I used to think…

3246596357_46b575e8c1I used to think that giving homework the first day of school set the “tone” for our classroom, that this was an academic class that had rigor and demanded their best. Now I realize that I was trying to intimidate my students so that they would work hard and know that I was the one in charge.

I used to think that compliant, well-behaved students were the ideal; now I’m afraid for them. I’m afraid for the kids who think that scoring 90% actually means something in the real world. I’m afraid for the kids who believe the academic hoops they jump through so effortlessly guarantee that they will be successful at life. I’ve come to believe that being good at school might mean you’d make a decent academic, but it isn’t a guarantee of much else.

I used to think, as a high school teacher, that reading was someone else’s job to teach. Now I think it’s important for learners to be taught these strategies across the K-12 spectrum.

I used to think that some kids weren’t cut out for school. They were lazy, unmotivated, and not “academic,” as if being academic was the most important thing in the world. Now I’ve come to realize that it’s the cutout school that’s the problem. Kids love to learn and do it quite naturally. They just might not be buying what I’m selling.

I’ve learned about self-regulation

Self regulation is defined as the process of taking control of and evaluating one’s own learning and behavior. Self-regulated students are learners who can reflect critically and accurately about their own thinking and learning.

Look at the research:

“Self-regulated learning (SRL), as the three words imply, emphasizes autonomy and control by the individual who monitors, directs, and regulates actions toward goals of information acquisition, expanding expertise, and self-improvement” (Paris and Paris 2001).

In particular, self-regulated learners are cognizant of their academic strengths and weaknesses, and they have a repertoire of strategies they appropriately apply to tackle the day-to-day challenges of academic tasks. These learners hold incremental beliefs about intelligence (as opposed to entity, or fixed views of intelligence) and attribute their successes or failures to factors (e.g., effort expended on a task, effective use of strategies) within their control (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Dweck, 2002).

Finally, students who are self-regulated learners believe that opportunities to take on challenging tasks, practice their learning, develop a deep understanding of subject matter, and exert effort will give rise to academic success (Perry et al., 2006). In part, these characteristics may help to explain why self-regulated learners usually exhibit a high sense of self-efficacy (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). In the educational psychology literature, researchers have linked these characteristics to success in and beyond school (Corno, et al., 2002; Pintrich, 2000; Winne & Perry, 2000).

To be honest, until 8 months ago I’d never heard of self-regulation. Now I believe it’s one of the most important things we need to develop in our students, starting in Kindergarten right through to grade 12.

No more “fill-er-up”

I used to think that my job as a teacher was to “fill” my students with the knowledge I possessed, even if I’d just acquired that knowledge from the internet the night before. Lecture was the primary modus operandi in my classroom.

Now I believe that an inquiry/pbl classroom is both empowering and liberating. The most important skill I can model for my students is how to learn and how to talk about learning. Instead of seeing my students as empty vessels, I believe they are reflexive learners, capable of change, who have much to offer to my own learning. My students have proven themselves to be competent researchers.

I used to think I needed to “run the show.” Of course this would be the only way to avoid discipline & behavior issues. Now I know that my students are able to be co-designers of our learning environment — from choosing which curriculum objectives we will work on, to unit and assignment creation, to co-constructing the criteria for the assessment.

I used to think that content was the most important thing I could teach. What was I thinking? In a Google world, most of the content I once valued so highly can be accessed in seconds, making the role of content provider obsolete.  Now I think skills, like collaboration, critical thinking, and being able to locate rich, reliable information are much more important. So now I use content to teach skills. I’m a skills provider.

I used to think that ranting at students about their lack of engagement and their apathy towards learning might get a positive response. Now I realize that if you’re learning about and working on a project that is worthy of your time and attention, you don’t have to be cajoled. Students will devote everything to worthy work, in ways you can’t even imagine at the outset. Students will often defy our expectations if we give them the opportunity to do so.

I used to think homework was important. Now I believe most of what I assigned didn’t do much to enrich my student’s learning.

I used to think the essay was the Holy Grail of the English classroom. Now I honestly believe it’s one of the least useful forms of communication I teach, at least in the 5-paragraph essay format. I still believe it’s important for my students to be able to persuasively argue, but now they learn how to do it via blogging, social media, and using visual and audio formats.

What does 82% really mean?

I used to think marks were important. Now I think they’re arbitrary at best. What does 82% really mean? I’ve asked my students that question. They don’t know, and the truth is, most often, neither do I. I would like to get rid of all marks, and move solely to feedback, and the more often this feedback can be verbal dialogue the better. When my students receive lots of formative feedback they know where they stand as learners. Then it’s about learning, not marks and grades.

I used to think teaching an AP class of top students was the pinnacle of a high school teacher’s career. Now it would feel like I was wearing a straitjacket.

I used to think technology was for searching and sporadic use during end-of-unit projects. Now I believe it has to be infused, authentically, into every step of the learning process.

