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Windows of Opportunity in Teaching

A friend and mentor contacted me. Now that we lived in nearby cities for the first time, would I like to get together? I would. We could not immediately find a mutual time so we resolved to try again the following week.

That week became a month. That month a year. The year another year. Eventually my friend moved to another state.

We will never have that meeting. Even if we find ourselves living close again we will not have that meeting, because we are no longer those same people.

That chance has passed. That window of opportunity is closed.

Some windows open so effortlessly that we assume they will open again. In each moment, each breath, such windows open. To notice them is essential to being able to choose or forgo them.

When you were last teaching, did you notice when that one student hesitated, as if to speak? Did she want something more from you then? Did she have a thought or question that sought voice?

Did you look past an opportunity to teach because you were too busy teaching to notice?

When we sense the moment but give our attention over to the many other things that clamor for it, thinking we can circle back later, we miss chances. Some do not come twice.

To see more, slow down. There is more time and opportunity in the moment in front of us than we credit.

First see the window. Then choose.


Learning by Repetition

Focused repetition, we are told, makes perfect. Whatever it is you seek to do well, rehearse it again and again until you have it right. Like so many practices in education, this one is so widely accepted that we never question it.

We should.

The problem with large blocks of practice time is that we become accustomed to the work, and staying with the familiar is not how we humans learn most effectively.

How best to use practice time? Consider this completely different approach: Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight

Focus in Teaching

I sat in a cafe and watched as a father and two girls perhaps ten and eleven sat down and began to talk. One girl was wheelchair-bound but there was in her tone and words no sense of disability. The girls were clearly engaged; they smiled, they asked questions, they made eager observations.

It caught my attention. I wanted to understand what, if anything, the man was doing to create this situation, these enthusiastic children, these active students. Was it the the amount of attention he was giving them?

I watched until I was sure: it was the quality of his attention that was making this unusual tableau. When the girls spoke, he more than listened: he gave them a laser-like focus. A warm, high-quality positive regard.

Rarely do I see such attention in communication. Not between children and parents, not between students and teachers, and not between adults and adults.

The girls naturally followed his example, speaking and listening to each other with the same kind of attention. This man knew how to teach listening skills by demonstrating them.

The take-away: the time a teacher spends teaching is far less important than the teacher’s focus. Can you bring your student into a moment of positive regard? Show your student what they are doing right? Show them their best selves?

No matter how demanding and strict a teacher, no matter how detailed and critical a subject matter, there is time and space for this kind of focus.

My offered practice: take five minutes to give your student this kind of attention, this positive reflection of their abilities and skills. See what happens.

The Courtroom of Teaching

My companion has been retitred for about five years. Over a cup of tea I ask him about his work. His tone is soft, his choice of words thoughtful. When I respond he listens attentively. Kindness and gentleness, he tells me, are his primary tools for dealing with people.

This is not quite what I expect from a man who has been a successful trial lawyer for over 30 years.

I ask him, how can you be kind and gentle and still succeed in the courtroom?

“You know what happens when someone challenges you,” he says. “You defend, don’t you?”

I agree with this.

“So I don’t challenge. I treat people graciously and with respect.”

Does this work?

“If it’s not working, I change tactics and do something else. I know how to fight and challenge, but most of the time that’s not the most effective way to persuade people.”

He offers some examples of trials he’s won, how he gained essential details and admissions from opposition witnesseses by treating them courteously and not, in his words, by beating them up.

This is a practical man. It is not an ideal that compells him to act this way. He does it because it works, because when he is kind and gentle people respond to him in useful ways.

“My approach to people will naturally determine their response. So I start by asking them to tell me what they know and what they think. Then I listen.”

One of the teacher’s hardest jobs is to teach past defenses. To persuade. I recall times when my students judged my teaching, deciding what to accept and what to reject. Deciding as I spoke what was true and what was false.

He gives me a warm smile. “It’s pretty simple: People who feel well-treated put up fewer barriers.”

When the Student Graduates Themselves

In a perfect world the teacher sees the ending of the teaching on the horizon and gently prepares both themselves and the student for this transition, ideally before it is perfectly clear to all that the work has reached its most useful conclusion.

But such clarity in teachers is rare. Teachers are human; we go forward on momentum, we feel attachment to both students and circumstances. And we almost always believe we have more to teach.

Having more to teach, however, is not the same thing as the teaching itself continuing to be in the student’s best interest. To know when the teaching is best ended, to help the student move away gracefully, is a tricky business that few teachers get right.

So sometimes it is the student who decides that the teaching is done and takes action to end it. A student insightful enough to see this, to graduate themselves, has a special challenge: how to honor the teaching while ending it?

This advice is for the student: however insightful and strong you believe your teacher is, know that the bond of a deep teaching goes both ways and your teacher can also be deeply affected by such an ending.

If you can, be thoughtful. Be kind. Now is the time to take the best parts of what you have gained from this teacher, the positive shifts and the wisdom, and apply all that to a gracious and respectful ending.

Students and teachers both: How you end a teaching is important; it follows you into the future. Build your endings with integrity.

Teacher Titles

Teachers, what do your students call you?


I have been considering how teachers are addressed, formally and informally, and what this means in public schools, academia, martial arts dojos, one-on-one instruction, mentoring — everywhere that teachers teach.

What is the purpose of a title in a teaching relationship? Is it about respect? Tradition? Consistency? Appropriate distance? Power? Money? Ego?

In any teaching, classroom or one-on-one, university or dojo, children or adults, paid or unpaid, a teacher’s title must serve the teaching or it is worthless. As teachers we must examine the forms of address we use in our work — whether they are ones the student offers or ones we assume or require — and seek to understand what, exactly, these forms of address accomplish.

