a summative assessment, and their goal is to get mastery on them, and again you see the split. Those that do the front-loading work, and those that don’t do the front-loading work. Again, you’ve got all this that still has to be done for those that do it and then those that don’t do it.
This group of students who don’t do the front-loading, who just kind of show up and see how they do that first time because they know they’re going to get more opportunities to pass…do they eventually get to 90%?
Some of them do, some of them don’t. We work really hard to reach out to parents, get parent involvement, but I would have to say no, probably most of them don’t. You don’t want to give up on them.
But at some point, I will back off and I don’t work quite as hard. But that just feels wrong as a teacher.
Yes, I know what you mean because then it does feel like you’re giving up, and you don’t want to just leave the kids there.
There are two things that I’m thinking about with this. First, is that I think that not studying for that first test, or not putting in a lot of effort right up front could actually be a valid learning style. It could be a valid approach to a problem. If I were a student, I would probably do it that way. To me, it wouldn’t make sense to study and put in all this effort, when I know I’m just going to be retaking it over and over again. I would probably wait and just kind of show up and use it almost like a pre-test. To me, it would feel like wasted energy, and I think there may be some kids who feel like that.
It’s almost a productivity strategy and it could serve them really well in the real world. You don’t necessarily need to do all these hours and hours and hours of prep before something. Show up, assess the situation then, and move on from there. That could be some kids’ approach. Does that make sense?
That’s one scenario that I’m thinking of. Then for other kids, it’s not necessarily a conscious choice. They’re just not going to be putting forth the effort, even during re-teaching when you’re offering all these other supports.
That’s really tricky because you can’t put in more work than the kids do. There’s only one of you and there’s so many of them. I think those are probably the kids that are tugging on your heartstrings the most because you feel like, Maybe if I just worked a little bit harder, they’d get it. Maybe if I just provided this extra little support, they’d finally be on board, understand, have success.
You keep spinning your wheels trying to do more, and more, and more, hoping that it will eventually be enough for that group of kids. Is that right?
Is that the group of kids that make you feel like you get stuck in perfectionism?
Yes, because they’re the ones that don’t always fill out the guided notes, that draw instead of participating in class. Yes, that’s my group.
Yes. And I think you will always have some kids like that.
That seems like normal teenage behavior, and I was that kind of kid. I was a terrible student. I wasn’t interested in school, I drove my teachers crazy, and I talked during their whole lessons. Obviously, I still went on and made something of myself. I still was able to be successful even though each individual teacher didn’t necessarily get me to achieve the way that they wanted in their class.
At some point, I had to want something for myself. There was no amount of effort that a teacher would have been able to put in for me to get me there, because I just wasn’t in a time period of my life when I was going to want to focus on school. So many other things were distracting me and felt more important, and there just wasn’t anything that the teacher could have done to make algebra (for example) something I cared about.
That doesn’t mean you give up on those kids, but I think you can kind of release yourself from this idea that if you just offered them enough support, they would somehow get on board.
That’s good advice.
It’s a mindset shift. You’re not actually necessarily doing something different, you’re just thinking about it differently. This will enable you to find a stopping point in your lesson planning.
If you try to keep planning until you find something that’s going to work for all the kids who are disengaged, then you’re just going to keep planning forever. See if you can stop when you feel that you have enough for those kids in those first two groups (the ones who are front-loading and studying, and the ones who are using the first assessment as a sort of pre-test and then trying to improve from there.) Ensure you have a reasonable amount of support in place for those two groups of kids. Tell me how you’re feeling about all of that?
That’s freeing to be able to think about it like that because the things that I’m doing are meeting the needs of those two groups. And probably more than a lot of teachers. And they’re meeting the needs of my IEP students and my 504 students.
I would have to say, what I’m doing, without having to do all the extra is already good enough. I think that will help me.
So your lessons are meeting the needs of your IEP and 504 students — that’s important. What percentage of your class do you think falls in the category of not being able to experience success with your lessons?
I mean are we talking about needs based on their engagement or …
I’m thinking about whatever standard you have in mind when you’re planning your lessons and trying to figure out, Is this enough?
I would say if they’re putting forth the effort, my lessons meet the needs of all of them. Because I always have a presentation, usually with guided notes. We do discussion, so we talk about it as we take the notes. You’re getting the visual, you’re getting the auditory, and then we do some kind of a demonstration or a lab to go with it. I feel like for the majority of them, they get to see it in different ways.
I teach chemistry and science. We get a lot of feedback from our high school that what we’re doing in science in the middle school is making a huge difference in science in the high school. I think that’s the best kind of feedback you can get.
That’s right. There will always be individual kids who are just not there. I can tell that you care a lot about your students and you really try to understand them and build rapport with them, You can address other issues–like if they’ve been impacted by trauma and that’s keeping them from learning–but ultimately, you have to release yourself from this pressure to create this lesson that’s going to work for 100% of kids 100% of the time, because it just doesn’t exist.
I’m sure I know it, but I’m just one that needs to be reminded.
Yes, exactly, because when it’s just you telling yourself that, sometimes it can feel like, “Oh, well, maybe I’m just slacking. Maybe this isn’t right.” To hear someone else sort of validate that can help you release some of that pressure on yourself. Not the pressure to try because you’ll always try–that’s what good teachers do. We don’t give up on kids.
