Teachers, Can We All Agree to Do Some Things Badly?

Because the only way to succeed is to fail.

Do Things Badly
A retro toy rocket crashing back to the ground and breaking into bits. 3D illustration

Teaching is important, and it’s high stakes. We care deeply about our students and their futures, and we want to give them every tool we can to ensure their success. For me, that love translates to a determination to do things right. Because if I fail, it’s not just me who suffers. 

The result of this, of course, is a fear of failure and a hesitance to try new things. What if, by teaching fractions a new, more time-consuming way, I run out of time to teach probability and the students all fail their standardized tests? What if, by changing out a book on the syllabus, I deprive a child of the novel that would have inspired a love of reading? I know I’m not the only teacher who sees every decision as life-or-death, and every potential failure as a crime against innocent students.

But this year, I’m trying to push past that anxiety. I know that the first time I try something, I probably won’t do it well. Just like the first time my students wrote their literary analysis papers, or the first time my son rode a bike. It takes practice, wrong turns, and readjustments to get good at anything, and the only way to succeed is to fail. This year I’m trying to embrace failure, and hope that by trying new things I’ll model learning for my students and, hopefully, hit on some strategies that work. Here are five things I’m doing badly in 2020.

1. I’m doing independent reading badly.

I replaced my classroom library with book circles and small-group text sets, and several students became angry. I’m still figuring out the best way to structure this center, and I’m not there yet. Some kids have read every single book in my classroom already. Some have yet to finish the first book they checked out. But I have seen an increase in independent reading since I started, so perhaps something is going right.

2. I’m doing journals badly.

I make my students write in their journals twice a week, and I respond to every child on each entry. That sounds great, right? Unfortunately, half the time my responses are “Wow!” or “Sounds good” or “Makes sense!” or “Good luck with that!” for every kid in the class. Sorry, kids. I’ll try harder.



3. I’m doing parent communication badly.

I try to contact several parents a week and make at least half of my communication positive. But I’m currently failing, like I do every year. Most of the parents at my school don’t speak English, and my Spanish is rusty, so I end up relying on our overworked parent liaison a lot more than I would prefer. Of course, the more guilty I feel about bombarding him with emails, the more I slack off on the positive communication. But, hey. One positive call a week is better than none, right?

4. I’m doing tiered instruction badly.

Why is it so unbelievably difficult to do tiered stations? Seriously. It shouldn’t be this hard. But, there are like 30 students and one of me. And I’m prepping three different lessons and relying on 20 students to do self-directed activities while I teach the remainder and it is really, really difficult. But I’m going to keep doing it wrong and failing in creative new ways until I fail my way into a plan that works.

5. I’m doing structured literacy badly.

This is the biggest fail because I want so badly to do it right. I’ve got eight seventh graders who read below a third-grade level, and I desperately want to fix that. The problem is, I don’t have all the training or materials I need, and I struggle to find time to prepare amid all my other responsibilities. So I do what I can. I am talking to the people that do have the training, I am doing the research, and I am carving out time in the day for phonics practice. My flashcards are written in Sharpie on index cards, and I fear we won’t find time for the decodable books and my students will push back at reading a book called Bear Gets a Scare. But I’m going to try.

My students deserve a teacher who is an expert in everything and knows how to do everything right, but, unfortunately, that teacher doesn’t exist. Instead, they’ve got me. Like Samuel Beckett said, I’m going to “fail better” every year and maybe, once my students’ kids come along, I will know what I’m doing. 
We’d love to hear what things you’re doing badly. Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, why you don’t have to be a perfect teacher to make a difference.

Teachers, Can We All Agree to Do Some Things Badly?