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Looking for new good strategies to use isn’t the same thing as using good strategies in new ways…

I get some version of this question often. It starts off with a disclaimer/announcement of the concern the teacher has for a particular kiddo and all the many attempts they’ve made to support them. The teacher is careful to outline the many strategies they’ve attempted to engage an especially defiant or reluctant student or to get them to participate in whatever age-appropriate manner is fitting—but nothing seems to work. That’s how the question is presented to me: “Dr. Yemi, I’ve tried everything with this kiddo, and nothing works. Please tell me what strategy I can use with this student?”


This question is, of course, a trap.


Since I have no direct experience with the student, I’m in an impossible position. I am completely dependent on the teacher’s perspective. I have no direct knowledge of the student’s assets, background, or identity. I can’t comment on any of the context which I’m aware is completely unknown to me outside of what the teacher has outlined. If I make any suggestion, the teacher is able to say to me that “I’ve already tried that.” Or they can say, “No, that simply won’t work.” Or they might say, “That sounds like a lot of work for me, and I have so many other things to address….” There’s no shortage of ways to dismiss whatever I might say in that moment—and so I try to say nothing.


In these instances, I try to only hear the teacher… because I suspect that’s what they want as much as anything else. They want to be heard. They want to have their frustrations validated.


In truth, the answers to many of these problems of practice that teachers ask about require multiple strategies and approaches with the support and thought-partnership of a team of school professionals. It’s also true that we only have a limited control of what our students are exposed to over the course of their day. A lot of what influences our students’ behaviors are beyond our direct influence. And a wise teacher once told me that we are always planting seeds with kiddos. Every day, and in all sorts of ways. We should plant the best seeds possible, but we don’t always get to see the harvest. Sometimes we plant seeds without being able to witness the forthcoming fruit.


So there is never a simple answer to these questions, but there are insights which can be much more useful than any particular strategy or classroom activity. And one insight that I can share with any teacher who might ask is:


It’s often less profitable to look for new good strategies to use in teaching than it is to use good strategies in new ways.


The distinction between seeking new good strategies and being open to using good strategies in new ways lies in the approach and mindset of the educator.


I hope not to be confusing, and so I clarify my sentiment here: There is nothing wrong in looking for new strategies. In fact, it’s super important to actively seek out a variety of methods and techniques. It’s good to explore different pedagogical theories, instructional methods, and classroom activities to enhance one’s teaching repertoire. To do so requires a willingness to experiment in the pursuit of more effective teaching practices. We shouldn’t even wait to have a reluctant learner to prompt such a cause. This exploratory mindset acknowledges that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and that strategies we’ve not used before may be more suitable for different contexts, subjects, and student populations. That’s all good.


I just think we already know so much about teaching that we don’t necessarily need new ideas to solve the problems of practice we see in classrooms today. 


Being open to using good strategies in new ways involves flexibility and adaptability in the application of established teaching methods. Our strategies need to be adjusted or customized to meet the unique needs of our students or the specific objectives of a learning experience. Rather than the rigid adherence to a particular approach, those who are open to using good strategies differently are willing to modify, adapt, re-order, or combine activities in response to feedback, student engagement, or changing circumstances in the classroom.


Our thinking is much more productive when we are considering the variables of relationship, feedback, engagement, and classroom circumstances in relation to strategies that we have seen work well with our kiddos than any odyssey for some novel method. Instead of invention or discovery, think innovation. It’s not about finding something altogether new. It’s about finding the right doses and combinations of the tried and true.  We can find clues to what may work in our inquiry. I like to ask teachers questions like: Have you ever seen this kiddo engaged? If so, what was working for them in that moment? What are this kiddo’s assets? Can their assets be used in some way as bait for an engagement trap? 


Being open to using good strategies in new ways is about using one’s teacher toolkit in a dynamic and responsive manner. In our CRE residencies, I notice that on our lab classroom days—when teachers are preparing a lesson to be taught with actual, human kiddos—teachers rarely pick an activity that they’ve never seen or heard of; rather, they select the strategies that rhyme in so many ways with the methods they know to be good practice applied newly through the lens of cultural responsiveness. But somewhere along the way, those strategies have either been left behind or crowded out by other less inspiring approaches. So often, when teachers are scrolling through our Super Toolkit, I hear some version of the same audible rumination,  “I used to do that.”


When I hear the question: “What should I do? I’ve tried everything.” The best answer is often, Try your best ideas again, but try them in new ways, re-ordered, in different forms and combinations—which is actual innovation. Track it, check in, share notes—tend to the soil. It’s not that you’re planting flawed seeds. It may be that your seeds need to be cultivated differently and with renewed attention.

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