Ron’s #5: Never Work Harder Than Your Students by Robyn R. Jackson (239 pages)

I’ll be honest here–I am not a good teacher.

The longer I teach, the more that I think this is true. It’s not that I don’t try or don’t care. Instead, I think that I am not effective. Entertaining, perhaps, but not effective. Every once in a while, I’ll read a book on how to be a better English teacher, and these books make me feel worse about my chosen career. Teaching books work opposite as teaching movies do. After I watch Dead Poets Society or Freedom Writers, I feel invigorated to go back into the classroom to kick some pedagogical booty. Reading teaching books by those who are master teachers makes me feel like I am pedagogical booty. See the difference?

Knowing that most of you reading this are not teachers, I won’t bore you with Robyn Jackson’s methods in detail. Her main thrust is that becoming a master teacher is something that can be attained with seven principals (“Use Effective Feedback” and “Start Where Your Students Are” are two of the seven). Jackson takes teachers through the changing of a teaching mindset, rather than merely adding activities or procedures to our already overflowing toolbox. Her focus is pairing down our classrooms and activities to only essential ones and do those well. I liked this idea, and it can help me. I have noticed that at times, I’m seeking ways to fill a class with interesting activities, but they may not go where I want them to in meeting core objectives in reading and writing. I have already started to think more about why I do the things I do in class, and I have contemplated places to trim the fat.

Jackson also encourages ways to support students, and I need improvement in this area. I liked her idea of not letting kids off the hook by simply giving them a zero for a missing assignment. Instead, make them come in to do it, either after school or at lunch. If I planned a valuable activity or lesson, then it should be completed. After I trim down to the essentials, why let a student off easy by not having him complete it? As I read, I found my brain quickly jumping to objections, “How can that work?” “What if they don’t come?” I need to put those aside, and figure out what I can do, rather than what will not work.

My criticisms are few, and I’ll only share one here. Jackson does the one thing that annoys me most about listening to teachers tell stories about their classrooms and interactions in children. When relating a story of a lesson, teachers will often tell how the class objects to something the teacher says by using the teacher’s name in unison. It would be like me telling you about class today, and the students said, “But Mr. Coia, how does the conflict/resolution work in movies?” It rings so false when I hear teachers recounting the events like that; students do not object in one voice! Next time you are listening to a teacher talk about his day, please listen and tell me how correct I am. I say all this because Robyn Jackson loves this storytelling feature, except with the added bonus of the kids protesting, “Dr. Jackson…” By page four, I was reminded a few times that Ms. Jackson earned a Doctorate. While mildly annoying, it did not impede my enjoyment of this book.

During the time I read this last week, I really did feel low about my teaching performance compared with the teachers outlined and highlighted in this book. But I now liken it to the way one feels after reading Paul’s letter to the Romans. This Biblical book makes us feel low, sinful, and ashamed because we do not measure up to the ultimate Master Teacher, while, at the same offering a great hope because it shows a way to bridge the chasm of imperfection. The New Testament often shows our distance from God and our ability to enter into His presence. We are both saint and sinner at the same time. We see our sin and also the way to our rescue from it.

On a much smaller and less significant scale, Never Work Harder than Your Students showed me my problem and offered solutions to help me to cross that gap.

About Ron 173 Articles
I teach English and government in Okinawa, Japan. I love reading theology and fiction, and helps keep me accountable. Reading with three kids under 5 is a bit of a challenge, but I keep trying to find ways to read more. My favorites writers are C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’ Connor, and Raymond Carver.

4 Comments on Ron’s #5: Never Work Harder Than Your Students by Robyn R. Jackson (239 pages)

  1. Mr. Coia, this is a book I’m definitely going to have to pick up since I’m planning on going into teaching… I’ve started studying reading and writing pedagogy and it’s pretty intimidating. Especially knowing that most students won’t come into class caring about literature the way I do, or be as prepared as I was to be a reader/writer. But don’t let those little military brats get you down; I promise you’re much more effective (and entertaining) than you give yourself credit for!

  2. I’ve seen Kohn’s books, but never read one. He’s the Punished by Rewards guy, right?

    Amie: I didn’t know you were pursuing teaching. Perhaps you can end up back in Osan!

  3. I can’t quite put in words how I managed to get to this page but a collection of memories jumped out at me as I read your thoughts on this book. I truly believe that feeling “low” about your teaching performance only goes to show how dedicated you are to your career. While it is termed a “career”, I feel this word cheapens what you actually do. That is, (and I know my memory does not fail me) you take what you do to another level. I know for a fact that there were moments in class, where I thought to myself how instrumental your teaching abilities were to the development of my analytical skills.

    My future goal (and has been for years now) is to become a professor and while I lack teaching experience, I find joy in seeing myself there one day. It’s good to gather insight on topics like this because I know it is a ubiquitous challenge.

    I know I’m one of many students you have inspired and I am a firm believer in inspiration. To me, inspiration is inevitably perpetual.

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