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Getting Answers: Seven Questions All Teachers Have

In life, we accept that some questions just don’t have clear answers. Why are we here? Do we have to pick one favorite food? And most important, why can’t I hold onto a pair of sunglasses for more than two days without either losing them or sitting on them? As an instructional specialist, I sometimes joke that my job is partly about fielding questions I do not know the answers to. In all seriousness, there is so much complexity and nuance in education that we cannot pretend to have all the solutions, but we can resolve some burning issues. Below are seven questions that pop up frequently in our line of work, as well as some possible ways to approach the answers.

Am I a good teacher?

No matter how many years of teaching I have under my belt (21 for anyone who is counting), this question always hovers in the back of my mind. In terms of how we determine the answer, another important question is: how do we define good teaching? Does our instruction meet the standard of that definition? Self-doubt is a natural human trait, particularly in a profession with a lot at stake, not to mention the investment of people who care so much about the effect our actions have on kids. As teachers, we hold a great deal of influence and if we understand that, our awareness makes us better at what we do. Still, it might be wise to make a list of attributes that define good teaching and see how many of them we hit. That will bring our attention to what we want to work on improving, put any deep-seated fears to rest, and alleviate any irrational concerns about our effectiveness.

When do I know it’s time to quit?

My grandfather used to say that as soon as we begin thinking about making a change, that means it is bound to happen sooner rather than later. If we are wondering about quitting, some serious thinking needs to happen about how we see our long-term commitment to education. However, it is also true that most teachers have at one time or another wondered if they might be ready to throw in the towel. To balance our perspective, it can be helpful to make an old-fashioned pro-con list. In one column, we write all the positive associations and benefits we get from teaching, and the con list addresses the negatives. However, deciding our fate is not about which column has more items listed; rather, it is about looking at the impact of each item in both columns and trying to figure out what we can live with, what we cannot live without, and how we want to move forward based on our feelings. Sometimes, the metaphorical weight of even one list item can tip the scales one way or another. This exercise is more about heightening our self-awareness and putting a name to some of the uncomfortable feelings we harbor about our professional endurance.

Will I ever be able to stop buying my own school supplies for kids?

Doubtful. Most of the country still does not realize that teachers often buy the lion’s share of supplies for students each year without any expectation of reimbursement or recognition. We also buy snacks for hungry kids, keep extra sweaters or coats in our classrooms for students who don’t have them, and purchase sanitizing supplies such as disinfectant wipes and cleaning sprays. It’s definitely not the way things should be, but reality can bite. The silver lining is that so many of us care deeply about our students, and though children might not say anything to us, they really do appreciate all the little things we do to make their days more pleasant and comfortable.

I forgot my lunch again. Should I eat that cookie in the break room?

Only if it’s a good cookie! From here on out, work out a system to pack food the night before. In all seriousness, we teachers have a habit of not taking care of ourselves. We skimp on sleep, nutrition, self-care, and even bathroom breaks. We will be a lot happier and healthier if we put ourselves a little higher on the priority list. A few items that are useful to have in our wellness journey are: a big lunchbox or portable cooler with a couple of ice packs, a large insulated travel mug, a comfortable pair of backup shoes, and a few layering pieces (think sweaters or shawls) for when the air conditioning or heating system goes belly-up. That way, we will have enough food, water and appropriate clothing to make the day a little more manageable.

How do I really know how my students are doing with their learning skills?

We recognize that formative assessments are helpful in telling us what kids know, but we must also be sure not to skip the step of pinpointing exactly what it is that we are looking for. Establishing what standards or skills we want to target is a crucial step in determining what our students need. Once we know what to look for (often, patterns will emerge in our classes), we can target our instruction to meet that need, and then create formative assessments that determine whether students have met very specific goals. After all, I do not want to give students an exit ticket that asks them to do something they are already proficient at; I want to meet learning outcomes with more intention.

Is all this testing worth it?

It’s hard to say when systems vary so widely across the country, but the real answer is that some of it is, and some of it isn’t. Standardized tests have an extremely important use: to provide an external, quantitative measure that compares students to one another. Whether we believe the tests are worthy or not, simply seeing how different kids perform based upon what we already know about them gives us more information to work with. As long as we don’t overdo it and test everyone all the time, having some data is useful. Then, we can use other measures like student work samples and qualitative voice data to round out the picture of each student.

What is that smell?

Especially as we bridge into summer and the outside heat encroaches upon our indoor lives, the air can get a little mustier than usual. I always check the communal fridge and microwave first, and if that doesn’t yield results, it’s wise to spritz the air with a little Febreze and open a window. If any unpleasantness persists, we probably do not want to hunt for more nefarious things like mold, but we can drop a word in our supervisor’s ear that some exploring might be warranted. Hey, a lot of us work in old buildings, so anything that isn’t asbestos is a win!

Listen, nobody has all the answers, but that doesn’t mean we should not explore the solutions that help us to move forward. A lot of us have the same concerns, which means that the best possible solution is to aim for progress (and not perfection) with our colleagues. Some of our questions may never have answers, but there is value in discussing solutions rather than becoming accustomed to learned helplessness as we admire the problems. Just remember that no matter how many questions we have, we are doing good work for kids – and we are not alone.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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