3 Big Challenges in Teaching


Recently a soon-to-be teacher asked me, “What were the greatest challenges you faced as a new teacher?”

To be honest, there are endless challenges. It is the hardest job I will ever have. But I distilled my answer to the three most important things I learned during my time in the classroom:

1. Understand “student logic”

Sometimes adults (myself included) assume kids or teens think like rational adults. In my first year of teaching, I waited for weeks, even months, for a student to come around and see the error of his or her ways. That not doing homework resulted in bad grades. That bad grades would result in fewer opportunities.

But this was really dumb. Students won’t start thinking like adults until they’re, you know… adults!

It is a teacher’s job to understand how kids think. What is this strange brand of teen-logic that they employ? How can I use their teen-logic to leverage and motivate them to learn and be successful?

I know master teachers who take this practice to the next level. They effectively guide their students from the extrinsic end of the learning spectrum to the purely intrinsic end. Kids start with extrinsic; they care about avoiding negative consequences (detention) and reaping positive rewards (candy). But as the teacher guides them toward the inherent value of their learning, they own it and seek out success because they want it. That is when real progress happens.

2. Prioritize

In the early days, sometimes it feels like the solution to teaching better is to simply “teach harder!” Pour in more energy. Work more hours.

Not very sustainable.

So how do you improve effectiveness when you’ve hit your ceiling? Teaching smarter is something that takes reflection and constant reevaluation. The most important practice here is scheduling space to reflect and learn about your practice every single week. This means setting aside sacred reflection time that you don’t miss, and also having a schedule whereby other mentors can observe you.

As for time management, the best method different for everyone. I am a big fan of David Allen’s GTD. Others use their own to do lists, systems, or simply commit to that #1 most important task of the day, a la Peter Bergman’s 18 Minutes, and ensure that it is completed.

3. Get some sleep!

If I had to pick just one variable in teaching that impacted my effectiveness the most it would be sleep.

On any given day, less than six hours meant I was in for a rough day and more than eight hours meant my kids were going to be on task, engaged, and learning. This happened because I was alert, responsive, energized, effusive, and able to make better decisions on the spot (teachers make about 1000 decisions each day).

Amazing what sleep can do.

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