I don't often dwell in regret. It's not a great feeling to hold onto and can easily transform and grow into something else entirely. This is not to say I don't make mistakes every single day- things that I would have done differently in hindsight. And these mistakes are usually easily addressed and simply make for a better future ahead. In those instances, the regret is short lived. I leave the situation feeling grateful to have learned from it. But there is one thing this year that has stayed with me... something that I think about often... something I wish I could go back and have a "do-over". Let me paint a picture for you.
It is imperative to note that the teacher in this scenario is of the utmost quality. This is a teacher that you hear students share about years down the road as one who cared about them and made an impact on them as a learner.
It's the end of the third nine weeks. Students have recently finished their nine-week benchmarks. As an instructional leader, I have decided to meet with teachers to take a brief look at the data and see what their thoughts are instructionally for the nine weeks ahead as I work to support them. I walk into the classroom to visit with the next teacher on my schedule and notice there are a few students in the classroom. These students are working to finish some assignments before heading off to the next part of their schedule. I offer to come back another time, but the teacher (that I adore), so graciously invites me to stay and visit with her at the back of the room while the students work.
Small Regret #1: Instead of insisting on coming back another time, I accept her invitation to stay. Not a big deal, easily fixable in the future.
We move to the back of the room to a table in the corner. As per usual, I ask, "So what's on your mind in regard to the nine-weeks assessment?" We visit about what went well for students, what skills may need to be retaught, and what commonalities we notice in the data based on standards. (Seems harmless, right? No foreseeable regrets, right?) Looking at the data is not a problem. But we all know that behind each set of data is the face of a child- a child that the teacher so adamantly wants to support as a learner. And so naturally, the teacher begins sharing about specific individuals.
Not So Small Regret #2: Instead of pausing the conversation until there were no students in the room, I allow the conversation to continue.
The teacher shares about some students that surprised her, both positively and negatively. The few students completing assignments in the classroom continue on, seemingly uninterrupted by us... seemingly unaware of our conversation that's becoming more personal... seemingly uncaring of the data we're discussing. And then one of those students and his data, specifically, becomes the topic of conversation.
Bigger Regret #3: Yet again, instead of pausing the conversation, I let it go on.
The student seems oblivious to our talk of him. The teacher continues, we wrap up our conversation and consider next steps for her instruction in the weeks to come. I move on to another classroom.
[Fast forward one week...]
I'm heading to the cafeteria to visit with a colleague on lunch duty. Students from this teacher's class are lining up as they have finished lunch. The aforementioned student, the one whose data became part of the conversation while he was in the classroom working, is at the front of the line. I nonchalantly ask him how things are going and we engage in easy small talk. I ask if he was able to finish the assignments he was working on in said teacher's classroom a few days back. He simply says "Yes", and then he pauses for a moment, clearly contemplating what he wants to say next... and this is the replay of that conversation that has stuck with me so closely that I couldn't even begin to pry it off with the jaws of life:
Student: I heard what (teacher) said about me the other day.
Me: What do you mean?
Student: I heard what they said about me having potential to pass this year, but not potential for middle school.... I don't know how to feel about that? (concerned look on face)
Me: Tell me more...
Student: Yeah, I don't know how to feel about what they said.
Me: Well, tell me about what you're thinking. How do you think you feel?
(Student notices teacher walking down the hall to get the class from lunch.)
Student: Uhmm, ya know... uhmm, nevermind. Nevermind...
The biggest regret of all... The one thing I regret most: I didn't address it with the teacher. I didn't go back to further visit with the student. And time went on as though the moment had never existed... But it did, and it still does. It exists in my mind and in my heart. And what's worse, what I regret most, is that this moment exists for that student.
I share this story and paint this scene not to simply confess my regrets to the world. Rather, I hope that my attempt at being so completely vulnerable leads to better practices ahead for myself and for anyone that has happened upon this post.
It's a moment that should not be forgotten and dismissed. This moment tells us as instructional leaders that students are always listening. And yet somehow, we believe that they are incognizant of our conversations, or that they are unable to discern meaning from our coded teacher language, or that they even care about what we are saying. Perhaps the opposite of that is also true. Perhaps some educators believe that our students should be hearing what we are saying, even those negative comments, in an attempt to spur motivation in them to work toward "success" (which we know is not an effective approach).
Regardless, it is our duty as instructional leaders to provide adequate professional learning that addresses these kinds of situations- professional learning that not only focuses on instructional practices, but that which focuses on supporting the whole child. Because the pure fact is the teacher in this situation is completely unaware of the effect she had in that moment on this child. This teacher didn't know any better... and that's completely my fault. What could have been a learning moment for the both of us simply turned into regret and an unchanged situation. I end by saying this: don't let this regret become your reality!! Support teacher understanding of how our nonchalant and perhaps unconscious habits and behaviors must be monitored so that we are instead creatures of intentional and positive habits that support ultimate student growth.
