“I Chose To Stop Doing Stupid and Start Doing Smart”: A Veteran Teacher Reflects on Lessons Learned.

A bit of what follows will seem defiant to some readers. To other readers, my point of view will be like preaching to the choir. Be that as it may, I’m simply writing about my approach to teaching.

As my career progressed, I decided that I was going to stop doing stupid and hopefully do things smarter. Early on in my years as an educator I did my best to follow protocol, even when tasks were what I believed to be a waste of everyone’s time.  For example, every day and for each daily lesson teachers are required to post some form of the following on their classroom boards:

  • Lesson Aim:
  • Lesson Objective:
  • Learning Standard:
  • Do Now:
  • Agenda:

One theoretical reason for doing this task is so that students will know what they are learning that day. Students would copy this information into their notebooks. I asked my students how this information helps them. I was met with a chorus of “It doesn’t!” I then asked them, if that were the case, why they wrote it down. They told me because they were told they had to. I asked them if they ever went back to look at it. They chorused, “Never.” The students knew what they were learning through the activities we were performing. As the years went on, I would “forget” to put this information on the board. I’d “remember” to do it when we were having outside visitors. 

I decided to stop doing what I felt was stupid.

I am not advocating for  teachers to follow my path. I’m merely speaking for myself. I recognize that it is often better to go along in order to get along but, for me, I simply followed my own compass. I chose to use my time and efforts on more effective and efficient tasks.

The same could be said for lesson plans. Early one morning I had an epiphany about a lesson I wanted to do. I invited an administrator to come observe the lesson. It went really, really well. After the lesson I was asked for a copy of the lesson plan. I didn’t have one. I’d just thought up what we did that very morning. I was admonished for not having it. “Lesson plans are required,” said the administrator.

I replied (to myself),

You’ll have to excuse me for not having pen and paper in the shower when the idea came to me. Anyway, how was what you just witnessed in my classroom going to be improved by a piece of paper? And who are the lesson plans for, the students or for you? 

Now, I’m not advocating for teachers to take my position. It’s just that I could no longer do what I believed was inefficient – or in my eyes, stupid.

Now that I’ve told you what I wouldn’t do, let me tell you about what I did do. There were many areas where folks showed me smarter ways of doing things. For example,

“You want us to get rid of textbooks!”


“How do you expect us to teach history without textbooks?”

“Find resources on the internet.”

This was a new directive from my principal at the time. I was incredulous. My Social Studies colleagues were all in agreement that this was completely unworkable. I was certain this man had lost his mind.

However, the reality is that the world was changing. Better and newer information  is accessible– if you look for it. Another reality is that textbooks are antiquated in their approach to conveying information. Accessing history from the internet lets students see more perspectives and targeted information. What is more, teachers could create handouts to read, questions to answer, and worksheets to complete that met the students where they were in terms of learning skills and prior knowledge. 

In other words, productive flexibility was a result of this approach. It also allowed for a greater degree of differentiation in learning. (However, in complete disclosure, I was never very good at this aspect of teaching.)

I found a wealth of Global History and U.S. History content that I would update and tweak as the years rolled along. As time went on, New York City’s Department of Education partnered with New Visions, which created an online curriculum for both U.S. History and Global History. I began to use much of these curricula supplemented by additional content I created on my own. I never went back to using textbooks. That became stupid.

When I created my African American Studies and Latin & Caribbean Studies courses, textbooks were never an option for me. Depending upon the students’ abilities in these classes each year, the internet gave me the ability to customize curriculum that students would enjoy exploring. Indeed, material that I would enjoy teaching as well.

Another smart idea that I was slow to accept was having students work in groups. If you are not an educator, you probably never gave a second thought to the arrangement of a classroom. Yet this dynamic can play a critical role in both classroom management and the learning process. Now, I’m old school in many ways and having students seated at their desks in rows was de rigueur for me. However, the model strongly suggested was to have the desks arranged in groups so that the students could work together. To me this meant the students can talk to each other all period.

I tried arranging the desks in groups of four to six. Constant talking was, as I predicted, the result. But I looked at what other teachers were doing with their rooms. One teacher set up her room in a complete square. This allowed students to work with the students beside them but limited the ability to talk across a small group. I copied this setup and sat at a seat on the square. I could see everyone and everyone could see me. Of course, on exam days we would rearrange the room in standard rows and recreate the square after the test.

As time went on I would experiment further with setting up larger groups of 10 to 12 desks. In essence there were three teaching pods in the classroom. I would sit at the center pod. Daily lessons would consist of content learned as a class, followed by learning activities as a group within the pods. Towards the end of the period we would reconvene and share together as a class the results of the group activities. A variation of this model became the new de rigueur.

Naturally there were times when behavior would lapse and the rows came back. But students hated the rows and behaviors would correct themselves so that the group seating would reappear.

I was fortunate to receive many smarter ways of doing things from both my administrators and my teaching colleagues. Yet, folks may disagree with what I’ve written about what I wouldn’t do. Notwithstanding this, the best interest of my students was always my singular goal.  I chose to dismiss protocol for protocol’s sake, what I refer to as Ivory Tower Education Theory. I always sought to meet my students where they were and move them towards successful learning.

What do you think?

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