6 Steps to Getting out of a Teaching Rut

What is a teaching rut?  I’m sure that people use the phrase in different ways, but in this instance I am using it in reference to a teacher who is stuck doing things the same way over and over. The more we do them that way, the more likely we are to keep doing them, and the less likely we are to consider other options. In that sense, ruts are a type of teaching habit.

With this definition in mind, it seems wise to acknowledge that ruts can be helpful or harmful.  There are many positive habits that one wants to cultivate as a teacher.  At the same time, ruts can be harmful when they prevent us from adapting to change, taking advantage of new and potentially beneficial alternatives, or being willing to consider different approaches and perspectives.

How do we get into ruts? It occurs for any number of reasons.

  1. We find ourselves falling back on how we were taught.
  2. We lean toward methods and approaches that resonate with what we enjoy or how we find success as learners.
  3. We are overwhelmed with life in and/or out of work, and we gravitate toward what is readily available or what requires the least time or emotional investment.
  4. We stay so busy that we are unable to find the time to consider other options.
  5. We convince ourselves that our way is the best (or at least not inferior) to alternatives. We might hide behind the claim that “nothing is new under the sun.” The problem with using that quote to justify our ruts is that it only works if we claim that we already know everything that is “under the sun.”
  6. We do what is easy and manageable.
  7. We feel restrained by policies, procedures, the number of students, the behavior or background of students, and/or internal and external mandates.

How to do we get out of these teaching ruts? I am sure that there are many ways to do so, but I offer these six as discussion starters.

1. Choose to become curious.

Ask questions about what is happening in our teaching and in the lives of our students.  What is working well?  What is not working well? How are students doing in terms of performance, attitudes, and motivation?  Which students are prospering and which ones are struggling? What is the difference between those two groups?  What are others doing to address these types of challenges? A good question can spark curiosity. Once we are curious, then we can find the motivation to learn about our options.  That brings us to the second part.

2. Get informed about new possibilities.

If we don’t know possibilities, then there is a good chance that they will not impact the way that we teach, just as a carpenter who had never heard of an electric saw would not be able to consider the benefits of such a tool for a given task. This means reading, visiting other places, taking advantage of the massive repository of teaching and learning videos that give “real world” examples of other possibilities in action.  We can talk to others and ask them about what they do.  There are hundreds of ways to get informed, but at this point, the important part is to know more about the possibilities.  This step informs most of my own work and research.  I look at something like the letter grade system and and I ask, “Is everyone using these or are there alternatives?” Or, I might ask, “How did people learn before that system was in place?”  Then I start reading, talking, and learning about the alternatives.  We are not adopting the alternatives necessarily, just learning about the possibilities. Even if we stop here, we will find that some of these ideas will pop into our head as we go about our work, giving us additional ways to think about a challenge, opportunity, or experience.

3. Gain experiences with these new possibilities.

Knowledge and insight helps, but they stay in the abstract until we get some first-hand experiences. If we want to learn about project-based learning, for example, why not do more than read about it?  Visit a PBL school, or take a course or attend a workshop that is taught using a PBL model. The same is true for things like blended learning, online learning, adaptive learning software, game-based learning, emerging educational technologies, 1:1 learning, or self-determined learning environments. Reading about it helps, but experience brings it to life, and ignites our imaginations. This experience, while not necessarily critical, is extremely valuable in developing a deep enough understanding that can inform our own practice.

4. Reflect on these experiences.

This can be in a personal journal and/or by discussing it with colleagues and family members. The important part is that we are reflecting on the experience, considering benefits and limitations, thinking about when/how/if it might inform past, present and future situations in our own practice.  This is an important step in internalizing the possibility, avoiding blind rejection or acceptance of it, and making it our own.

5. Experiment with these new possibilities.

At some point, we want to try it out, at least on trial basis.  We can test it with a group of learners.  We might even tell them that we learned about this new possibility and we are wondering if they would be up for experimenting with it and giving some feedback about it.

6. Experiment and explore more.

In many ways, teaching is a craft, one that we hone with practice and feedback.  It is not wise to assume that things will go perfectly the first time around. Many people tell me that they don’t “like” or “believe in” a certain teaching and learning possibility. When I ask why, they often support their position with a bad experience.  The problem is that it is usually just one experience (at the most, a few), and there are any number of variables that contribute to the effectiveness of a learning experience.  Just because it was not a great experience in one instances does not mean that it would not be worth further exploration.  What if everyone quit playing piano after their first lesson because the music didn’t sound good?  Do basketball players quite playing basketball because they take a dozen shots and only a few go in the basket? Or, what if we judged juggling to be bad, impossible or unreasonable because we once tried to juggle six balls and we dropped all the balls? Juggling multiple balls might seems impossible until we see someone else do it well. But how long did it take them to get that good? It likely took more than a few tries.  Learning about new teaching and learning possibilities is similar.  Give it time, experiment, learn more, observe more, practice, get feedback, practice more, talk and reflect more.  In the end, what is likely to happen is that we walk away with new insights, new skills, and an awareness of new possibilities. All of the sudden we discover that we are trying new things and we are no longer stuck in that rut.

Posted in education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).