On the Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers

Habits can be a help and a hindrance. In the context of teaching, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ can be summarised as follows: Good habits make effective teaching and learning practice more effortless; bad habits are those effortless actions that are a drain on effective teaching and learning practice.

However, what are we doing to form good habits, and break bad ones, both in ourselves and the communities we build in our classrooms? This Forbes’ piece here and James Clear’s thoughts here and here neatly summarise popular theories on habit formation. But, I’m interested in the types of habits we should seek to form. Inspired by Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, here’s my slightly more mundane, anecdotal Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers.

#1) Eat Lunch with Colleagues, Everyday. You need to eat. You also need to press pause, even if it’s only for ten minutes. More importantly, eating with your colleagues is a fundamental social ritual that unites and builds community. Read this Atlantic article for some more family-centric thoughts.

#2) Be Flexibly Inflexible. Rules are rules. Except when they’re a) not and b) they have nothing to do with student learning. A highly effective teacher knows that the most flexible part of the system controls that system (think “steering wheel” and “car”); you know when to bend and when to pushback.

#3) Think Lose-Win(ish). You will always lose. Always. You cannot win and the sooner you unburden yourself of the ceaseless pressure of striving to, then you can start winning-ish. As Dylan Wiliams said, “This job you are doing is so hard that one lifetime isn’t enough to master it.” What does he mean? Your job satisfaction derives from embracing continuous improvement, so, let imperfection be your catalyst for future success.

#3 ½ ): Never Stop (exception, see rule #1). This is the meta-rule, the one rule to rule them all. Highly effective teachers are much like (most) sharks: if you stop swimming, you’ll drown. You must always be updating your practice otherwise the knowledge, understanding and skills that you are uncovering for your students will become swiftly irrelevant before you even know it.

Need this visually? See here.The Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Slide 1 The Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Slide 2 The Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Slide 3 The Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Slide 4 The Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Slide 5

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On Catalysts and Imperfection

Perfectionism is one of those double-edged swords. My own perfectionism, I believe, has been a central driving force for my development as a teacher – a frequent quest to make what might already be ‘good enough’, better and better. My specific affliction has lead me to persevere, play with the big picture, dive into the details, sometimes over-think, often make things worse, but, on the whole, it has taught me a great deal through the tinkering trial and error that results. However, the downside throughout my career has always been the potential for paralysis, a desire to find perfection immediately, and, as a result, not starting something at all.

Why do I share this? Well, because there is a maxim (with an important caveat) that I’ve found helpful. I don’t know its origin, though a quick Google suggests that Harry S. Truman may have said something similar. Embarrassingly, it’s one of those things which you think you’ve stumbled upon yourself, but in fact is something that you picked up via cultural osmosis. It goes as follows (thanks Canva for the design tool):

Imperfect Action (1)

However, this is only half the story. I cannot unthinkingly embrace a ‘Cult of Failure’. By the way, on this point, Slate did a great piece pulling apart the decontextualisation of the following lines ‘repurposed’ from Beckett’s novella Worstward Ho:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Regardless of the abundant ironies in the infamously pessimistic Beckett being parroted in this way, people are right to identify the learning that goes on as being crucial; the failing is the easy part, not the aspect with which you necessarily need encouragement. It’s this that is the caveat to the earlier maxim. Imperfection can never be your goal. It must be a stepping stone to something greater, now accessible because the brakes are off. You must be ready to persevere, to seek feedback from peers, to monitor and evaluate, to reflect carefully on any unintended outcomes. I think, if I were to capture it in another gnomic utterance, it would be as follows:ONE big

This also neatly captures why I’m blogging. How about you?