Why Experience Is The Best Teacher

“You’ll understand when you’re older.”

We tell that to our students, and they don’t like. We hear it when we start out in the teaching world and we don’t like. I remember an experienced band director told me once that he would tell me how to be a better teacher if he knew. He just knew that experience would help me get better. That frustrated me to no end.

I’m a step-by-step guy (if you haven’t noticed by reading other articles on this blog). “Just figure it out” is annoying to me. The way I like to figure things out is to look up the answers and work from there. “Experience is the best teacher” didn’t quite do that for me.

But…he was on to something
As I have progressed through the first decade of my teaching career, I find that I do so many things now that I never specifically learned from anyone other than trial-and-error. Sure, I made efforts to surround myself with mentors and I asked tons of questions, but I also  have been in enough situations where I was forced to learn on my own.

And ya know what? I did.

So how does it work?
Well, I think it’s crucial to take a methodical approach to learning how to teach. I think there are certain steps that we can follow that will definitely make that experience-gaining so much more pleasant. At the risk of repeating myself, here is the general outline of how I get better.

  1. Recognize a problem
    Whether it be a misbehavior in the students (talking incessantly, getting out of seat without permission), a behavior in myself (repeatedly saying “umm”, checking Facebook on my phone), low understanding of a key concept, or whatever it may be. I see the problem and make steps to root it out, or at the very least drastically reduce the frequency of its occurrence.
  2. Identify the desired outcome
    Presumably, this would be something along the lines of “students remain quiet and engaged in the learning process” or “I don’t check Facebook while at work” or whatever. Keep it simple and concise.
  3. Imagine what it would take to get to the desired outcome
    What steps must you take to make that happen. Set stricter consequences? Have a heart-to-heart with the students about how much time is wasted when they talk? Delete the Facebook app? Whatever it is, make a list of a few things that might be necessary to get you there.
  4. Formulate a foolproof plan
    Okay, so maybe the plan won’t be foolproof, but it should be as thorough as you can make it. I’ll go into more detail later on why I like step-by-step, other people like lists of ideas. Whatever works for you is what you should try.
  5. Reflect
    I love the idea of recording classes. Video is not necessary, and a long time is not necessary. Ten minutes should be enough to get all the information you need, but feel free to record more if you feel it necessary. Whether you record or not, reflect on that one specific problem area. Are things better? If so, great! Move on to another area. If not, try another approach and go at it again.
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Some specific pointers

  • The whole cycle should take about a week
  • When I was really working to get a lot better faster, I worked for a week, let my mind rest on Saturday, and reflected/planned for the upcoming week on Sunday evenings
  • One thing at a time; avoid multitasking here — the power of single-focus makes this run much smoother
  • If it’s not better after three cycles, find another problem area and push this one aside to come back to later
  • Raise your level of absurdity; ask yourself, “if your classroom were the best class in your school, would this behavior be acceptable?”
  • Work at your own pace
  • The goal is not perfection; the goal is improvement
  • Even if things never feel like they are getting better, you need to trust that they are

Before you know it, things that take so much effort now will end up happening without you even noticing them. I used to have to tell kids to throw their gum away. Now, I just look at them and they know. I can’t tell you how, it is just experience!

About Joel Wagner 522 Articles
Joel Wagner (@sywtt) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. So You Want To Teach? is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

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