No More Excuses: How to Avoid the “I’m not” Approach to Teaching

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photo credit: Not Responsible For Lost Or Stolen Articles via photopin (license)
photo credit: Not Responsible For Lost Or Stolen Articles via photopin (license)

“I’m not very tech-savvy.”
“I’m not a math person.”
“I’m not a reading specialist.”
“I’m not great with special needs kids.”
“I’m not a curriculum designer.”
“I’m not comfortable teaching that topic.”

I’ve heard all of these from professional educators in various places I’ve worked or visited. In most cases, these excuses are meant to lower expectations and communicate that the end product may not be perfect.

I understand this. In fact I’ve used some of these kinds of excuses myself at various times in my career.

When we’re asked to do something that is difficult or uncomfortable, we want to make sure that expectations for our performance aren’t too high. And in this culture of high-stakes and high-pressure accountability for teachers, it’s natural to want to let people know that there’s a reason for less-than-stellar outcomes.

This would be reasonable except for the unspoken appendix that’s usually implied in the statement: “I’m not a math person…and it’s going to stay that way.” This “I’m not. . .” approach creates a false perception of teaching.

Reframing perception

What is teaching?

It is not merely the transmission of knowledge. We don’t need teachers to transmit knowledge; written text serves this function well.

Teachers must respond to the dynamic learning process. We guide and enhance it. We need to know our students, their backgrounds, and the way they learn best. We need to actively design learning environments and experiences that ensure that learning will take place. We must take responsibility for the outcome.

In short, we need to be experts in learning. And I don’t believe it’s possible to be an expert in something you don’t do yourself.

So a significant responsibility of every educator is to be a professional learner. This means not only knowing what learning is and how the brain works, but also engaging in learning ourselves. We must experience it and model it.

And this begins by changing the language we use when we’re attempting something new. We must show our students and the community that we believe in a relentless pursuit of learning, and that learning is an ongoing process of growth. When you’re given a challenging assignment, instead of excusing it away, try this instead: “I’m still learning how to do this better, so I’d appreciate your support and help as we learn it together.”

How would things change in your world if instead of telling people what you’re not, you owned and proclaimed your responsibility for becoming a professional learner?

Let’s eliminate the “I’m not” approach. No more excuses.

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Gerald Aungst

Supervisor of Gifted and Elementary Math at School District of Cheltenham Township
Gerald Aungst has more than 20 years experience as a professional educator, specializing in digital technology, mathematics, and gifted education. In his various roles as a classroom teacher, gifted support specialist, administrator, curriculum designer, and professional developer, he has worked to create a rich and vibrant learning culture. He is also passionate about improving learning opportunities for all students. Gerald is a founder of and
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