I used to think exams were vital at the end of every unit. Now I believe that deep learning is much too complex to capture well in this format. Learning needs to be expressed in multiple formats, over a period of time.

I used to think our current K-12 format made sense. Now I believe it fails so many of our students. I look at students who are in Grade 1 or 2 and struggling to learn to read at the teacher’s pace. For some of them, their little brains just aren’t quite ready yet — all they need is more time. But the current system we have doesn’t allow for it. Kids are pushed along the assembly line and many develop not only large learning gaps, but a lack of self-efficacy.

I see this in high school too. Some kids take longer to develop abstract thinking, and struggle with math and other abstract concepts. The truth is that in high school I couldn’t understand Chemistry. Now I teach it. I could learn it in university, as an adult, because my brain was ready.

I used to think I knew what good teaching was . . .

I used to think I was a pretty good teacher. Now I realize that I did the best I could with the knowledge I had, but my classroom was woefully inadequate for many of my students. I failed to equip them with what they needed.

During the past 6 months, working in multiple schools, I’ve learned so much from modified & alternative education students. These are the kids at the margins, the ones who don’t jump the hoops properly. Many of them, by the time they reach high school, don’t feel good about school, about themselves, or about learning.

Unfortunately, many drop out. As much as so-called “regular” kids need our schools to be better, these kids need schools to change even more.

I’ve come to realize that every student deserves to be in an environment that helps them grow and learn, and makes them feel good about themselves. All kids want to succeed. It’s my job to help them find ways to do that. I now believe my students are competent to show me what they need, if only I take the time to listen and ask authentic questions.

I’m becoming a better teacher by giving up a lot of what I used to think.


About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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52 Responses to I used to think…

  1. Hi Shelly,

    What an enlightened honest and (I think) highly accurate take on the educational environment for all of us (not just ‘students’). I hope that you always retain your open-eyed self evaluation attitude. How very lucky your students are to have you as their teacher-guide- collaborator and mentor.

  2. Ted Green says:

    I have known for a long time in the deep undercurrent of connections with learners and colleagues that I am still missing the mark. During my own high school years I recognized that something was terribly wrong. We need fundamental change in the ways that we invite engagement. Social filtering is not the function of public education. Thank you for this post. I agree that kids learn naturally and that if we can’t connect on their terms, there is frustration and disengagement. We have far too many disconnects in public education. Your post is a shining reminder that we are all responsible for helping learners to grow as self regulated learners. Thank you for helping me to reflect on my own practice.

    • Thanks, Ted. I think when I started teaching, I didn’t realize how much there was to learn, or more accurately, to unlearn. Especially in high school, it seems to be all about the content, rather than helping kids to develop their ability to learn. I love what you’ve said, “We need fundamental change in the ways we invite engagement”. Imagine what a classroom could be like, if that happened the first day of class and every day after.

  3. Krista Willertz says:

    Right on! I imagine your students love to walk into your classroom because you are authentic and actually care about them as human beings, not just their achievement in the classroom. Thanks for this post and for helping me reflect!

  4. Wow! Very challenging and very transparent with your thoughts and where you are in your journey to be a learner alongside your students. I know there are many of us spread out at different places along this continuum in our own learning and as professionals seeking to help our students learn and it’s great to hear from someone who sees things the way you do. It’s very encouraging, inspires hope and challenges my thinking for sure. I have never heard the term SRL until now but I like it and I am going to dig deeper into the idea and the process. I appreciate your great blog, your writing and I look forward to reading your chapter in the Powering Up book from PLP. We are using it for a book study I am facilitating here in my school district. I know it will generate some conversations and I am going to ask folks to read this post as well:) Thanks for sharing and making a difference.

    • Thanks, Jeff! I had never heard of SRL until quite recently. A friend of mine, who is an OT, was talking about it, and I had to stop and ask her to explain it. But once she did, I had this “Aha” moment. I think a lot of the issues we see develop around inquiry and pbl are often self-regulation skills, which aren’t going to go away, unless they’re addressed. And too often, in high school, we assume kids have or will naturally develop these skills. Usually, they don’t

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  8. Truly amazing post! Thank you!

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  10. Elizabeth says:

    I am a parent of a child with a LD . I learned along while ago that all people learned differently but in our school system she had to conform to one way. We tried as parents and some teachers as well tried to teach my daughter in the way she understood it and make it fun for her. The exams at the end of high school which were worth 50% of the year didn’t give the true representation of what my daughter knew. School needs to fun yet challenging place where everyone learns at their pace and in different ways. Where were you when my child went through school? I hope other educators read this and learn something. Thank you

    • Hi Elizabeth,

      Thanks for sharing your experience. School can be an exceptionally difficult place for kids who stuggle with LD’s, and for their parents who have to watch and advocate, as best they know how. For so many of our students an exam doesn’t give a true representation of what they know or can do. We need to begin to think differently about what learning can look like.

