Never Work Harder Than Your Students

by Robyn R. Jackson

Summer just feels like the right time to take a sit back and enjoy a good book.  Am I right?

I was enthusiastically encouraged to take a look at this book, “Never Work Harder Than Your Students” by a close friend, (who happens to be a teacher).  She loved this book so much, she said, that she couldn’t put it down.  Also, I should get my own copy.  Both of those are indicators to me that its a book worth taking a look at.

I read 60 pages in the first couple hours I had it in my hands.  Its good, brain stretching, interesting reading, particularly if you are ready to be reflective about your own teaching practice and looking for ways you can better communicate with your students.

Dr. Jackson shares with us in this book her seven mastery principles:

  1. Master teachers start where their students are.
  2. Master teachers know where their students are going.
  3. Master teachers expect to get their students to their goal.
  4. Master teachers support their students along the way.
  5. Master teachers use feedback to help them and their students get better.
  6. Master teachers focus on quality rather than quantity.
  7. Master teachers never work harder than their students.

Here’s a taste of what you’ll find in this insightful book.

Start Where Your Students Are

“Knowing your students means more than knowing their demographics and scores.  It means recognizing what currency they have and value then using that currency to help them acquire the capital of the classroom.” (p 30)

Dr. Jackson shares a story about a student who simply refuses to work, so his teacher quietly makes a deal with him: if he finishes his exam, she will make him a PB&J.  This teacher explains its not about the food, its about nurturing.  “Nurturing ” was not something the student had, and for this student, nurturing was the currency he was willing to accept from the teacher.  Sure, its great when students value learning itself, but not every student sees school that way.  I will certainly think differently the next time I have a group of students who ask me every day, for weeks, to bake them cookies.  (Yes, I had this group.  I thought it was about the cookies because they were the last class of the day, but maybe it wasn’t.)

Know Where Your Students are Going

“A big mistake many of us make is that we set learning targets that represent maximum instead of minimum standards of proficiency.  Instead, our learning goals should represent the floor, not the ceiling.” (p 63)

The goals at the “floor” need to be reachable for every student, but also creating the idea of a ceiling allows students to continue stretching their skills and content knowledge.  Visualizing this leads to natural differentiation for students of varying ability in my mind.

Expect to Get Your Students There

“Insist that students complete every assignment.  If you really believe that the assignment was worth assigning, then it is worth completing.” (p 94)

This means, then, that if you ever think an assignment is okay to skip, why did you bother assigning it?  Focus your instruction on helping your students work to achieve the objectives of the course, not just give them related work for its own sake.  Oh, don’t let them get away with less than their best either.

Support Your Students

In this chapter, we first see the idea of an escalating intervention plan.  Dr. Jackson supports the idea of not allowing your students to fail, starting with giving students a score of incomplete rather than entering a score of zero for an unfinished assignment.  In my ideal world, I might not use grades at all and would rather look for mastery of ideas and concepts in my students.  Giving the incomplete means that students then have to do the work they missed – after all, the only assignments that should be worth giving are the ones that are worth completing.

Identify and correct misconceptions.

Continue to demystify the academic process showing students how experts in your particular discipline or field think and behave.

Science notebooks.

Use Effective Feedback

“The data you receive from grading your assignments and assessments will give you feedback about the effectiveness of the curriculum and your own instruction.”  (p 132)

Keep an eye out for your students mastering material!  When they’ve got it, you can move on!  Need to differentiate?  Make an adjustment.  Use that data, people!

There’s also a compelling argument for retesting in this chapter – allowing students to fail gives a teacher the opportunity to let a student see what needs to be mastered, and lets them try again to prove mastery. (Note to self: grades of A, B, and not yet!)

Focus on Quality, Not Quantity

“It wasn’t so much how much work I assigned them; it was the kind of work that mattered.” (p 155)

Here we see the idea that by combining common tasks (p 160) the course of study can be more efficient.  Her examples tend to revolve around teaching literature, but similar ideas in science might be that if you want students to learn about writing hypotheses, you don’t need to perform an experiment.  If you want students to write a longer lab report, you can do that by incorporating it into a lesson you might do anyway (although, I suspect many science classrooms already do that one).

You don’t have to meet just one goal each lesson, you can incorporate multiple goals into a larger unit study.  You can have a lot of layering and depth in units that help build a deeper understanding of ideas, rather than breaking ideas apart into smaller lessons.

Never Work Harder Than Your Students

I’ll leave the punchline to Dr. Jackson, but this is where she wraps things up.  In the classroom, students need to be involved in their own learning which means that there is a real division of labor in the classroom.  There is work meant for the teacher, and work meant for the student.  When a student is asked to do things a teacher should be doing, or when a teacher is doing the work of a student, it harms the classroom dynamic and learning suffers. (p 179)

The take home message of this book?  Give students an active role in their learning and don’t do their work for them.

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