Never Work Harder Than Your Students


I am a newly certified teacher. And while I’ve still got the energy, patience, and starry-eyed optimism, I know that I have to confront the reality that this overly optimistic attitude will not last forever. Over the years, I have met a lot of well-meaning teachers who, despite still wanting the best for their students, have become bitter at their jobs and their students. While I accept that there will be days when I too, will feel like calling it quits, I do not want that to be a forever-feeling. I am aware that as a first year teacher I will be investing a lot of time and energy into my practice; developing lessons, reviewing material, creating assessments… the list goes on. Therefore, I need to find ways to channel my time and energy wisely early on to avoid burnout and to keep myself motivated throughout my first year (and of course the years to come). Never Work Harder Than Your Students by Robyn R. Jackson is an excellent read for both new and experienced teachers that breaks down the seven most essential principles of great teaching into its individual components. 

The seven principles of great teaching are as follows: 

  1. Start where your students are.
  2. Know where your students are going.
  3. Expect your students to get to their goal.
  4. Support your students along the way.
  5. Use feedback to help you and your students get better.
  6. Focus on quality rather than quantity.
  7. Never work harder than your students. 

Simple, right? With the exception of maybe the last principle, all of these are straightforward and should come at no surprise. Any teacher will be able to tell you why adhering to these principles is important. But what does it mean to start where your students are? How does one demonstrate this principle in practice? Moreover, how many educators purposefully act out these principles and regularly reflect on them? 

To become a master teacher, Jackson asserts, is to develop a master teacher’s mindset. Many teachers attend workshops, conferences, and events to hear about the latest fads and techniques. They apply them to their classrooms, and can end up with disappointing results. I admit, I am guilty of this myself. The first step is to focus on the why rather than the what or the how. Strategies only work inasmuch as you believe in them, and only if they align with your own principles of teaching. Jackson writes,”… [What] separates master teachers from the rest of us is that master teachers learned how to use the principles effectively, and rigorously apply these principles to their teaching. In fact, these principles have become such an integral part of their teaching that master teachers no longer have to consciously think about them. Applying these principles have become a natural response to students’ needs” (5). 

Below, I list a five of my top take-away points from the book. 

#1. Understand the currencies you and your students are spending and use them to help your students acquire classroom capital. 
Knowing your students is not just about learning your students names or playing get-to-know-you games. There are some things you cannot learn about your students just by playing two truths and a lie or getting them to fill out an information sheet. This is not to say that these activities should be stopped, but I think it is important to remember that there is much more to each student than what they choose to present themselves as in class. Remember back in the day when you used to think teachers lived at school and how surprised you were when you ran into one at the grocery store? Well, it’s kind of like that. It’s easy to slap labels on a student and call them “lazy,” “trouble-maker,” or “class clown,” especially when we rarely get to see them outside the context of our own classrooms. 

Jackson encourages us to think in terms of “currencies.” What currencies do you value in your classroom? For instance, an ideal student to me is one who shows up to class on time, is inquisitive, polite, asks for help when needed, and has good learning skills like initiative, teamwork, self-regulation…etc. But let’s be real – most students come to class with their own set of currencies, and those may not be congruous with the ones you choose to accept. A good starting point is to become aware of what currencies you value, and what currencies your students are spending. Then, look for ways to bridge the disconnection either by helping students acquire classroom currency, altering your own, or rewarding students in the currency they value. 

#2. Unpack curriculum standards BEFORE you start looking for activities and worksheets for a lesson.
It wasn’t until reading this section of the book that I had realized I had been approaching lesson planning all wrong. In attempts to speed through the process of lesson planning, I spent countless hours after school searching up activities, creating worksheets, and making SmartBoard or PowerPoint presentations that explained a particular concept that was related to the unit I was teaching. Looking back, this was a very scattered and disoriented approach; it was partly driven by the fact that I had limited control over the unit planning as a student teacher, and partly because of my limited knowledge and experience. To put it crudely, my approach to lesson planning was more “How can I best fill up this 70 minute period?” rather than “What is the best way to teach X topic so that my students can meet the curriculum standards?” 

The best way to begin is to unpack curriculum standards. Read through each curriculum expectation and decide if it is asking for content or process mastery (e.g. “Describe the characteristics of a quadratic function” v. “Find the roots of the function”). There may be other implicit content or process knowledge required to achieve a certain goal. Jackson suggests breaking each of the goals down by mapping out a detailed trajectory to achieving mastery and identifying checkpoints along the way

#3.  Your expectations say more about your own sense of efficacy than your students’ abilities (84).
Wow. Just think about that for a minute. High expectations does not mean making a course more challenging. It is not just about believing in your students’ abilities to do well. Jackson’s mathematical analogy for what an expectation is is so beautiful I will repeat it here:
In mathematics, an expectation is the probability of an occurrence multiplied by the value of that occurrence. In other words, expectation is comprised of your belief that something is true, and how much value you assign  to it. Thus, having high expectations for your students means believing that you have the ability to handle it, and that you think it is important to do so (82). (The Stockdale paradox also serves a relevant point here). 

#4. Show students how to fail.
Some may call me perceptive, empathetic, and caring, but at times, these are just euphemisms for “she likes to tip-toe around students’ feelings.” I don’t like watching students struggle, and it’s hard for me not to step in and support them. I want to see them through to the end. I want to make sure they “get it.” But sometimes, you just have to let them struggle in order for them to see the value in learning from their mistakes. I’m getting better at this the more I teach, but my weakness is definitely helping students who have math anxiety. It stresses me out to think that such a wonderful subject can cause so much panic. 

To show that you value incorrect contributions, it is important not to shut down incorrect answers because then you just run the risk of playing “guess what the teacher is thinking” (a horrible way to learn I might add). Instead, if a student gives an incorrect answer, you could respond by saying something like, “Thank you! That is a wonderful non-example.” 

#5. Never work harder than your students.
This requires that you have a clear understanding of your responsibilities versus what 
your students’ responsibilities are. For instance, our duties are to:

1. Be well-prepared to teach.
2. Determine what will be taught and to what degree; what behaviors you expect students to demonstrate as they are learning; what procedures you and the students will use to learn it; what products students will produce; and at what point the lesson will close. 
3. Provide clear instructions and explanations of the material and ensure that students understand the criteria.
4. Clearly communicate, model, and enforce behaviour expectations.
5. Demonstrate enthusiasm for subject matter and for students.
6. Establish structures and supports so students can access the material.
7. Assess student progress, adjust instruction based  on the feedback, and share feedback with students.

It is not our job to solve our students problems. Remember that we cannot control our students, but we can influence them by showing them how to manage their own behaviour. 

Hope you enjoyed this article. Please leave your questions and comments below.

Jackson, R.R. (2009). Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.

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