Over the weekend, I lost a bit of my patience with practitioners, y’all. I’d just finished listening to a teacher rant and rave about “today’s kids being lazy” and “those damned fidget spinners.” What I kept thinking during her rant came to life in the form of this Tweet:
If kids in your class are more engaged by a fidget spinner than they are by your lesson, the spinner isn’t the problem. Your lesson is.
— Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) May 13, 2017
I must have touched on a nerve because the Tweet took off — and not everyone was buying my central notion that good lesson planning is the best classroom management strategy.
People called my opinion “ridiculous” and “insulting.” They said that I had “deprofessionalized and dehumanized” teachers. They described my Tweet as “sententious BS” and called out my “neoliberalism,” whatever that means.
So I figured I’d articulate a bit on my central argument here in a series of “I Believe” statements. Choose one and tell me where I’m wrong:
I believe that it is the teacher’s job to create lessons that are so engaging, kids aren’t interested in their distractions. Plain and simple. Bored kids fidget with spinners and phones and pencils and their bodies. Kids who are engaged by challenging thoughts or provocative questions or tasks that are developmentally appropriate fidget with ideas. If we know our kids and know our content, we OUGHT to be able to fill MOST of our lessons with MORE of those challenging thoughts and provocative questions and developmentally appropriate tasks.
Is that an easy task? Nope.
But you can’t tell me that it’s an IMPOSSIBLE task. All of you have taught lessons that left kids completely riveted. Those are the moments that we live for, right? And in those lessons, your kids aren’t flipping spinners or texting their girlfriends. They are following your lead and listening to your every word and tackling whatever challenge you drop in front of them.
Can you create a riveting lesson every single day? Probably not. After 24 years of teaching, if I can wrap my kids in the perfect lesson two or three times every week, I feel like I’m doing pretty good.
But I also won’t be satisfied knowing that forty to sixty percent of my instruction is engaging, either. And neither should you.
I believe that fidgeting kids are a GREAT source of feedback for classroom teachers. I’m no expert at this teaching stuff, but one of the things I’m good at is being honest with myself. In fact, I’m constantly trying to figure out whether or not my instructional practices are working for the kids in my classroom — and when I see kids fidgeting with spinners and phones and pencils and their bodies, I don’t get angry with the kids OR disappointed with myself.
Instead, I make a mental note that the lesson I am teaching needs improvement. Maybe there aren’t enough opportunities for kids to interact with one another. Maybe the content I’m presenting is too challenging — or not challenging enough. Maybe my questions aren’t terribly provocative. Maybe I haven’t worked hard enough to help my kids see the connection between the topic we are studying and their own needs and interests.
Whatever the issue, fidgeting is the symptom. My job is to recognize it, diagnose the reason for it, and rethink my plans.
I believe that together, my peers and I can make ANYTHING more interesting. Over and over again, teachers chirped at me that it’s unrealistic to believe that a teacher can make EVERY topic interesting to kids. “What about punctuation?” they’d say. “How do you make kids pay attention when you are teaching THAT?” Or, “Some lessons are valuable but not interesting. Like feminisim.” Or, “Some lessons are just boring. That’s the way it is. Life is boring. Kids should get used to it.”
Those comments drove me nuts simply because I really AM convinced that there are ways to capture the attention of kids regardless of the topic — and while I may not always have the best ideas on my own, I teach with brilliant peers and I’ve got a digital network filled with thousands of like-minded colleagues who are willing to brainstorm with me at any hour of the day. If I’m willing to reach out and tell other people when I know that my lessons don’t resonate with my kids, I’m GOING to find a better solution worth trying.
And if I’m NOT willing to reach out for help, I’m failing my kids by holding on to instructional practices that I KNOW aren’t working.
I believe that teachers face a thousand limitations that make high quality instruction challenging — but those limitations can’t become excuses: I think the strong reactions that people had to my original Tweet stems from the fact that teachers really DO work hard on behalf of their kids. We aren’t intentionally TRYING to create boring lessons for students to sit through. Instead, we are slammed for time and slammed for resources and slammed for ideas. Coming up with dozens of engaging, differentiated lessons for increasingly diverse student populations IS a darn near impossible challenge — particularly when your 25 minute planning period is spent arm-deep in a broken photocopier or answering YET another email from YET another aggravated parent.
And some of the crap in our required curriculum IS pretty boring. And nothing meaningful ever seems to show up on the standardized tests that we’re held accountable for anyway. And our bosses have stuff they are making us do. And we teach kids who have grown up in a world where paying attention for fifteen minutes is required just about as often as juggling fourteen chainsaws to raise money for dinner. And did I mention those damned end of grade exams yet? They matter, you know!
I get it. Remember: I’m a teacher, too. I have all of those same challenges.
But the minute those challenges become an excuse to avoid reflection and continuous growth, we are failing the kids in our classroom.