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The Power of I Don’t Know

As a teacher, it feels like I am often expected to have all of the answers. To everything. In every aspect of my life. I misspelled recently something and the response I got from someone was, “But you’re an English teacher!”

Yes. I am. But my name is not Merriam Webster.

This expectation certainly extends to the classroom, but I try to quash that as soon as I can, with a story if possible. I regularly tell my students that I always have the answers to the handout I’ve given them right in front of me. One of my favorite stories comes from my first year of teaching.

I was trying to make a point to a class of high school students. (No idea what the point was, not a part of the story.) I wrote on the board: 120 ÷ 30 =. (I actually did it with the Long Division Symbol used in English speaking countries.) Then I stood there and stared at it. I had no idea how I would even begin to proceed to solve that problem.

In class, I turn to them and say, “Before you say it, I know the answer is 4. However, that convinced me that I am not good at standing up here and thinking.” Yes, that’s a bit of an overstatement, but I think that sort of slightly self-deprecating humor works with this audience.

There are colleagues I’ve worked who seemed to think that the place of power in their classroom depends on them having all the answers. They were the one who was always right. They were the last word.

My research into Generation Z tells me that they appreciate authenticity. And me being not perfect and telling them that I don’t have all of the answers is part of me being coming from a place of authenticity. If you have all the answers, that is probably your place of authenticity.

(However, I will warn you that if they find out that you don’t have all of the answers, you’re sunk.

Not having all the answers, telling them that I don’t know something, also gives me the opportunity to ask questions. I’ve asked about YouTube personalities, pop stars, catch phrases, TV shows, festivals and other topics that are not part of my life experience. I’ve gotten students to open up about school-specific topics, things they like about what they are studying, things they don’t, teachers who they find tedious or difficult. (This is a touchy subject and I generally ask about behaviors rather than specific colleagues. And I’ll always steer it back to the behaviors once the teacher’s identity has been revealed. Also, I would never tell a colleague what student said. That is not my pot to stir.)

Telling students that I don’t know something has been one way to open a door to dialogue, which is part of having a good relationship with my students. I’m still the one in control of the classroom. I’m still the one in charge, but they get to be the expert for a bit, and it seems to work.



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Getting Honest Feedback from a Peer

When I was doing my teacher training, I was assigned to watch two colleagues (of my choice) teach a class and then have two colleagues watch me teach a class. It was extremely informative to watch – and to be watched.

After being watched, I sat with each of my colleagues, and they gave me feedback. I like feedback. Even though sitting through one class is just a snapshot (so many things can accidentally go wrong OR accidentally go right during one class), I knew that what they saw in that class said something about how I generally was in class. It was indicative of how I regularly reacted or acted during a class.

I had a manager who used to watch my classes periodically. He was fairly honest, in that way that Dutch people have with being honest and always made a point to give me an equal-ish number of ‘Tips’ and ‘Tops’, which is a Dutch thing.

My Toastmasters experience (oh how I love to talk about Toastmasters!) has been instrumental in getting me used to giving and receiving feedback. I am so used to it that I’ve come to prefer honesty to not-quite-honesty. When someone tones down the feedback in order to spare my feelings (in any area of life), I feel cheated. I’d like to hear what it is that they think I am doing ‘wrong’ so I can decide whether I want to ‘fix’ it. Many times what I’ve decided to do is an actual choice.

I would love to have an ongoing relationship with a peer who would give me honest feedback on how I am in class. Of course I think I’m good, but it would be helpful to see if someone else thinks that. My classroom is my kingdom. I am the one who makes the rules, the one who sets the pace and sets the tone. I am the one who fixes things if they go wrong. We’re all like that. We get used to doing things our way, and we’re convinced that we’re doing things the right way.

Some people might feel a bit like “Who am I to tell you what to do? It’s your classroom.” You’re a person with an opinion. And if I ask for it, I want it. I look back on my last group of colleagues and I wonder who among them would take the time to watch my class, be able to say, “Why did you do that?” and thendiscuss it at some length.

But I’d love that sort of discussion. I’d love to have that mirror held up to my performance and be picked at. It might be slightly painful, but what if it helped? What if I said, “Wow. That is a good point. I’m going to re-think the way I…”

That would be good, right?

I know I’d be honest with a peer if they asked me to give feedback. I’m firmly from the school of “This is going to pinch, but you need to hear it.”

