What can I get good at?

I’d like to get good at something. What can I get good at?

I’d like to get good at teaching.

But it’s totally normal desire to want to get good at something that you can share with other adults. Some call this ambition, and that’s a fine name. You could also call it a desire to participate in an intellectual community. (It’s probably best not to over-analyze this desire, right?)

Maybe I should become an expert about teaching. I’d ask questions about teaching like “what’s the best way to teach math?” and then I’d go around with my answers: “this is the best way to teach math.” There are people who do this. People sometimes even pay these people to do this.

There are problems, for me, with the “tell people how to teach math” plan. Mainly, to do this in an intellectually honest way would require me to see many more math classrooms than I currently do. How can you tell people how to teach math if you only have your own experience to go from? How can you know that your ideas aren’t just your ideas?

Researchers and PD people tell people how to teach, but if they’re any good they’re only doing that on the basis of many, many individual observations. Recommendations on the basis of one case? That’s no good.

I could leave the classroom and start looking around at other classrooms, of course, but I don’t want to. So that’s fine, and maybe the cost of that is that you don’t get to make generalizations about teaching. I’m fine with that.

So, what’s left? If others are better-positioned to tell people how to teach math, what can teachers hope to contribute?

It seems to me that what’s left for me is the art of learning about teaching. Asking particularly good questions about teaching in particularly good ways. Understanding, in a particularly good way, what the experts are saying and how to use that. There is a kind of expertise in being a non-expert about teaching, and it seems to me that this is a knowledge that I could strive for. Not knowledge about teaching, but knowledge about learning about teaching.

Maybe, though, the premise of this post is wrong? Maybe it makes sense to try to generalize about teaching from the position of a teacher? Maybe generalizing from the position of a researcher and generalizing from that of a teacher are complementary perspectives?

I really don’t know.

8 thoughts on “What can I get good at?

  1. One of the things I’ve noticed is that what works for one teacher might not work for another, even with the same group of students. We bring so much of ourselves into the classroom that I think we can only learn what works for us. Obviously, good practice has a lot of similarities from one classroom to another, but no one will ever be able to write a one-size-fits-all manual for teachers or students.


  2. “Recommendations on the basis of one case? That’s no good.”

    More like, “Recommendations on the basis of one case? That’s a gamble if you’re looking trying to establish a system of improvement.”

    This is where I push back against the “one size doesn’t fit all” argument. Yes, someone’s specific recommendation may not work for you. Or it may be exactly the advice you need. But we can’t take this to mean that one approach to improvement has the same probability of success as any other approach. When we rely on advice from those with more limited perspectives (e.g., they have less experience in their own classroom, have fewer observations of other teachers, have done less professional learning, etc.), we’re not treating our educational system like something that deserves a systematic approach to improvement. And what’s not good for teachers as a whole will not be good, on average, for individual teachers.


  3. I can get good at helping my students to understand math at a deeper level and to have more confidence in their ability to do math. I guess that means just getting better at my job.


  4. I’ll try to help by asking more questions. I think your definition of good might need to be refined. You might have more than one going. Do you want to be good in a general way, or do you want to be good in an internal alignment way? If you’re generally good at teaching, you can probably teach a bunch of different subjects, you can handle a bunch of different groups of kids, you’ve seen a lot of curriculum and read a lot of book. If you’re internally good you would be teaching as close as it is to what your internal compass says. The internal person has their things, which may not work for everybody, but is amazing. So which is your kind of good? Do you want to know all the instruments, or do you want to be the virtuoso in the violin (or whatever?

    Also, what is the purpose of your new abilities? Do you want to be marketable for employment’s sake? Do you want to be good because you are tired of average? Do you want to be good because you want to see the biggest impact with students?

    There is also very serious question: are you a unicorn? Is the only cure for this current ailment something that doesn’t exist? Maybe you can find/make a situation that is a hybrid of teacher and researcher. It might be confusing because there aren’t a lot of examples, but with technology any thing is possible!


  5. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for sharing. Tell me more about “I could leave the classroom and start looking around at other classrooms, of course, but I don’t want to.” The reason I ask is because of the following:

    I’m fortunate to be in a position where I support my fellows and am in their classrooms at least once a week, working with them and their students.

    Not being in classroom teacher has allowed me to reflect on so many aspects of my own teaching where I learned how awful I was at some things, how okay I was at things, and how many things I wanted to keep betting better at. If/when I return to being a classroom teacher, I look forward to applying many of the things I’ve learned from my reflections and what my fellows have taught me by working with them.

    If it were up to me, I would require every teacher to step away from being a classroom teacher for at least one year so they can support a colleague or group of colleagues. That perspective has been instrumental to my own teaching days, but more importantly, it has also helped me support the teachers I’ve worked with over the past few years. I have seen them do amazing things. It’s definitely a weird place to be, but one I cherish because of how much my fellows progress and how much I learn from them so I can share with other teachers.

    Chase Orton shared an amazing freakonomics episode with me the other day. It might resonate with you too. Or maybe you’ve heard it.


  6. You are already extremely good at this thing: helping other teachers puzzle through their successes and failures, even though you’ve never seen their rooms.


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