Break Every Yoke

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 15 2013

The logarithmic learning curve of teaching

It’s often said that teaching has a steep learning curve. True, sort of. More precisely, teaching has a logarithmic learning curve—it’s steep at first but eventually flattens out. This has two implications:

  • At the start of teaching, each unit of effort yields a leap in incremental effectiveness. You find a graphic organizer online that helps students keep track of vocabulary, leading to a boost in mastery. You develop a unit planning template that cuts your prep time in half. You try narrating behavior for the first time since Institute and discover that it does, in fact, keep students compliant and on task. Teaching is a huge struggle, but at least you can see yourself improving every day.
  • As the learning curve plateaus, not only do you have to put in a greater amount of effort for the same amount of growth, but it has be the right type of effort. “More of the same” doesn’t cut it as a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) year teacher. You need to ask the proper questions, seek out the appropriate professional development, and tweak existing classroom systems rather than create new ones. There can be long stretches of time when you don’t feel like you’re improving at all, when classroom investment and learning stagnate, and you aren’t sure if it’s because you’re not trying hard enough or because you’re not trying the right things.

This is not a mere thought exercise. Halfway through my second year of teaching, I’m just beginning to realize how much additional work and reflection it will take to become a truly effective educator.

Like most teachers, I was absolutely awful at the beginning of my first year—but the improvements came rapidly. After a few months, I could consistently teach an entire lesson in one class period. By second semester, I could get through a whole day without having to move a student to a different seat or self-interrupt more than a couple times. Near the end of the year, I started to experiment with daily exit slip tracking, differentiation, inquiry-based learning, and a hundred other strategies I had heard about at certification seminars. (Though admittedly, I didn’t experiment very seriously—when you’re trying not to drown, you don’t worry too much about your breaststroke technique.)

This year, the challenge is not simply getting through the content but ensuring that every student has mastered the content. And this is where it’s critical to attend to the minutiae, to put in the right amount and the right type of effort, to dig up all the strategies hastily jotted down in the margins of a neglected certification binder. Often, ensuring student mastery boils down to maintaining the highest academic and behavioral expectations with fidelity, which is hard; only recently have I noticed my tendency to accept lower-quality responses from LEP students, decrease the rigor on difficult objectives, let minor rule infractions slide, not hold every group member accountable during collaborative learning, etc. Oh, and I’m still terrible at inquiry-based learning and differentiation. It’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s always just too much to learn, too much to do.

My blog entries usually end on a positive note. I’ve been fortunate that most of my difficulties in the past year and a half have resolved themselves quickly and neatly, sometimes even inspirationally. But when it comes to the quintessential challenge of this profession—becoming the excellent teacher that every single one of my students (especially the ones accustomed to failure) deserves—there’s no happy ending in sight. I’m on the plateau of the logarithmic learning curve of teaching, and it’s pretty frustrating.

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  1. Two years | Break Every Yoke linked to this post.

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