Feedback is a good thing. I teach my students to give feedback (when it comes up). I wish it were more a part of the system once you’re an actual teacher. I wish we had (or made) time to do it. It would keep us on our toes and would keep us learning.

Do you give feedback to your colleagues in any formalized (or informal) way?

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Being Good All the Time Would be Boring

Listening to James Altucher interview Paul Mercurio, Mercurio said, “Brian Regan said it best: It would be really boring if you killed all the time.”

These are comedians. They stand in front of people (often drunk, rude people) and tell jokes for a living. I have no experience with this, but I feel like I can relate somewhat. He followed up that quote by talking about how sometimes he goes on stage and a certain piece works. Other times he does the same piece and it doesn’t work. Maybe something happened to them before you started speaking. But if every time he went up and everything that came out of his mouth either make people laugh or got the same response, it would be boring. Part of the fun, it seems, is in not being sure of how they are going to react to the material.

I’ve long said that part of what I like about being a teacher is the performance aspect. Yes, I like being a positive change in students’ lives. I love that I can help them understand concepts, be part of their journey into adulthood, and toss juicy bits of knowledge into their hungry minds, but I love being on stage.

I’ve had teaching jobs where I had to deliver the same lesson to up to seven (yes, seven) classes in a week. That was years ago. More recently, it’s only been three or four. It’s amazing to me the difference in response that I get to the same story. I’ll tell a story in one class and they all laugh. I tell the same story the same way to another class and I may get a snicker from one kid in the back. Then I’ll try it again and get nothing. It’s the same with a reading comprehension exercise or explaining a grammar structure. Sometimes it flies and sometimes it doesn’t.

One of the most fascinating parts of teaching for me is reading a class. Each class has a different personality. Sometimes they are mostly smart, funny and ready to learn. Sometimes a cynic has infected the class and they all tend towards a sneer and an eye roll. I’ve had classes of students that have lost so many students through the year or semester that it’s like And Then There Were None. (Never seen that movie? It’s good.) They’re all looking around wondering who’s next.

The variety that we get to experience during a week (or even during a day) is truly one of the great joys of teaching. I’m constantly having to read my ‘audience’ and adjust my material (intellectually or humoristically). Did something just happen? Did they just get bad news or did someone finally read them the riot act? It’s part of the fun. It keeps me on my toes. And while there are 25 other people in the room who are sentient beings affecting the mood of the room in some small way, I take ownership of my classroom, so I feel like what’s happening has something to do with me.

It might not, but at the end of it all I always feel like that if my classes were fabulous all the time, it would be really boring.

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5 Micro-skills I’ve Gained from Teaching

The great James Altucher, whose podcast I am subscribed to, talks a lot about micro-skills. When I Google for a good definition of micro-skill, I get a very specific definition that doesn’t ring true to how I hear him use it with Mr. Altucher’s guests. It’s a very specific definition having to do with counseling. Therefore, I’m going to quote from some show notes:

Anything worth learning has 100 micro-skills that you have to learn.

Business, among its many micro-skills are: sales, negotiating, management, deal structure, execution, creativity, and on and on. I can list 100s of micro-skills in business.

In chess: you have to learn the opening, the middle game, the endgame, and it gets more granular. You have to master king pawn openings, queen pawn openings, closed tactical situations, open middle games, rook-pawn endgames, and on and on.

That’s more of an example than a definition, but you get the point.

Listening to a more recent podcast, I started thinking about the micro-skills one needs to be a good teacher. They’re sort of the same as the ones that his guest that day listed off, as the guest was a performer (a comedian to be specific) and I’ll also list a few that I grabbed off a website about counseling.

I think it’s important to recognize these micro-skills that we’ve all developed. I’d also like to come back to this idea at some point. Teaching isn’t just standing in front of a room talking. It’s a thousand other things one is doing at the same time (like many jobs).

Here’s a starter list:

  1. Be present: Being in the moment is essential to teaching (to my mind), as so much is happening. There are anywhere from 12 to 25 students in my classroom at any one time. (Some teachers have many more than that, of course.) That’s a lot going on.
  2. Trust yourself: I learned very early on that I am the captain of the ship, the king of the castle. I am the one making the decisions. There is simply no one else I can ask if I need help in the moment. I must trust myself. If I do not, to continue with the metaphor I started, there could be mutiny!
  3. Be fearless: Being fearful or scared or nervous is never the answer. Some students are like sharks. If they smell blood, it’s over. But even if they don’t attack, I know might lose them if I’m not willing to take a chance now and then.
  4. Questioning: This is sort of about being in the moment, but it’s also about coming up withgood questions (coupled with the willingness to actually ask). Be willing to ask probing, interesting questions that are meaningful and that will help my students to inspire my students.
  5. Observation: Being able to take in the atmosphere of the room, changes in a student’s behavior or a strange new vibe is key to classroom management. Why are they quiet all of the sudden? What just happened? Where is their attention?
  6. Re-focusing: With all those bodies, minds and personalities in the room, things can go off the rails (or even just off the path). It’s essential to be able to get students back on the subject at hand with a gentle, guiding nudge.

