Steve Heisler

Teacher Author Speaker


"Every single child wants to be successful. The problem is, if they can't be successful at being successful, they'll be successful at screwing up. Our job as educators is to change the latter to the former."    

- from the The Missing Link by Steve Heisler

Teacher Habits Matter

When I was about to start my first job as a school administrator I planned to visit classrooms often and regularly. A senior administrator, well known for never leaving his office, warned me to go ahead, if I wanted to, “but remember, nobody likes a ‘got’cha’.”  Although I agreed that nobody likes to be got I also felt that if you were doing what you weren’t supposed to be doing, or not doing something you were supposed to be doing (like teaching your class!)  you deserved to get got and that too was my job. I still believe that.

A decade later a school I work with recently instituted unannounced 'walk-throughs.' They chose, wisely I think, to focus each walk-through on a few key classroom and teaching attributes rather than making a generalized overview of everything all of the time. Savvy administrators, like skilled writing teachers, understand that better revision happens when students revise several times, each with a specific narrow focus, rather than do a single revision about everything.

Focused walk-throughs were undertaken and administrators followed up with both positive and negative comments directed only to the specific teacher that had been observed. However the administrators conducting the exercise were totally taken aback by how miffed some of the teachers were by the negative comments especially because they took care to provide something positive first.

It almost goes without saying that everyone likes being caught doing things right and nobody likes getting nailed doing something wrong. However administrators, like teachers, can foster a positive, growth oriented atmosphere by identifying the difference between what happens as a result of habit and what merely has happened as the result of a single mistake. While this is true about both positive and negative habits, where positive findings tend to always foster positive habits, negative findings tend to provoke reactions only some of which are positive.

This is not to say that administrators happening on an unprepared or unprofessional teacher should not take stern action. However little but dyspepsia will be fostered with a criticism that happens upon a single minor incident (for instance, forgetting to write down the lesson objective on the board) particularly if it happened as a result of momentary neglect by a teacher who for the previous 106 lessons had actually done things exactly the right way.

The first time you note something positive, communicate it. The first time you note something negative that does not rise to the level of egregious, note that too, but have patience, Grasshopper. If you are dedicated to doing your job well, you will visit that classroom again and again. If you see the same thing again, that tells you something you might want to mention in passing. But if you see it again after that, what you might be seeing here is a habit and habits, whether they result in positive or poor teaching performance, are exactly what you want meaningful professional communications to be about.