Risky Business

My experience in education hasn’t been long, being that I’ll enter my 6th year in August, but it has been full of change and growth. The evolution I’ve gone through has been extensive, including philosophical changes, shifts in my mindset, and entirely new instructional practices. When I reflect on my growth, it’s exciting to see where I am now, but at times, startling to think about where I started. It’s hard to admit our setbacks and failures, and I can assure you I’ve had quite a few. But it’s in those low moments, those times of defeat, that we usually learn the most. And it’s important that we don’t let that deter us from continuing to evolve. Because the only way we can truly grow as educators is to be innovative and take risks.

It sounds so simple, but it’s not. At all. Taking risks is hard because it requires us to get uncomfortable. It necessitates our leaving behind some of our older, familiar practices or philosophies to try something new… something we’re unsure of, something different, and something that might not work. The most difficult part is entering into uncharted territory, blazing the trail ahead of us, with no roadmap and no guarantee for success.

Naturally, we shy away from that. The notion of failure is a powerful deterrent, especially when the cost involves such important stakeholders as our students’ learning, parents’ reactions, and administrators’ irritation. I have been hesitant or unwilling to take certain risks myself because of these potential drawbacks, and have avoided making some changes because of my own fear of failure. It’s tough work to get uncomfortable, made even tougher because our stakes are so high. Getting past this barrier requires us to go against our instincts of avoidance, develop our knowledge, and tread carefully into the unknown, often by ourselves. Each time I decide to move forward, to take the risk, it’s because I’ve stopped to consider one compelling question…

But what if it works?

This question helps me think through my reasoning, my why, for even considering the risk in the first place. It sheds light on the very foundation of my idea, helping me move past the uncertainty and fear of failure. That’s not to say the risk yields great reward, sometimes I flop anyway. But it helps me try the new thing, overcome my hesitation, and jump in. And even if it does go wrong, I still have a valuable learning experience and an opportunity for significant growth.

When I first began working toward creating a more personalized learning experience for my students, I was beyond nervous. I loved the idea of providing choice within my units of study, and allowing my students’ voices to be heard. I didn’t know how to get started for awhile, but had heard of the concept called self-pacing. Student self-pacing models allow kids to choose what they work on each day and how long they need to devote to their tasks of choice. The potential for differentiation within this structure was particularly attractive to me. That year, I had a group of students who were significantly unique in their need for support, and I was struggling to find ways to meet them where they were. So, hearing about this structure, I knew I’d like to try it, but was overcome with this fear of how it could go horribly wrong. What if I let them choose their pace and they had no idea how? What if they chose activities that were too easy or too difficult? What if they finished so quickly that I had nothing else for them to do? What if they were all doing different things at different times? How would I help them all then? What if I completely lost control of the classroom?

I struggled for awhile, arguing with myself that the risk was too great, they wouldn’t be able to handle it, and it certainly would not work. I considered adjusting multiple units so they would follow this self-pacing model, and ended up not doing it because I was afraid it would fail and didn’t want to ruin the unit. I could not get past the discomfort of the change, especially when it was my second year teaching the same subject in the same classroom with the same team. I was familiar, I had consistency, and that had never happened to me before. I didn’t want to give it up.

Finally, we came to our culture literature circle unit. I had learned about self-pacing in November, it was now March, and I’d been mulling it over in my head for every single unit. Every time, going through the laundry list of ‘what if’ questions that ultimately led me to sit back and stay comfortable. This time, as I ran through the questions in my head, the small, unsure question popped up… but what if it works?

I thought through how powerful, how useful it would be, for my students to work this way. I reflected on the group I had, how far they had come since the beginning of the school year. I did a little reading on self-pacing, how it increased student motivation. And I decided to go for it. We were going to do self-paced lit circles, and it was going to be great!

Except, it wasn’t great. Not even a little. The first week of the lit circle, I gave my students the list of tasks they needed to get done, the mini lessons I would teach if they needed it, and the lowdown on self-pacing. They could choose what they would work on, when they would do it, and take as long as they needed on each task. They had to check in with me at the end of the week to ensure they were working steadily, maintaining a pace that would enable them to finish the unit successfully before spring break.

Disastrous is the only way I can describe that first week. Kids were confused, unprepared, and as my fellow middle school teachers can attest, dreadful at managing their own time without support. My risk, one I had contemplated for months, had not paid off at all.

Before I decided to try the self-pacing model, I was consumed with the idea that my entire unit would be ruined if it didn’t work out. The kids would learn nothing, parents would be contacting me constantly, administrators would see my out of control classroom, and I would surely be fired.

None of that happened, thank goodness. By Tuesday, one day after attempting this new structure, I had devised a new method. Based on my students’ uncertainty and lack of planning ability, I knew I hadn’t prepared them well enough to pace themselves through a week, let alone an entire unit. So, I did what any teacher would do, and found a way to scaffold. I wasn’t encumbered by the fact that I had failed, which is one of the tricky aspects of risk-taking we forget about in the insecurity of before. Often, when it fails, we reflect on what happened and find a way to fix it. We do not dwell on the failure, because we cannot, our students are relying on us to show up, so we do. And so, learning from my failure, I created a week calendar that listed the tasks, mini lessons, and learning targets, and had a space for my students to write out their plan for each day. It provided some structure to the model, some scaffolding on organizational skills, while still maintaining the choice and student-centered approaches that boost intrinsic motivation.

I still use that calendar today. I’ve made adjustments to it based on student feedback, and have expanded it to units outside of lit circles. I’ve incorporated into writing units, research and public speaking units, and it makes an appearance almost immediately in September instead of waiting until spring. It’s adapted frequently, based on experience and student need, but it’s still used in my classroom, and has become a hallmark of my students’ learning experiences.

Had I not decided to take the risk, had I not considered what would happen if I was successful, I never would have found one of the most useful tools I provide my students. I would not have been inspired to try more components of personalized learning, and I would not have found the power that comes with including student voice and choice the way that I did. I may have discovered this later, I like to think that I would have, but I cannot be sure that I would have had the same mindset and philosophical shift.

The beauty of taking risks lies in the evolution that it inspires. It’s a hidden beauty, one that we can rarely see before we decide to embark. But when we ask ourselves that one question, we can get a little glimpse of what it might be.

4 thoughts on “Risky Business

  1. Thank you for sharing such a personal story that highlights the power of risk taking! Without risks we will be stuck in the past teaching our future. Great post! Hopefully it will inspire others.

    Liked by 1 person

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