Simply put: if there is no reason for a title, no purpose that clearly serves the student’s learning, we must reevaluate the practice.

Lack of title does not excuse us from this examination. If we teach without a title, without any form of respectful address, what does this accomplish? How does this serve the student’s needs?

In many traditions the teacher has no option but to use a specified title. So be it. But when a teacher has the choice the teacher also has the obligation to decide what is most useful for the work they are doing. It is part of the teachers work to understand these issues and examine the advantages and disadvantages of any given choice.

And to re-examine. Sands shift, situations change, cultures evolve. Take a fresh look.

What do your students call you? What does this do for your teaching? How does it serve your students?

Creating Equals in Teaching

I almost never encounter a teacher whose clear purpose is to create equals. Even among those who proclaim this goal I find both subtle and obvious methods of status-building, insight hoarding, and dominance positioning. I am not implying intent; I doubt most teachers are aware of their practices.

Why is it important to create equals? Because if what you are teaching is truly valuable, without equals you are the only source, limiting the spread of your subject practice and knowledge. Create others as strong and full of agency as you are and they will take your work forward. Perhaps even bring back variations and innovations. Your work may outlive you.

Then why avoid creating equals? Because it may jeopardize your unique teaching value. What will you do if others equally capable of offering your teaching arise around you? When it comes to compensation teaching is often a meager business. How will you live? Where will you find purpose?

These are good questions.

When I meet the rare teacher who does work to create equals I study them attentively. How have they come to this approach? What is their method for creating students who can match or exceed them? How do they manage the risk of becoming obsolete? How do they define their purpose so that it includes creating powerful equals?

Some do not teach for money. Others already teach for such meager pay that they have learned to do without. Still others create equals but only in limited areas, continuing to be indispensable.

And some have discovered that most students do not want to be equals after all.

My offered practice: Imagine you are determined to make of one of your students your better in all the essentials of your teaching. What would you need alter in yourself to accomplish this? What would your student need to change? Can you move yourself and them in this direction?

Teaching to Impress

The teacher’s job is to bridge the gap and to bring students along, not to substitue a display of ability for teaching. A student who is awed by competence and confidence may overlook the fact that they do not actually learn.

What a shame that students are not more discriminating. If they were, teachers might teach better.

Do we expect that after attending a symphony or ballet we can then perform with similar skill simply by having been there? Certainly not. An ornate mathematical proof scrawled across a board or a dazzling pattern of punches and sweeps may demonstrate expertise, but this is not teaching. It is performance.

I see many teachers do this. Whether the teacher is showing off out of ignorance or egoic hunger is irrelevant; it is a failed teaching. The resourceful student may learn something nonetheless, but the resourceful student can learn from a rock.

There is a time and method to offering a challenge beyond the student’s ability, to show what is possible, to give insight into the subject, to encourage a new level of pursuit. The difference hinges on the teacher’s attention to and work with the student’s vector of learning.

It is a tragic waste of human time and attention when the person at the front of the classroom does not understand the difference between teaching and self-aggrandizement and cannot tell a collection of students from an audience.

Academically Approved Risk-taking

In this post about failure, Karl Fisch, Director of Technology at Arapahoe High School, tells us and his students not to fear failure, to take more risks.

A worthy sentiment but a mixed message coming from an educator who employes grades and standardized tests to enforce acceptable behavior. Perhaps what he means is to take small, safe risks, the kind that might lead to small, safe failures.

Safe risks are not real risks. Taking a real risk means pushing the edge of what is possible and what is expected. It often means breaking rules. How exactly are we teaching our children to do this in a system that demands compliance and obedience?

I doubt Mr. Fisch is teaching his children to take such risks. I suspect they are only allowed to push the boundaries within careful, tight parameters. The failures he suggests they should not fear are not truly open to them to risk.

If we do not practice taking risks in school, we do not practice taking them after school, either.

My offered practice: as you teach consider what risks your students are allowed and encouraged to take in their learning and what failures are possible for them to risk.

The Defensive Student

From time to time I come across a student who is touchy and reacts to teaching suggestions defensively, easily hearing criticism.

There are many reasons a student might react this way. Perhaps they feel judged. Perhaps they are afraid they cannot learn the material. Perhaps they are having a bad day. Perhaps they have a poor teacher.

Whatever the cause, this student has a stake in the appearance of their existing knowledge, something to prove. This can leave little room in the cup for more.

When I was a younger teacher, I thought it my responsibility to impress upon such students their lack of understanding, or at very least to force them to see that their ego was getting in the way. The more resistant the student, the more force I used.

In time I came to see that my motives were another sort of full cup; I also was defended and had something to prove. As my perspective began to shift, I began to ask, how best to teach this student? What does this one need?

Such a student needs a cup with more room in it. Perhaps this means helping them to empty their existing cup. Or it may mean a bigger cup. Or an additional cup.

In Reframing Challenge, I explore the resistance a student may feel to deep teaching. I mention an inspiring teacher who uses other approaches to these challenges, including gentleness, humor, warmth, and surprise, creating new perspectives. Making room in the cup.

A resistant, testy student is guarding. What are they guarding? What aspect of their self-image do they perceive this teaching is threatening?

Excellence in teaching means noticing the walls your student erects and knowing how to teach around them. Overpowering such resistance is usually wasted effort that at best teaches the student that force is one of their teacher’s skills.

Find ways to make room in the cup. Teach around the wall.

Sometimes the wall itself is the lesson. Find out if the student truly wants the understanding that lies beyond the wall. If so, start there: teach your student how to reconstruct the wall, how to see past it. Help them build ownership of their protections so that they may, when they wish, reform the walls to better suit their needs.