Garage sale teaching practices

Ditching Teaching Practices That Don't Work

Nov 02, 2022

Listen to The Epic Classroom Podcast episode about this topic here.

We had a garage sale at my house recently because my wife said we “have too much junk.” But when I saw what she had out on the driveway for sale, I was shocked!

“Honey, this isn’t junk! You can’t sell this painting! We bought that in our first year of marriage!"

“We can’t sell the crib! Our babies lived in that thing!”

“Not my wakeboard! I got that in high school! I swear I'm going to pick it back up someday!”

But my wife, always the voice of reason, replied, “We bought that painting 10 years ago. It doesn’t match our style at all anymore. And the kids are in beds now; the crib takes up too much space. And what do you need a wakeboard for, we don’t even have a boat!”

I mean, she has a point. But I have an emotional connection with these things, even if I don’t need them anymore. It can be hard to move on and part with objects that used to serve a purpose for us, especially ones that have stories tied to them.

Garage Sale-ing Teaching Practices

This has me thinking about teaching and getting rid of practices and tools that need to be slapped with a 25-cent sticker and put out on the driveway. There are things in education that were useful for us at one point, or maybe was useful when we were kids, but might not be working anymore. For me, one of the major ones was the 45-minute lecture.

This was primarily how I was taught when I was a kid. Even though I usually hated sitting in those classes as the teacher droned on at the front of the room, this is what school was for me. From about 4th grade to my senior year of college, the teacher was the giver of knowledge, and I was mostly the receiver of it. And so I started off teaching by spending a lot of time giving lectures.

And to be honest, I’m pretty good at it. I love giving them. I have no problem talking for 45 minutes, especially when I’m interested in what I’m talking about. But I saw time and time again, no matter how much I enjoyed speaking to students and telling them stories and interesting information, after about 15 minutes kids would start to disengage. It’s nearly impossible to captivate students for long lectures, and so it becomes a waste of time. And there is ample research to prove that. So even though I had a history with and emotional connection to giving long lectures, I had to get rid of them at the garage sale.

Finding Better Alternatives to Ineffective Teaching Practices

This meant shortening direct instruction to make it more effective, learning they need to be concise and only reserved for certain material. But it also meant doing more collaboration and discussion-based learning, projects, more student-ownership, less Trevor/Teacher-ownership of the learning. And you know what? Students started learning and engaging more. By getting rid of an ineffective practice, I was creating space for ones that actually worked. Just like how the walls of my house now have more space for newer, fresher artwork.

I want to challenge you to think about what in your teaching practice needs a garage sale. Maybe you’re grading too much because you’ve always been told to grade everything students submit, but it’s burning you out. You can’t deal with the piles of papers on the weekend anymore, and you also have a sneaking suspicion that grading everything isn't actually helping anyone. And so maybe it’s time to garage sale that practice, and be more selective of what you grade.

Maybe there’s a lesson or activity that just isn’t working like it used to, and you’ve known this for a while now, and it’s time to retire it.

Maybe you’ve set your room up a certain way for a long time, and the arrangement is creating problems, and it’s time to try something else.

Maybe you need to garage sale that pressure you put on yourself to be a perfect teacher, because that just isn’t working anymore and you need to put that energy into more useful areas.

Creating Space For Better Teaching Practices

I think as educators, we’re so often given new ideas and strategies to get better at what we do, but we don’t have space for them. There’s got to be room to grow, and sometimes that means making room by discarding practices that aren’t working like they use to, or never worked and you are finally realizing that.

So here's a litmus test to determine whether something needs to go to the curb or not:

1. Does this teaching practice enhance student-learning?

This is the foundational question. The primary purpose of school is for students to learn. They're here to learn important subject matter, social skills, work ethic, confidence- and so our teaching practices should be centered on that. If you're hearing that whisper in your ear that something you do or use has run its course, first ask what it is doing for student learning.

Does that shiny ed tech actually help students learn math more, or is more time being spent figuring out how to use it? 

Do students need to read that same novel you've been teaching for twenty years, especially when you know fresher books that students might actually be excited to read can teach the same themes and concepts? 

2. Do I have capacity for this teaching practice anymore?

For several years I had my students interview actual World War 2 veterans and create documentaries and artwork based on the veterans' lives. At the end of the project, we held a huge event at a public theater and invited the whole community to watch the student-films. It was glorious and usually the highlight of my teaching year. But one year when I was about to start that project, my wife gave birth to my daughter. Suddenly I couldn't muster the energy to lead this massive school event while rocking a baby half the night. 

And so I canceled it. My students still interviewed veterans, but instead of holding an event, we wrote their stories and mailed them to the vets and their families. Because even though this wasn't as grand as the other project, I had capacity for this one. It's too easy for teachers to overcommit and over-extenuate themselves in the name of student learning, only to run so low on energy that they are unable to do their work well.

Not only does this cause the joy for teaching to wane, but also the learning experience for students. Sometimes teachers even have to take some of the things they love to the garage sale. Not because they don't have value anymore, as I will always treasure the memories of the WW2 Veteran Event, but because we have to create space.


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