Learn more about how our language affects children's learning with this fantastic book by Peter Johnston (linked in the picture).
The winner of this free book will be announced on May 10th, 2021!
I recently read Cal Newport’s best-selling book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016). In this book, Newport describes Deep Work as the ability to concentrate on important work without distractions. He suggests that the results of such work benefit producers in a way that provides a competitive edge and a deep sense of pride. Implementing deep work requires individuals to develop habits of motivation, dedication, and concentration. While it is not a book specifically related to educational practices in the classroom, it definitely has its place in the educational world. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it would highly benefit all teaching practitioners, regardless of one’s level of expertise, as a required professional development text.
When we use the phrase “deep work” in schools, it can be misconstrued as simply studying or memorizing boring content. Instead, the process of doing deep work, while likely difficult at first, should prove fulfilling, even for children. Unfortunately, we are, as a people, mostly accustomed to a shallow mode of working, from creating a grocery list to completing a detailed project. It’s easy to see how creating a grocery list is shallow work- it takes little effort and mental capacity to create a grocery list. In fact, I could easily create a grocery list while surfing the internet, talking to my kids, and listening to music all at the same time. Sadly, this is often how we go about completing tasks that require greater mental stamina, patience, and time, such as completing a detailed project. We live in a world where distraction is frequent and almost welcomed. We think we are training ourselves to become highly intelligent and collaborative individuals, but maybe instead we are curating a life of mediocre learning and quasi-amazing productivity. What we fail to realize is that deep work is highly valuable in an economy where “low brow attention” is ever increasing (Newport, 2016, p. 211). If this is the case, then why aren’t we teaching students how to work deeply? In this blog, we’ll take a look at six ways deep work, as described by Cal Newport, is directly related and beneficial to the work of educators and their students:
1. Deep work is rare.
Deep work is rare in the educational setting and even more rare in the working world. As previously mentioned, we are a people accustomed to shallow work. But the great intellects of this world are people that have employed deep work habits. Theodore Roosevelt, J.K. Rowling, Peter Shankman are among the many examples Newport describes in his book. This is still only a handful of individuals in our massive population. It is also true that, when we take a look across our schools, only a handful stand out as students that will thrive in the present and future. Perhaps only a few are naturally gifted as intellectuals. But couldn’t it also be true that students are continually missing opportunities to learn how to do deep work? What if educators were to spend more time teaching deep work strategies versus pure content? We would most likely notice more than just a measly handful of students learning at an elite speed and producing high quality work.
2. Deep Work Increases Productivity.
Great workers “think like artists and act like accountants”, says David Brooks (2014) in a New York Times article “The Good Order”. What a great quote to help us wrap our brains around what deep work looks like in practice. Deep work, when implemented well, increases creativity (like an artist) and productivity (like an accountant). What more could we want from our students? What else will promote success in the working world as much as creativity and productivity? Let’s try this on for size: A teacher has instructed students to complete a book project. Whether the students are required to work collaboratively or independently makes no difference in this scenario. Each student has a list of the requirements for the project. The teacher lets loose and the students begin. The intention here could be extremely purposeful, and still, only a handful of students will work toward perfection exceeding all requirements. If, though, the students had been instructed on what it means, what it looks like, what it sounds like, and what it feels like to do deep work, not only would more attain quality products at an impressive speed, but those handful of gifted students would surpass even the highest expectations. We should be instructing students in a way that entices them to create their best product, not just finish a product. We should be providing instruction on, and time for, the process of deep work.
3. Deep work causes individuals to thrive.
When I consider the way in which many, dare I say most, educators instruct students, it’s no wonder that very few students who venture into the working world thrive. Instead of teaching students how to learn, educators are primarily focused on teaching content. To that point, and this might come as quite a blow, if you can’t learn, you can’t thrive. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, is an easy example of someone who has thrived due to the deep work habits she implemented when writing these best-selling, world-renowned books. But when I think more simply, my dad comes to mind. He is no J.K. Rowling, but he is a successful salesperson for a dental company. He has thrived as a salesman, and part of this is due to the deep work he put in over the years. I can recall the many mornings my dad sat in his home office studying manuals, figuring numbers, and taking notes. Imagine the number of students that would thrive if they learned HOW to learn. With deep work strategies on their side, students would be able to quickly master hard things and produce high quality products at an elite speed.
4. Deep work both takes and improves concentration.
Even while writing this article, I have picked up my phone to check the weather. The fact is, the weather doesn’t matter right now. It affects me in no way since I have no plans to do anything remotely related to the outdoors today. As Newport explains, at the slightest hint of boredom, we seek out distractors- a conversation with a friend, a wondering about an unrelated item, or a quick peek at our devices, which inevitably leads us down a rabbit hole. The youth of today are growing up with these distractions and then some. While today’s generation of children may be apt multi-taskers, the statistics of ADD and ADHD are on the rise . Unfortunately, I think educators are too easily coming to terms with this instead of considering our duty to teach students HOW to concentrate, or work deeply, in an age of constant interruptions and distractions. We often believe multi-tasking to be a great asset in the work world. But much more imperative is the skill of concentration. In fact, Newport suggests that breakthroughs occur only when one reaches maximum cognitive capacity. Imagine the greatness a student could achieve when he learns to push his brain to its limit. Habitually employing deep work can promote concentration.
