A Few Thoughts on Classroom Narratives and Effective Teaching
How far is what you and your students believe about your teaching from what your teaching actually is?
I’m on sabbatical this year, so that means as of now, in March, I’ve been away from teaching for nearly nine months—the longest amount of time I haven’t been teaching since I started my career almost ten years ago.
Needless to say, I do miss my students, I miss my classroom, and I miss teaching. I certainly don’t miss them every day, (I have a book to write!), but I still miss them often. I still bookmark links to articles and videos that would be relevant for my classes, and I still have ideas pop into my head about lessons and activities to try, and discussion questions to ask.
So, with a little bit of distance and a lot more free time to think about teaching without having to actually teach, what have I been thinking about? Here are two questions that I’ve been pondering:
Are there teachers who use effective teaching methods, but may not believe they are effective, and whose students don’t believe they are effective?
Are there teachers who don’t use effective teaching methods, but believe they are effective, and whose students believe they are effective?
The answer to both these questions must be yes. Certainly, there must be teachers out there who do a good job from day to day and follow the best practices of the profession, but who, nevertheless, don’t have a lot of confidence in themselves and fail to gain the trust and confidence of their students. And, inversely, there must be teachers out there who objectively don’t follow best practices, but nonetheless believe very strongly in their teaching—a belief their students agree with.
For simplicity, I’ll refer to these two groups of teachers as “effective-but-doubted” and “ineffective-but-trusted.”
If the questions above have clear “yes” answers—that “effective-but-doubted” and “ineffective-but-trusted” teachers must exist—here are some more difficult follow-up questions:
How many teachers out there might fall into one group or the other?
Why might these two groups of teachers exist?
If you teach effectively, shouldn’t you feel confident in that effectiveness? And if you’re effective, shouldn’t your students realize it?
And, if you don’t teach in an effective way, wouldn’t you have negative experiences in the classroom that would undermine your confidence in your teaching? Wouldn’t your students have poor experiences that give them reason to doubt your abilities?
I also have to ask the following of myself:
Am I as effective a teacher as I believe I am?
Do my students believe in my effectiveness as a teacher more or less than they really should?
Now, I do realize when I ask these questions that it’s nearly impossible to talk about “effective teaching” and effective teachers as if they are concrete, easily-defined things. Teaching requires so many different types of skills and depends on so many different interactions between teachers and students, every teacher has to be effective and generally successful doing some things, and not-so-effective or successful at other things. It will always be difficult to define what it means to be effective, as so many choices teachers make have both benefits and drawbacks, affecting different students in different ways.
Still, I think it’s appropriate to ask these questions about teacher effectiveness because, ultimately, there have to be noticeable and meaningful differences between the skills and practices of different teachers. I mean, we’ve all had experiences with teachers we learned a lot from, and teachers we didn’t learn very much from, right? Or, maybe our personal experiences as students aren’t that useful to look back on. How knowledgeably or objectively were we able to understand how effective or ineffective our teachers were at their jobs? I know I was pretty judgmental toward my teachers when I was a student, but my perspective changed entirely once I started studing education and training for the job.
Personally, I do believe that students’ perceptions of their own learning and their perceptions of their teachers are quite important, even if those perceptions aren’t “objective.” Then again, I have to wonder—are there teachers who are better at convincing students they are learning important lessons than they are at actually teaching students important lessons?
I think one of the keys to exploring these questions more deeply is the concept of the “narrative self.” It seems impossible to perfectly understand who we really are as human beings, and so we tell stories about ourselves to help us understand ourselves. As a historian, I tend to focus on the past, and how narratives shape our understanding of the past. We can’t possibly remember, record, or interpret everything that happens to us throughout our lives, so we take what we think is important, interpret it however we think makes sense, (or perhaps however we want it to make sense), and we fit our past experiences into a narrative about our lives.
In this article, a philosopher questions whether all people really do have such a thing as a “narrative self,” and whether a narrative self is really a positive thing to have. I tend to believe that everyone has a narrative self to at least some extent, and that it can be both good and bad.
When it comes to teachers, the meaning our profession holds for us and our beliefs about our professional abilities can be a big part of our narrative selves. Not only that, there are also classroom narratives that we create—stories about what happens in our classes that we and our students may or may not buy into. I haven’t heard many teachers talk about classroom narratives, but it makes sense that we tell stories about how we teach and what our students do. This article explains in practical terms how to share information with familes and empower students to share about what’s going on in school in order to create a positive classroom narrative. In this article, a teacher explains how he went so far as to create a fictional narrative about a future dystopia that his students then role-played through to enhance their learning throughout the year.
Now, I’m not saying that teachers see themselves as heroes in stories they tell about what they do during each school year, nor would most teachers think to create elaborate fictional narratives in which their students can identify themselves as heroes. Still, the answer to one of my original questions—why “effective-but-doubted” and “ineffective-but-trusted” teachers exist—may have a lot to do with classroom narratives.
I believe there are teachers in schools around the world who work hard, do great things, and make a real impact on their students—but they’re not sure of their own teaching, and their students don’t believe they’re learning much. In many cases, this must be because the teacher may not have a strong narrative self and may not have developed a classroom narrative that students find appealing or understandable. If a teacher and their students aren’t able to explain what they’re doing and why it matters, then everything else in the classroom may suffer, even if there’s still learning going on.
On the other end of the spectrum, I do think there are teachers whose narrative selves are too strong. Some educators may believe so completely that how they teach is the correct way to teach that they’ll ignore all evidence to the contrary. They may confidently create a compelling classroom narrative that all or most students can buy into—that what they’re doing is perfect and they’re going to be successful!—but that narrative doesn’t create success by itself, and that hype can cover up poor teaching practices.
If our narrative selves and classroom narratives are so overwhelming that they keep us from self-reflection, or keep our students from questioning what they do in class, that’s a real problem. Educators need to be constantly evaluating what we do as professionals, looking for how we can improve. Our students should also be reflecting on how they're learning, and even questioning the methods we use to teach them.
Then again, I don’t think humans can survive—or, at least, last very long in a career—if they live in a constant, unrelenting state of self-doubt and self-criticism. We need to believe in ourselves! And it’s incredibly valuable to have people we work with—both colleagues and students—believe in us, too. Narratives can go a long way in building our confidence and creating a sense of purpose that those around us can buy into.
As for the questions I asked about my own teaching—whether I am really as effective a teacher as I believe I am, and whether my students might underestimate, overestimate, or correctly estimate my effectiveness—there might be just two simple answers:
- I’ll probably never really know.
- They’ll probably never really know.
As I mentioned before, I don’t think it’s truly possible—or, at least, not very likely—that students could fully and accurately assess how effective their teachers are. And, it’s hardly possible for a person to truly understand themselves, let alone objectively evaluate their own job performance.
Nevertheless, we all have to strive to find a healthy balance between questioning ourselves and believing in ourselves. If that self-belief is contagious, and contributes to a greater sense of purpose, that’s great!—as long as everyone stops occasionally to compare notes and stays honest about whether they’re on the right track.
That’s what I’ll aim to keep doing when I return to teaching this fall, and I’ll encourage my students and colleagues to do the same.
Please leave a comment below with your thoughts! Teachers—if you’re brave enough, you can share what you believe about your teaching abilities, and how that might compare with what your students think!