The “Aha-Moment / Frustration Cycle” in Teaching

apple blasting off like a space ship

One day, as a relatively new teacher, I finally figured everything out.

Cue clouds parting. Cue beam of light shining down upon me. Etc.

What did I figure out? It doesn’t matter. It was mostly wrong anyway.

It also wasn’t the last time I thought I’d finally figured everything out. 

For my first few years in the classroom, I followed an Aha-Moment / Frustration Cycle* that had about six predictable steps.

Step 1: Learn something that was definitely going to change the game in my classroom.

I’d go to a professional-development session that promised to make failure not an option, or read a book that offered [Insert Number] Ways to Guarantee Your Students Will [Insert Lofty Educational Goal]!!!!

Step 2: Get all pumped up. 

Aha! I would think. So, this is why my fourth graders aren’t understanding long division! This is how I can get my high school students to stop texting under their desks! All I have to do is . . .   

Step 3: Front-load many, many hours into overhauling some aspect of my classroom.

I’d design and print a new classroom currency. I’d make 29 copies of every page of my new timed-reading-prompt workbook. I’d map out a new procedure for group work and announce it to the class.

Step 4: Spread the word! 

Now that I’d made the Amazing Discovery that Changed Everything, it seemed selfish to keep it to myself. After all, just think about the impact it could have on other classrooms, other schools—the world! There was not a moment to waste in getting other people to begin at step one of this process!

If you’re wondering how untested ideas spread so enthusiastically, the timing of this step may provide a clue.

Step 5: Watch my plans fall apart. 

Sometimes this would happen right away: I’d explain the directions for the new classroom currency and the kids would stare at me, blank-faced. Or there would be technology glitches. Or students would have so many questions I couldn’t answer that I’d finally say, “Never mind. NEVER MIND! Just do things the way we did them before.” More often, however, these plans dribbled slowly into the good-intention abyss—the new folder system took too much willpower to keep up with, or the fifteen-minute beginning-of-class exercise kept dragging on until it ballooned to forty-three minutes, every day . . . until one day we just stopped doing it.

Step 6: Realize everything I thought I’d figured out was mostly wrong.

This step regularly left me disappointed and frustrated, not to mention mad that I’d wasted so much time. After all, step four was supposed to be the last step! That aha moment was meant to be the turning point that would lead to a happy ending.

Instead, here I was, still stuck in the middle of the story.

Every time you feel like you’ve figured everything out as a teacher, you’re mostly wrong. But mostly wrong isn’t the same thing as completely wrong. 

Most of your big, frantic aha moment–driven overhauls will still leave you with something you can use after they fade away. Maybe you can turn part of that new system into a classroom job that one of the kids can do. Or maybe you can dig out your favorite piece of that convoluted writing exercise and graft it onto one of your existing lesson plans.

Each time you go through the process above, you get one real, permanent step better.

Each time you read a book that claims to give you twelve foolproof strategies but really only has three usable tips. . . you get three usable tips. The path to becoming the teacher you hope to be is a long line of such first steps, with all of their accompanying stumbles

The time you spend trying to become a better teacher may not always pay off as quickly as you want it to.

But it is never wasted.

Foot note:

*If you want to read about a parallel phenomenon in education politics, check out Dana Goldstein’s excellent book, The Teacher Wars. Goldstein uses the term Hype / Disillusionment Cycle to describe the rise and fall of education philosophies in the wider culture. Her term inspired the title of this post—and my name for the version of this that happens inside individual teachers’ classrooms.

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