5. Deep work creates a sensitivity to time.
I’m sure you can recall, or even have used, that familiar phrase, “I work best under pressure”. Now, I have to be clear here: I DO NOT mean that we should be formulating a climate of pressure and stress. More can be read about ‘working under pressure’ via Alfie Kohn’s blog. What I DO mean, though, is that when we are in a state of deep work, distractions are limited and we can place full focus on the task at hand. I am guilty of providing deadlines, due dates, and time frames for completion of work. However, if I have not provided strategies for implementing deep work, how can I expect students to be mindful of, dare I say even care about, due dates? Furthermore, how can I expect students to produce quality work within those timeframes? If we are fully invested in a task, without the demise of distractions, we are more likely to “produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed” (Newport, 331), promoting a sense of pride and accomplishment.
6. Deep work fosters authentic learning.
What I find most compelling about Newport’s ideas on deep work is that it promotes authentic learning. Since having completed the book and reflecting on my notes, I have found myself analyzing my own use of time and effort. I am not at all where I’d like to be as an employer of deep work strategies, but I am progressively working toward this by forming deep work habits. What pains me is to know that I have gone a lifetime only having modeled deep work a few times, and probably without even knowing it. But in only the short time I’ve considered my work through a lens of deep work, I have felt more creative, productive, time conscious, and intellectually stimulated. If we could teach students how to become a people that utilizes deep work strategies, we would be growing a population of learners that can out-produce, out-learn, and out-thrive their peers that are being held back by the lack of knowledge of HOW to learn and learn well.
What’s to come next…
The direct relation Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016), has to education is, I hope, evident. But what do we do with this information? How can we promote deep work strategies in students? Over the next several weeks, I’ll be collaborating with fellow educators to develop “Deep Work Strategies” that could possibly be taught in classrooms with the needs and abilities of our students in mind. Check back soon, and in the meantime share your ideas for deep work strategies in the comments below or on twitter with #deepworkstrategies!
Notes and References
Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing: New York, NY.
“[Great workers] think like artists and act like accountants”: from Brooks, David. “The Good Order.” New York Times, September 25, 2014, op-ed. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/26/opinion/david-brooks-routine-creativity-and-president-obamas-un-speech.html?_r=1
Bluth, R. (2018). The Washington Post: ADHD Numbers are Rising, and Scientists are Trying to Understand Why. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/adhd-numbers-are-rising-and-scientists-are-trying-to-understand-why/2018/09/07/a918d0f4-b07e-11e8-a20b-5f4f84429666_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c86218386f5a
Kohn, A. (2017). Do We Perform Better Under Pressure: Exploring Unexpected Complications and Hidden Value Judgments in a Common Question. Retrieved from https://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/pressure/
Take a Load Off!
Obviously it is time consuming to filter through student work to find what you think shows students strengths and areas needing improvement. It is even more time consuming to brainstorm and note all the things you plan to bring up at each conference. While you should still have a few ideas of important things you'd like to be addressed as a teacher, why not put some of this workload on the students? It is their work, their grades, and their behavior being discussed. Allowing students to lead their own conferences requires them to reflect on their grades and the work samples that reflect those grades. Chances are that the student will end up noticing and bringing up most, if not all, the significant points you had planned to discuss anyway. This eliminates the need for teachers to spend excessive amounts of time preparing for conferences that only last about 15 minutes each.
Hold Students Accountable
What better way to hold students accountable for their growth and success as learners than to put them in charge of their own conference? Last year was the first year I implemented Student-Led Conferences. Before trying it out, I had always led parent conferences on my own without the child present. The problem is that the child never really knew exactly what the parent and I discussed. Where is the accountability in that? The parent cannot be held solely responsible for the student's improvement. In addition, how are students to feel valued and respected as a learner if they cannot share about themselves in a reflective and honest way? After trying out this new method, I found that students took ownership of their learning, were more aware of their academic strengths and weaknesses, and became more thoughtful about their actions and attitudes in school.
Build Stronger Relationships
As aforementioned, students deserve the opportunity to feel valued and respected as learners in the classroom. Student-led conferences can bring about a level of maturity and responsibility that might not be noticed on a day to day basis.
How to Implement Student-Led Conferences
Leave your thoughts below!
Have you tried student-led conferences? Are there other things you've tried that you'd like to share? Let us know!
Welcome! I am Casey Watts- teacher, mentor, leader, mother, and wife aspiring to be much more!