Unlearning "Don't Reinvent the Wheel"

In solidarity with teachers, administrators, parents, and students in Louisiana who feel oppressed and frustrated by state standardized tests that are being administrated this week, I'm posting an essay a day about unlearning what I was taught in my first two years of teaching. Click here to read the full introduction. This is the final essay, and I feel moved and ignited by the feedback. It seems there are a lot of people out there who want a school system that is kinder, freer, and more collaborative all-around. Nothing could make me happier.

Of the hundreds of professional development sessions I've been to in the past six years, I could count on my fingers the ones that didn't utilize the phrase, "Now, we don't want to reinvent the wheel here." When you hear someone say that, you know they're about to launch into a diatribe about a method someone else has come up with, and they're going to give you the tools to commandeer the method for yourself. This is obviously a godsend for teachers: using resources and ideas dreamed up by other teachers saves valuable planning time, and ensures that you're incorporating a method that has worked for someone else along the way.

There was one session I remember in particular, in which "don't reinvent the wheel" was used seven times. I know that because I started tallying the uses after the second one -- the session seemed to be designed as a crash-course in wheel manufacturing. We were learning about the importance of sharing lesson plans, and writing plans that fit inside a very specific and complicated template. The presenter said, "I should be able to walk from one first grade classroom to another first grade classroom to another first grade classroom and feel like I've been in the same classroom three times in a row. Every lesson should be detailed enough that every teacher should be able to follow it identically. There are plenty of lessons you can copy right out of this curriculum book. After all, you don't want to reinvent the wheel." 

The principal at the school had a good reason for this methodology. He liked to tell this story of twin boys who went into the same school in first grade, but where in different classrooms. They both entered the school non-readers, but when they left, one was two years ahead of the other in reading. He said that this was why we all needed to write rigorous lesson plans that were followed to the letter: there was no better proof of lazy teaching than twins with unequal brain power.

I considered myself a great lesson planner, and an even better lesson follower. I really wanted to copy the effective teachers of the world, and never reinvent the wheel. You know those TV shows people guilty-pleasure-watch before bed? Like Gossip Girl or Sex and the City? (I may be dating myself with those references. Oh well.) For years, my guilty pleasure before-bed show was the catalogue of model teacher videos they had up on the Teach for America Resource Center website. I would watch hours of second grade guided reading lessons, only to say to myself, "OK, I'm just gonna watch one more, and then I'm going to go to bed."

But I was a really bad lead teacher. You are probably thinking, "Come now. Surely you weren't really bad." Yes. I was really bad. One time I climbed up on top of a desk to scream at the children, "YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE SILENT BECAUSE IT IS INTRODUCTION TO NEW MATERIAL AND THIS PLAN SAYS THAT YOU HAVE TO BE SILENT RIGHT NOW! LOOK! LOOK AT THE PLAN!!!! NOW HARRIET THE HAMSTER HATES ALL OF YOU BECAUSE YOU'VE MADE ME SCREAM!" No, I'm not exaggerating; that really happened. 

Oh, you want another story? Once an administrator was observing me, and the chatter was so loud during the lesson development that I broke down sobbing -- not just crying-a-little-so-you-couldn't-really tell, but straight-up just-got-kicked-off-American-Idol-grade sobbing -- in the middle of the carpet. I ended up handing the Expo dry erase marker to the administrator and saying, "You teach the lesson. I am a failure." You should have seen the observation notes after that lesson. Under the "things to change" column, the administrator had written, "Maybe don't start to cry." And then she'd drawn a smiley face.

So, things were bad. But I couldn't understand why things were so bad. I was doing everything the plans said to do; I was following everything to the letter. I was mimicking the teachers in the teaching videos I gorged myself on at night. More than that, I mimicked the teachers at my school who I really admired -- the ones who were quiet but strict; who were to-the-point and quick-witted; severe but simultaneously somehow fun. I never reinvented the wheel. I always did thing exactly the way other good teachers did them.

But my students were failing, and it was because I was yelling at them all the time. I was yelling because they wouldn't follow directions, and I couldn't understand why that was. The directions were not too difficult; they were not developmentally inappropriate. (I was sure of that, because I read scads of books about developmental appropriateness. Not wanting to reinvent the wheel, I needed to make sure I was doing everything the way all the books said that things were supposed to be done.) Sometimes after work I'd crawl under my desk and cry and eat all the leftover animal crackers that I had purchased to try and bribe the children.