I’d love to come up with a longer list of micro-skills of teaching. When I look at even this short list, it makes me imagine trying to balance myself on a large ball. There is so much going on and so many of these skills are done while on autopilot.

Would you like to add to my list? Please help me out here.


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Fear as Motivator

This week, a student from one of my classes reached out to me via email. She wrote, “Dear Mr. Baker, I just got the great news that I get an extra chance to do my exam. I was wondering if you could give me some tips on how to study and what to study.”

I’d heard about this extra chance. I’d been asked to grade the extra chance, but someone else is going to do a pile of exams, so they’ll just add hers to those. I’m happy for the young woman. She’s smart, she’s nice, and she’s appropriately respectful. However, she’s failed the exam twice. She is getting to take the exam again at an odd time (before the school year begins), as she needs it to complete her ‘propedeuse’ so that she can move on to university, which was her intention all along.

After I explained to her what was on the exam (as I had done during the lessons, and as she knew from having taken the exam twice already), I reminded her that she’d already taken the exam (and failed it) twice. I reminded her that if she happened to fail it again, she would not get into university and would likely be a second year student at our school (a hogeschool, which is where students in the Netherlands get a very focused bachelor’s degree.) I reminded her that she has five weeks to prepare for this last chance, encouraging her to not waste that time, as so much is riding on it.

I wrote that to scare her a bit. I wanted her to be able to taste the failure, to know what the cost of her slothfulness would be if she chose to be lazy and, like so many of her fellow students, use the ‘cross your fingers and hope really hard’ method of studying.

I don’t love doing that. In fact, I actually apologized for doing it, and I suggested she focus on how great it would feel to get into university and finally be studying alongside students who were on her intelligence/motivation level. I suggested she think about how good it would feel to tell people she was now studying at university, as opposed to hogeschool. I told her to think about graduating with a university degree and about the possibilities that would hold for her. I ended by telling her that she is a bright young woman with a great future.

That said, I hope she was listening when I tried to scare her. Somehow I feel like the fear of failure might help her more than hopes and dreams of success. It works that way with me sometimes. Sometimes the idea of success is scary and not that appealing to work towards. Sometimes what will really move me to the next step is the fear of staying in the situation I’m in.

Motivation is a complex thing. We should always be aware that there are lots of options.

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How VIPKID was a Game Changer for Me

When I left my ‘secure’ teaching position (I had a permanent half-time contract), I had the goal to replace that income with something else while I worked on the next stage of my career transition. I wanted something either really local (I could walk to it) or online. Really local would probably have meant working at a shop, restaurant or hotel doing something like helping out in a kitchen or cleaning hotel rooms, but I would have been happy to do it.

The kind of job I was looking for was one that would take little to no preparation time and one that would not require me to bring work home. Just let me work some hours and be done. (This is the opposite of my experience with teaching in any capacity.) My goal was to spend the rest of my time working on the next stage in my career change, whatever that was at that moment. (It changes all the time.)

I happened across VIPKID. It sounded sort of perfect. I watched many, many videos on YouTube. I interviewed. I wasn’t nervous because teaching is one of those things that comes very naturally to me. Of course most of my teaching experience has been with college students and adults with a fair amount of mid-adolescence teaching. I had some experience teaching young kids when I was in my twenties, mostly in a church context, camp counseling and the such. Needless to say, I passed the interview with flying colors. They determined my base pay by the certifications I had and the experience. You can find all of that information online if you look. I got mid-range.

Then there was a mock class with a young woman who gave me some tips, and then she suggested they hire me without a second mock class. (Thank you, Brenda, wherever you are.)

And really, after two weeks, I was off to the races. I open time slots and they fill up. I have regular student. The great thing about VIPKID is that you open up hours when you want (depending on when they’re available. I’m in Amsterdam and those kids are in Beijing, so I never have a class start after 2:30 in the afternoon because most kids start going to bed around 9 o’clock, which is three my time because Beijing is six hours ahead.

