Wednesday, August 24, 2016

What to do when everything is terrible

Salve! It’s the beginning of a new year, or almost the beginning, or was the beginning and now you’re getting into it a bit… regardless, if you’re new to CI, or new to teaching, or just trying one new thing… there’s a pretty solid chance you’re going to have some bad days. Hopefully you’ll also have some awesome days. But if you’re learning a new skill, like circling or PQA, the first few times are gonna be ROUGH.

In case you’re panicking, here are some steps.

Step 1: Stop, breathe, and look at these and watch this. Hopefully your heart rate has slowed a little bit.

Step 2: Talk about it. Go to Facebook, if you have one, and go tell TLA (the CI Latin teaching group I run) what happened. I categorized it as a “Support Group” for a reason. If you’re too shy, tell a friend instead. If you don’t feel like you can reach out to a friend, tell me. If I didn’t run across LTIE and find this community, I don’t know what I’d be doing now but it sure wouldn’t be the same.

Step 3: Forgive yourself for sucking. Here’s the deal: you’re trying something new. You’re going to suck at it. You’ve probably seen plenty of growth mindset posters and graphics intended for students, so I won’t bore you with those except to say: they’re not just for students.

Another concept I really like for this situation is the idea of the “Four stages of competence.” There’s a nice graphic on the Wikipedia page, but I like this one better.

I like it because I think the swearing frowny faces are accurate portrayals of how those stages feel. The thing is, maybe you’re in stage 2 right now, conscious incompetence, but if you give up, it’s not like you get to go back to unconscious incompetence. You decided to try CI for a reason. If you give up now, it’s not like you’ll forget that reason. You’ll still know you could be doing better. So why not push forward instead of trying to forget?

source: a great blog overall
Step 4: Give yourself some props for trying. Even though you suck right now, the very fact that you’re trying something new to become a better teacher makes you WONDERFUL.

There are a lot of teachers in the world. We all work hard. Some people give up; there’s a big problem with teacher retention. Some people get bitter and mean (see: my first year). Others get exhausted and stop caring so long as the kids are quiet (see: also my first year, and the end of last year...). A lot of people are scared to try new things, or worse, they’ll try them once and give up because “it didn’t work.” (see: guess.)

You’re going to be better than that. You’re already better than that, because you’re here, looking for help, instead of googling “alternative careers for Latin nerds.” (see: well actually I mostly went to SchoolSpring and looked for different teaching jobs in an easier district…)

Step 5: Debrief. Hopefully you’re starting to get responses from whoever you reached out to in step 2. On your own, though, ask: what did you try? What specifically went wrong? Was it that there was too much unknown vocabulary for your kids to track? Was it that you went as slow as you thought you needed to… but it wasn’t slow enough? Was it that the kids were nervous and confused? Was it that YOU were nervous and confused? Was your story just boring? Did you try to do too many new things at once?

Targeting the problem area is the first thing you have to do to improve it. Generally speaking, you do need to go slower, and you do need to make it simpler and use less vocabulary. Just… always. If things aren’t going well, try doing those. Gesture more, scaffold more, pause more, point more. The goal isn’t to find out what your kids know by catching them in ignorance; it’s to teach them something new. If that means you need to write “est - is” on the board again, so be it.

If you really can’t work it out, wait til tomorrow and ask your students. Admit that you’re trying something new and you need their help to improve. They’ll love this. Do you know how often teachers and adults in their lives admit mistakes and sincerely ask for THEIR help?! NEVER. Be the first one. You’ll blow their tiny minds.

Have them coach you: go slower, repeat that more, write that on the board, etc. If those sound like safety signals, it’s because they are. Safety net signals aren’t just for students. They’re scaffolding for you, to build your own skills at becoming a more comprehensible teacher.

It’s possible the problem was that they weren’t listening to you and were on their phones instead… put that thought away. You can’t fix them, so spending your emotional energy on blaming them will just make you angrier. You can only fix you. And if you get good at CI, you can pull most of those kids in. The others, you’ll need to chat with. I’m not there yet, btw. My classroom management is garbage and my CI skills aren’t great yet. I’ll get there, I hope. I have some good days, some awful days, and a LOT of mediocre days. All of us do. That’s life. My mantra last year was “A bad day with CI is better than a good day with a textbook.” which is a paraphrase of something Blaine Ray said about TPRS once, probably. Even if it doesn’t go super well, emphasizing meaning & providing a lot of understandable repetitions works WAY better than just having kids read a text once or twice.

Step 5.5: Narrow your focus. How many new things were you trying to juggle at once? Someone just asked on Facebook, but with the blanks filled in of course: “Perusing other posts about CI/TPRS, I keep seeing mention of ______. I know I've read somewhere about _____. Is this essential? Or is this something that can wait until down the road when ALL of it isn't so new to me anymore?”

The answer is this: everything can wait until down the road when all of it isn't so new to you anymore. Baby steps! Establish meaning, circle. You can do only that for vocab all year and get much better results than just sending the kids home with a list of words to memorize. Be compassionate to yourself as a learner and work at your own pace.

Step 6: Keep trying. Try ONE new skill for 3-5 minutes next class. That’s all. If you can’t make it work, debrief with the kids, talk to TLA or me or another Latin teacher buddy, and try again the next day. If you’ve got other stuff that’s worked for you in the past, keep doing that too. Only crazy people switch 100% of their teaching at the same time. Keith’s said good words about this. Start by switching like 10% (for me, that’d be 5 minutes of class) and move on from there.

Be this turtle.

You'll be okay.


  1. I love the idea of thinking of thinking in terms of minutes of time - I will try this new technique for 5 minutes. How freeing!

  2. Thank you for being awesome, Ellie! You are so encouraging and inspiring... and appreciated! :)