But to release yourself from doing more work than they are, and putting in more effort than they are–that’s when it’s okay to draw the boundary. In any relationship, there has to be both parties giving. It can’t just be one person always pursuing and the other person just taking, right?
There has to be where we meet someplace in the middle. It may not be exactly 50/50 in the middle, but I’m at least moving toward you and you’re moving toward me. When you have students who aren’t moving toward you, you are not obligated to go 99% for them so that they only have to take that one step. It isn’t tenable. You can’t do that when you have all of those other students. There’s only so much that you can offer them.
I shared the example of myself as a student because I think sometimes as a teacher, it’s really discouraging when you see kids who aren’t working to their potential, and you just feel like “Oh my gosh, this is such a waste. This kid could really do so much with their life. If only they would do X, Y, and Z.”
But just because we don’t see that in our classrooms this year, doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Sometimes for some kids, the drive, engagement, or understanding kicks in later.
Yes, I’ve seen that a lot. This is my 16th year teaching. I actually had a kid this week come back and say “Mrs. Reeves, I didn’t realize all the stuff you were teaching me last year, but my chemistry class is so easy this year.” He was one that never reached the mastery in everything, and he didn’t do the work all the time. So yeah, it’s good. I know what I’m doing is good.
Yes. Keep planting those seeds even when you don’t think you’re seeing the growth.
90% mastery is just a benchmark set by a committee somewhere. Not every child develops at the same rate. Not every kid is in the same place. Not every kid is going to achieve at the same level.
You are still planting those seeds and as long as you keep that in mind–that what you’re doing is making a difference even if the kids aren’nt achieving at the level that the standards are saying they should be achieving at, or even at the level they’re capable of–remembering that they can still go on and do great things, and you’re impacting them in ways that you’re not seeing, can keep you from getting discouraged or feeling like you want to give up, which is I think probably the more common reaction.
For you, it sounds like it just drives you to want to work harder. You just want to put in more effort for them. Remembering that you’re not responsible for this and that you’re doing great work that is going to pay off for them later in ways that you don’t see will keep you from feeling like, “This kid is just not going to ever be ready for high school. They’re not going to be ready for a career.”
You’re one person in this student’s life and you do the best that you can in that one time period. Trust that all of that hard work, and all of that rapport that you’re building with these kids, are going to pay off later, even if they’re not at that 90th percentile now.
You have still done your job. You’ve shown up every day and you’ve given 100%. You’ve done what you can do, and that’s really all that you can ask of yourself.
Think about their success in a different way. Their success is not necessarily 90% mastery on a standard:
What kind of people are they going to grow up to be? What are they going to contribute to the world? Did my work as a teacher push them in the right direction? Did I model the right things for them? Did I give them the right examples? Did I impart some wisdom that they can take with them, that will help them be amazing citizens and great people in the world?
If I’ve done that, then ultimately I’ve done my job.
Well, I’m not perfect, but I think I’m on the right track. I guess when I think about this group of kids that I’m really trying to meet, our school is really wanting to focus on gap closing. These are the kids that we need to close the gap on. I think that this probably adds to my wheel-spinning.
But I don’t think that the closing the gap is going to come from you producing even more amazing lessons. I think that closing the gap is going to come from the other things that have nothing to do with science whatsoever.
Depending on who are the kids in your classroom, it might be trauma-informed teaching, or culturally responsive teaching, or restorative justice, What they might need is you to address all those other things that are holding them back from achieving at their full potential, be it systemically, institutionally, structurally, whatever’s happening at home, and so on.
That’s probably what’s going to make the biggest difference, versus just having “better lessons”. It sounds like your lessons are really awesome already. The kids just aren’t able to show up in a way that they’re able to benefit from them.
Got it. Okay, well that just makes it even easier to step back. We’ve been working on culture. We’ve been talking a lot about trauma. I guess we haven’t been doing it long enough to actually see the results because it takes a while.
That’s right, it does. You’re building trust. These aren’t magic solutions. It’s not a behavior system. It’s just a lens through which you are able to respond to your students and create a safe place where they feel like they can take risks. Where it’s okay to feel. Where they can try, and if they don’t meet their goal, that it’s okay, you’re still going to be by their side and support them.
All of that kind of stuff takes a while, and you’re not responsible for all of that. You can’t fix all of that. You’re just showing up the best way that you can so that they can show up the best way they can.
Then I’m doing a lot of good things, and I have a lot of things that I can step back on so that I can do other things with that time.
This has been so beneficial. Thank you! I appreciate your time.
This episode is sponsored by Brains On. Ever listen to podcasts with your students? It’s a great way to engage their minds and spark their imagination without relying on screens.
The kids’ history show Forever Ago dives into the fascinating backstory of everyday things like clocks, shoes, and skateboards to teach kids to think critically about the past. Forever Ago use games, skits, and real kids to keep kids engaged while teaching important lessons along the way.
You can listen for free to Forever Ago as well as a kids science podcast called Brains On at brainson.org or wherever you get your podcasts.