Here are the things I really love about VIPKID:

  1. There is literally no supervisor. I work when I want. If I need to take the day off, or part of the day, I just don’t make that time available. No one’s banging on my cubicle door nagging me to open more hours. And if I want to work all day on Sunday, I do. (I never do that, but I could.)
  1. There is constant good feedback. Maybe it’s my teaching style and my tendency to accent the positive, but parents tend to really like my classes. And kids tend to like my classes because I’m fun. I’m not crazy perky like a lot of the teachers out there, but I’m happy and ‘up’ and I smile and laugh. It’s a pretty fun job.
  1. I work from home in an orange T-shirt and pajama pants. There’s no ironing. There’s no wondering if I’ve worn this sweater and shirt combo to school recently. I have! It’s just an orange T-shirt and whatever pants I want. It’s very comfortable.
  1. It draws in a skill I have been honing for a while now. Teaching is one of those skills I just have now. I can explain things. I have an unending well of patience. I can always think of a way to break it down to a smaller bit. I’m constantly practicing that in this job.

It’s a good gig if you are a native speaker from North America with a bachelor’s degree. If you’re interested, click the link above (or this one). If you need any help at all, I’ll give you my pro tips.

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The Only Thing Worse than Being Talked About

One day when I was 14 years old, my mother asked why I looked so down. I muttered that I was upset because some kids at school were talking about me. We were in the car, and she was driving. She glanced at me and then looked back at the road. “You know what the only thing worse than being talked about is?”

“No. What?”

“Not being talked about,” she said. Now, I have no idea if she was just being clever to make me laugh or if she really believed that. I also have no idea if she knew she was paraphrasing Oscar Wilde of all people. But that moment has always stayed with me. At least I’m doing something interesting enough for people to talk about. God forbid I be boring.

This afternoon, I told a couple of ex-colleagues about my book and about my website. I got very tepid responses. “Good luck with your new venture.” I sort of felt bad for a moment. My mind went to them forwarding the website address to other ex-colleagues. I imagined them saying, “Who the hell does he think he is?” and “Oh please!” And then I imagined people talking about starting an entrepreneurial venture and having people hate on it and say negative things.

I’m not concerned about that per se. These are both very nice people. I have no idea what they thought about it. I didn’t expect them to be excited about it when they heard about it. This is just about what was going on in my head. These ex-colleagues have no idea how these things are done. They have no idea what the possibilities are. They have no idea how to go about doing something like this, so of course it’s going to sound impossible to them. It will probably sound ridiculous.

Also, let me stress that this was all happening in my head. I have no idea what they were thinking or what their opinion is. It was a part of my brain speculating.

It should be stated that most of these people (including Fred) are Dutch. I feel like most Dutch people have very little ability to dream really big. Most of my ex-colleagues dreamed for a permanent contract at their job and they stop there. That’s where I’m very American. I believe that if you reach for the stars at least you’ll land on the moon, or how ever that saying goes.

As I was standing in the kitchen drying dishes thinking about this situation this afternoon, the thought popped into my mind that I should imagine my former colleagues smiling and saying, “Good for him!” and “Impressive! I wish him the best.” I was reminded of the word pronoia, which is the suspicion that the whole world is conspiring to shower you with blessings.” I decided to get a big fat case of pronoia.

I called a friend and told her about what my mother had said in the car that day. I said I was going to “cast the burden on the Christ within and go free.” I decided I was going to not worry about it.

Matching my spiritual approach with her own, she said, “Yeah. F*ck them.”

Our approaches are, you know, similar in a way.

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5 Unexpected Lessons from Quitting My Job

Last Spring, I talked to a Career Coach at school. I was feeling a bit down about my job. It felt very dead end and when I looked around at my colleagues, I thought, “I don’t want to become that.” To me, that’s a problem. I want to look around at people who are a few years further than me in any career path and think, “I want to be like that.” Even at 52.

Long story short, at some point, my Career Coach said to me, “I don’t think you’re going to be here next year. I think you’re going to quit.” She was taking what I was saying and turning it around on me. In truth, I was giving every indication that all I wanted to do was get the heck out of Dodge.

In fact, I knew I wanted to leave. I just didn’t know what I would do in the immediate future. We set a date, and on that date I walked into my manager’s office and quit. It felt very good.

