What common practices or habits get in the way of our ultimate goals for students? Here are a few comments I’ve heard recently from a few amazingly dedicated and talented teacher friends, who work at three different schools:

“I want to burn the words ‘data driven‘ with fire. We spend hours and hours staring at spreadsheets trying to address the beast of ‘learning loss’.”

“When I see teachers getting stressed about grading piles of worksheets or other low-level tasks, I can’t help but wonder, ‘Why are you grading that?!‘”

“The amount of time we spend worrying about, discussing, and enforcing the dress code — it’s exhausting.”

At first, it seemed the pandemic forced everyone to think hard about what matters most; but the day-to-day grind has overshadowed important questions and conversations that still need to happen. Hopefully, the majority of teachers entered this profession to foster a love of learning or empower students to take informed action to live meaningful lives and make the world a better place. Do hoodies or tank tops really make or break these goals?

Here are 5 ways we might get in our own way of achieving what we really want to achieve in the first place.

  1. Grading. This has to top the list. If you haven’t checked out the research behind this antiquated, inequitable, intrinsic motivation killer, I highly recommend starting with Ungrading, edited by Susan Blum. The book includes many creative solutions that teachers of all settings can try. The amount of time and energy we spend on grading is arguably the biggest unnecessary drain on educators, students, and parents.
  2. Standardized tests. Relatedly, this one is huge but not really within the control of most teachers. This is one where we need leaders to step up and push back on how much time is wasted here, not to mention the anxiety it often induces in everyone. If you are a teacher, this is one area where we just have to minimize the energy and time required to do it based on school policies.
  3. Hyper-focusing on the details of learning. Spelling is part of the larger idea of clarity in communication. World War II should teach us lessons about alliances, leadership, and conflict. Repeated addition is about patterns in place value. Concepts and their connections reveal the deeper structural patterns of how the world works. And the key to transferring our learning to unfamiliar situations.
  4. Superficial projects. Creating a diorama or brochure can certainly have educational value, but only if the thinking that students are doing is truly higher-order. Teachers often dedicate an entire week or more of learning to a “hands-on project” that is not really addressing the true intent of the learning outcome.
  5. Behavior management. Oh Lordy! This one sucks the joy out of learning like nothing else. If our students are ‘misbehaving’ we often first need to ask if our curriculum and pedagogy are sufficiently engaging. Is the task boring? Probably. Then we change the task, not punish the child. We also need to ask, Is the rule is truly worth the battle? Many rules are, such as verbal or physical aggression. But many are not, such as dress codes, homework policies, and the like. A few places I turn for this important topic are Conscious Discipline, Jessica Hannigan, and John Krownapple.

Let us know what you think in the comments below. What practices, policies, or even habits of thinking get in the way of student learning?

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