Discarding Outdated Teaching Myths
Replace antiquated advice with new norms that value your humanity.
Don’t smile until Christmas.
Never let them see you sweat!
Fake it ‘til you make it.
Advice to new and returning teachers about how to start the school year is as ancient as the Greek and Roman myths that start with Chaos and bring forth Zeus, Poseidon, and Athena. But these gods of lightning, storms, and war have little place in the 21st century classrooms. And many of these words of so-called wisdom are from a time when the culture valued a teacher-centered dominant force in the classroom.
But we know better now.
Now, we know that students learn best in an affirming environment that becomes rich with diversity, dialogue, and shared decision-making with students. Research shows that students become more engaged in their learning experiences when they can use their voice to cultivate their agency. This happens when they are given the opportunity to reflect and discover their opinions, share their perspectives with the people and structures in power, and when the system incorporates these new ideas to create change.
The major shifts that come from centering students — rather than centering teachers — change how we structure our classroom spaces and how we show up in that space together.
Teachers are culture creators and everything we do, especially at the beginning of the year, sets the tone, the mood, and the rhythms that eventually become the core of our learning community. How we show up has a major influence on whether that space is helpful or harmful. If we choose to let go of the ancient myths, we can replace them with new norms that help us invest in our students and in ourselves.
"Don't smile until Christmas"
Old myths focus on behavior and compliance, rather than ways we can leverage learning. Yes, we need students to follow common school structures, but good behavior doesn’t mean increased learning or engagement. If we can move away from compliance and refocus our energy on creating a culture of learning, we’ll get something better than compliance: collaboration and engagement. But what does that look like?
In his book, The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle breaks down the concept of “belonging cues.” These are the small verbal and nonverbal ways we interact with people to signal to them that they either belong, or that they don’t belong. These cues are powerful in peer group dynamics, but they’re even more dramatic in power dynamics such as classroom spaces. When the teacher leads interactions with signals of belonging, it makes students feel like they’re in a welcoming and affirming environment, which lessens anxiety, increases openness, and clears a pathway for connection and learning.
There isn’t a magic list of belonging cues, but a few easy to implement strategies can include:
"Never let them see you sweat"
The idea that the teacher is the sage on the stage and the holder of all knowledge is impossible to uphold — and presents a false notion that knowing everything is something to strive for, much less something that’s possible.
When students buy into the myth that their teacher knows everything, they can feel insecure because they know how much seems unknown. This dynamic creates a sense of helplessness and sets up a fixed mindset that positions knowledge and intelligence as something that someone is born with, rather than something they work hard for.
We can disrupt this myth by being our authentic selves, and by talking with our students about what we know, and what we don’t know yet — especially if they’re posing questions that we don’t really have the answers to! When we encounter something that’s beyond our knowledge base or skill set, rather than pretending to be cool and never letting them see you sweat, we can be honest with our students that learning is a process that never ends, and the smartest people know how to learn.
Then we can engage together on the journey to answer the open questions, explore a new line of inquiry, or use our resources to check our understanding and accuracy. We can say things like:
"Fake it 'til you make it"
Imposter syndrome is a well-documented phenomenon that can become overwhelming to anyone who’s learning on the job. At the beginning of the school year, or when starting a new role, this syndrome can hit hard. In the past, the remedy for imposter syndrome has been the myth fake it til you make it! While it’s important not to let our fears and insecurities paralyze us from moving forward in our work, it’s counterintuitive to think that the antidote to feeling self-conscious about our skills is to go it alone and not talk to anyone.
Everyone needs a network of support, and not just when we’re struggling. We can curate our networks with mentors who’ve walked the road before us, peers who are able to walk alongside us, and even with folks who are novices compared to us. This might be a formal network that meets regularly, or an informal list of people you reach out to. It’s easy to fall into the fixed mindset that we’re either good or bad at our job, but this is false, and frankly, toxic. Teaching is an art, a craft, a science, and practice — it’s not magic.
No one has it all together and the best teachers are the ones who ask for help, learn from others, and pay it forward.
There is a time and place to tell tall tales from the age of yore. But as we push into the third decade of the 21st century, let’s be clear that some of these myths aren’t just outdated, they represent a harmful and dysfunctional way of working. They distort the truth about the challenges of teaching, and they can perpetuate feelings of isolation and fears of failure for teachers and students.
These new norms for starting the school year are about making an investment in the humanity, validity, and inherent worth of each person because we learn better — and we teach better — when we can be our whole selves.