My husband didn’t love the idea, but he wasn’t going to stop me. His only question was “What are you going to do next?” I said I’d figure it out. And a month later, I had an answer. I got a part time job freelancing and using my teaching skills teaching Chinese kids online, and I am also currently teaching two classes in another department at the same school. Quitting was really one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time.

Here are five unexpected lessons I got from quitting my job:

  1. People are often surprised when I quit a job. I had a permanent contract. I was a part of the furniture. I had colleagues I liked working with. Students liked me. I was pretty miserable, and to certain people I would say, “I can’t do another year of this,” but most people were oblivious to my misery because I was in the enviable position of having that golden ticket, the permanent contract.
  2. Something always shows up. As I told my husband, I’m not the type of guy to just sit around and read novels on the balcony all day. I am fairly industrious. I kept looking for something I could do that was either local or online and would require only my current skillset, i.e. I was not about to learn technical proofreading.
  3. It felt really good to get out of a work environment that didn’t ‘feed’ me. This is not to disparage my former colleagues. It’s just to say that the whole situation had run its course. I’ve done this with other jobs. It’s like breaking up with someone when the relationship has run its course. It feels good to not be there any more. I wish them well. I’m just happy to be on a new path. And because of me someone else got a job. Everybody wins!
  4. There is support. Since leaving my job, I have reached out to a number of people. Not everyone has responded with help, but a good number of people have mentioned helpful resources, offered to help, offered contacts, etc. There was a part of my monkey brain that thought I’d be out there on my own. I’m not. People are generally good and are happy to help me with my endeavor to make the next step.
  5. People envy the ability to walk away. Any number of people have told me that they wish they could just quit. Yes, I’m in the enviable position in that my husband is the main breadwinner, but even if that were not the case, being willing to walk away from something certain is difficult. The regular income is gone. The resources that the job provided are gone. But the social network is also gone, and that’s something difficult to give up.

Quitting a job is difficult, but I really think it’s like any relationship, friendship or situation. If it’s not satisfying and if I really believe there’s something else (better) out there for me, I should take the chance. Every day I think about how happy I am that I did it.

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End of Year Survey

The end of a school year always feels to me a bit like the end of a long journey. Everyone’s a bit weary, but there’s still quite a bit of work to be done. There are certain fellow travelers who I’m  looking forward to being away from.

I find that this is the perfect time to get a bit of feedback about the year. There are two great reasons for this:

  1. It breaks up the relative monotony of a regular class period.
  2. Students have experienced enough school to have reasonably well-formed opinions about the year that has just happened as well as ideas about what could have been.

The basic questions I use are the following:

  1. What did you like about what we did in the lessons this year?
  2. What did you not like about what we did in the lessons this year?
  3. What would you like more of or what do you think could be added to this class (or program) to help prepare you for your future?

Keeping the questions open and simple gives them room to expand on the parts they feel inspired to expand on. Limiting the number of questions makes the task feel less daunting. (I am, after all, still asking them to think and write.)

There are basically two ways to do the survey:

  1. Online – using one of several tools, many of which are free
  2. Small groups


Survey Monkey is a well-designed, easy to use website. The free version is somewhat limited, but if you can live with not downloading your results and limiting the number of respondents (currently 100), it’s great.

Typeform is a beautiful website that has a free version, the CORE plan, that offers unlimited questions, unlimited answers, and you can export your data when you’re done.

Google Forms is pretty amazing. It’s got tons of options, unlimited questions and answers, and you can add collaborators and work on it with other people. If the other two are standard, well-designed automobiles, this is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!

Small groups

My preferred method of getting feedback is small groups. The downside is that the information isn’t neatly gathered in one spot. However, the upside is that students are encouraged to interact and come up with a list. I believe that while discussing the questions, new ideas are sparked. I also ask them to present their findings at the end, which gives them an opportunity to present in front of the group.

  1. Present the questions to the students. Tell them why you want to know what they’re thinking: Their opinions matter. Also, you are always trying to improve the lessons and the program.
  2. Ask them to discuss the questions and come up with a list of five to seven answers in each category.
  3. Have one or two students present their findings.

Having the write their lists down neatly is probably a good idea. It will prevent you from having to take notes, and you can interact and ask follow up questions.

Letting your students know in concrete ways that you want their feedback and that you value their opinions. Give them a clear message that you care what they think and that you are doing your best to give them what they need. It my experience, this helps end the year on a hopeful note.

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