Then one day, we had an extra hour in class, since a math test had taken less time than had been allocated for it. My computer was out of batteries, so we couldn't watch a movie. I decided instead to spontaneously form a class band with this bin of rhythm instruments I'd purchased on a whim the year before. 

In high school, my best friends and I were all about being in a band. I thought for sure I was going to be the next Fiona Apple; it was just a matter of time. I spent hours banging around on the piano, and writing melancholy minor chord-driven songs in the the third person. ("She stays up late most nights to scream at the torn-up sky" was an actual lyric that I composed in all seriousness and sang in public.) Music was my life for years and years, and I had this deep-rooted passion about it that I rarely expressed as an adult.

I told the first graders about my band. They were silent, listening. I sang a song I'd written when I was 13 while I kept time on the tambourine. They were silent, listening. I explained what a four-four time signature was, and how bands use it as a way to make sure everyone plays together. They were silent, listening. 

This was not the first time I had taught something interesting or engaging. It was not the first time I'd had props or given the promise of cool supplies. It was, however, the first time I had been really honest about the thing I was teaching.

Kids can tell when you're telling the truth. They just can. In my day-to-day life, I am loud, disorganized, and erratic. I joke about everything (even when it's not appropriate, like when I'm being audited, or at funerals). I get easily distracted doing projects, I am irrationally excited by art and music, and I do lots of things on a whim. Here are things I never am: I am never quiet; I am never severe; I don't get mad or yell; I don't need (or even want) everything to match or fit or be orderly. At my house, all our plates and glasses are incongruous: no two are alike. That's the kind of dinner party I throw: with plates of all shapes and sizes and wine out of jars.

This was the most important thing I had to realize not only as a teacher, but as a person in general: nothing is going to work if you're not honest about who you are. Everyone is going to see through it. Trust me.

The reason calmly severe-but-fun teachers are successful at teaching is not because that's the way everyone should teach; it's because they are calmly severe-but-fun people. When I tried to be calmly severe, the kids could tell immediately that it wasn't who I really was. They couldn't trust me, and so they weren't invested in learning from me. 

The only thing I know for sure about teaching is this: to be a good teacher, you must know your truth. Some teachers are yellers, and they are good at being yellers, because that is the way they are in their lives. Some teachers are obsessed with order, and like to have every transition and routine plan and executed exactly one way, every time -- they're also the kinds of people who pre-pack their own lunches for the whole week and color code the stuff in their bedrooms. Some teachers don't mind if paint gets on the floor, and occasionally change a lesson midstream to go on a tangent about how scarlet macaws are going extinct. Some students will learn best from Mr. Feeney, some will learn best from Ms. Frizzle, and some will learn best from Obi Wan Kenobi. The only thing those great teachers have in common (other than being unfortunately fictional) is that they are unapologetically themselves. 

Kids need to see lots of different people being themselves. It gives them permission to be themselvesto try on different personas and find the one that fits. Honesty is hard, and we all need to see it modeled to know that it can be OK. So maybe it is not so much that we shouldn't reinvent the wheel; maybe it's that we need to all spend some time finding the kind of wheel that best moves us as individuals.

There's this scene in Harold and Maude where Maude asks Harold what kind of flower he would most like to be (she probably did a bunch of drugs, but go with it for a second), and he indicates to a ubiquitous daisy growing nearby saying, "I don't know, one of these, maybe." Maude asks him why, and he says it's because they're all alike. Then Maude, in her profound wisdom says, "Oh, but they're not! ... See, some are smaller, some are fatter, some grow to the left, some to the right, some even have lost some petals. All kinds of observable differences. ... I feel that much of the world's sorrow comes from people who are this" -- and she points to an individual daisy -- "yet allow themselves to be treated as that" -- and she gestures to the field.

Our lives are so brilliantly unique. We come to each other with an array of experiences, stories, and differences. What a tragedy it would be if you could walk from one classroom to another and feel like you'd been in the same classroom twice! The only thing research has said consistently about learning is that everyone learns differently. Even identical twins have different learning styles. So the key to great teaching is not necessarily to standardize the way it is done; it's to give teachers ample opportunity to practice until they are comfortable enough to be themselves.