Smart Risks Help Teachers Grow, Too

Last Year’s Clarity, This Year’s Questions
For many teachers, the end of July is often the only time of year when a rare reflective sliver of time surfaces. It’s the one time of year when teachers can pause, look back, and gear up for the coming school year—from a distance. The new students, new issues, and new pressures are not yet crystallized. This space in between last year’s realities and the potentials of the coming year can provide a crisp blank canvas upon which to paint your vision for the new school year. Many teachers embrace this unique chance to see their school year through a reflective lens.

As you look ahead to the upcoming 2015–2016 school year, look for a three-pronged fork in the road. It sparks three questions:

  • What do I start doing this year?
  • What do I keep doing this year?
  • What do I stop doing this year?

By reviewing your past teaching strategies and categorizing them into one of these three buckets, you can begin to sort through the teaching decisions you’ve made in the past. There are bound to be those that have worked well and those decisions that could have yielded better results. Armed with this information, you can approach this new school year by asking two more questions:

  • Do I approach this new school year by using the blueprint from last year?
  • Do I design a new blueprint to change it up?

The Familiar Blueprint or a New Blueprint?
In short, do you opt for familiarity or chart a new path? Often, the choice isn’t entirely up to you. When standards, criteria, demands, and approaches from your state or district change, they become new requirements. As a result, some choice about your blueprint is made for you. Whether your state overtly embraces the Common Core State Standards or has developed its own approach to metrics for RLA/Literacy, math, science, and social studies, these parameters impact how you shape your year. They might also impact how your district evaluates your performance.

It’s a great help to keep track of your blueprints from year to year online or in a notebook journal. Check out these journals from Teacher Peach. Not only will you get a jump on your planning; you’ll send a message to others about your professional commitment to your work as a teacher.

Teacher Peach Alphabet Notebook Journal Teacher Peach's Each and All Notebook/Journal SPIRAL NOTEBOOK JOURNAL

Incoming Changes Are a Constant
External changes will always come your way, in a range of types and flavors. While externally induced change feels beyond your control, how you welcome those changes, how you modify your blueprint—or don’t—is and will remain within your control.

When you’re surrounded by great change, it can be tempting to stick to another constant: a familiar blueprint. Familiarity can be a powerful anchor. It can help you to absorb all of the newness around you. Yet, a willingness to try what you designate as the right new approaches can pave the way for a year filled with self-discovery, not only for the new students in your charge—but for you, too. How do you decide? Here are a few strategies that have worked well for other teachers.

Who Really Needs the Change in Plans?
It’s always important to separate what works best for your students from what might richly appeal to you as a person and as a professional in any teaching scenario. This extends to making smart decisions about when to take risks to modify your teaching blueprint and teach in new ways. Some methods and activities are tried and true for that very reason. They work well and as such, these places may not be the best places to take new risks. There are always other places where such risk taking adds definite value and brings greater returns.

CASE STUDY: The Evergreen Bean in the Cup
One teacher shared this example of an evergreen low-risk, big-win teaching method he says he wouldn’t change:

“I’ve taught my version of the ‘bean in the cup’ lesson every year for the past seventeen. It is a wondrous learning experience for kids to plant a bean in a Styrofoam cup and watch it grow and sprout. No matter how many times I’ve taught this lesson, it’s new to each little student who experiences it for the first time. I toy with changing this up and then I remind myself that this desire is about me, and my itch to teach this in a different way—to engage myself more.

“In the end, I don’t change this particular approach. I choose it and use it each year because it works. While it’s not new to me, it is new to my kids. Their experience reminds me each year that when something works, it works. As I am folding in the new science standards, I recognize I can retain this aspect in that new context, too. I keep what works and surround this familiar aspect with new approaches pre and post.”

Use this kind of “same lesson–new audience” filter to help you determine where you do and do not want to take risks and change an approach you know well.

The Familiar Saves Time
Most professionals, including teachers, have a cadre of familiar approaches that are easy for them to put into action. A higher level of familiarity and confidence comes with teaching a lesson you know well. You can quickly recalibrate based on the responses of your newest group of students because you have a past frame of reference from prior years and former students.

Familiarity can be a double-edged sword, though. As we saw in the case study above, it can be a negative for you, inspiring you to want to change up and refresh your approach to a particular instructional blueprint—whether the kids will notice or not. Conversely, your familiar, well-tested teaching approaches can be great time savers and confidence builders because they come with a lot of past data to support their value.

By considering who will benefit most from the change of approach you’re considering, you can better determine if you’ve wisely targeted the right areas for change. Even a great change in your blueprint will yield few direct positive results if it is applied in an area that “wasn’t broken” for your students in the first place.

Start Small, Stay Smart
Smart risk-taking can help you reap big rewards over time. Start small and practice taking risks. Use your journal to record your progress. You’ll be surprised how many ideas you might end up using in real time!

Remember, not all risks pay off all the time; that’s why we call them risks. However, it pays to also remember the cliché that nothing ventured is, indeed, nothing gained. So it might make great sense to use this last vestige of time away from school to practice taking some small risks so that by the time you’re back in school, risk-taking will become one habit that’s well entrenched into your daily routine.

We hope you enjoyed this blog post. Yes, we took a risk in writing it! Let us know what you think of it. We’d also like to hear about the risks you take in your classroom!

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