      I hope with the current talk of diversity and differentiation that fewer kids will struggle like your daughter did, and that we can help kids find what they are passionate about and good at, while trying to strengthen areas that are weak.

  11. Thanks for such an honest and reflective post. I would love to hear more about how you have organized your classroom, Shelley. You mentioned letting students choose which objectives to address and how they were going to do it. I realize that SK has new curricula in many subject areas that focus more on the skills, but are they all completed? I can see students using the new ones. They are so much better than the old ones. I am now in BC, and the guides here are quite old. I don’t think students would work with them well.

    • Hi Wendy,

      Currently, our curricula are not all complete. Our English & math have been renewed K-12, but our humanities and science are still the old format in high school, which can be tricky. So in English they can choose outcomes, for science I’ll outline the objectives on our wiki & then we can decided as a class how we’re going to meet them. We work through it unit by unit, since they are still content based. It’s definitely a more difficult process with old curriculum. But I’ve heard that BC will have a new curriculum soon. Is it inquiry based?

      • Wendy Blancher says:

        Yes, Shelley. The new curricula are in the works. Up to gr. 9 are in the pilot process and 10 and up in development stages yet. They are inquiry based with way fewer specific PLO’s, which is awesome. So much more freedom to encourage students to investigate topics of interest! However, with all the hoopla with our very stressful strike, and the continued disregard for teachers by this government, I am very interested to see how implementation will take place. I just earned my Master’s with a focus on online learning and teaching, so I am anxious to throw away the old and get on with the new.

      • You’ve hit on something really important, Wendy. The implementation is pivotal. If it’s not well thought out, very intentional & allows for a lot of teacher time, it may not be nearly as successful as it could be. Because it’s a complete change of mindset for teachers, they need a lot of help making the pendulum swing. Support and great resources will be essential.

  12. Shelley – Once again your reflective insights into your own profession has captured the essence of what I see will transform education. Your post has also got me thinking… What if we ask teachers to reflect at the end of a semester or at the end of the year using “I used to think…. know I think?” Might this provide some insight into the professional growth of teachers? Thanks again for sharing your thinking and your willingness to Think Different!

    • Thanks, Dan. It would be interesting to see what teacher reflections of this nature would look like. It would probably be a pretty good assessment of how teachers are growing and where some might be stagnating. It’s definitely a much more vulnerable position than circling a box on a teaching rubric.

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  16. Jane Chadsey says:

    This is such a heartfelt and thoughtful analysis of the issues we all need to take on in order to prepare students for the world they will face. I’m reminded of Parker Palmer’s writing in The Courage to Teach written many years ago but so relevant today. Keep on blogging, Shelly!

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  19. Sally says:

    Thanks for sharing this. It reads like a poem to me … think I might try writing my own “I used to think” poem as a way of reflecting on my own journey as a teacher.

  20. Hello!
    As someone who hasn’t really been out of the public education system long and is now a pre-service teacher eagerly anticipating the day that I become a certified teacher, this was a great article for me to read.
    There are many gaps in the education system, which you have pointed out in your article that resonate with me as a, recent, former student of the public education system.
    The way that you have identified these gaps and then followed them with your vision/action made this article extremely pleasant to read.
    I really love the concept of student collaboration to promote their learning, combined with authenticity and integrity in constant formative assessment and feedback to help them guide their learning in a non-threatening way!
    Thank you!

    • Thanks for reading. Our profession desperately needs new teachers who are able to break out of the traditional school mindset and are able to embrace new ways of learning and collaborating in a classroom. Unfortunately, most teachers perpetuate what they have experienced as learners. Challenge the status quo — think different!

  21. As a recent graduate of the public education system and a current pre-serivice teacher eagerly working toward my teacher certification this was a great article for me to read.
    I loved the way that you were able to bring attention to, what you view to be, the disconnect in education and then your vision/action for improvement. This fluidity made your article rather pleasant to read.
    I love the discussion about using student collaboration to promote their learning, while integrating authenticity and integrity in frequent formative assessments. The non-threatening nature of assessment for learning really allows students to gauge their understanding and further their growth.
    Thank you for the post!

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  24. robcfisher says:

    Hi Shelley. I’m doing a university course for about to graduate new teachers. The course is about technology infusion. I think our first discussion will center around this post. Thanks once again for sharing…. wouldn’t it be cool that in 15 years these new grads could blog about “I never thought………”

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  28. Peter says:

    Hi Shelley,

    I just thought you’d like to know you have a fan in Japan.

    I’m a Brit and, because life is complicated, I somehow ended up working as an Assistant (big emphasis on that word) English Teacher in a Japanese junior high school.

    Frankly, my job is a sinecure. The pay is mediocre, but the expectations are astonishingly low. Imagine a traditional, dusty, set-in-his-ways Latin teacher, whose lesson mostly consist of grammar lectures and vocab tests, and then imagine what he’d do if he had a real Roman in the room. Not a lot. I’m the real Roman.

    And it’s a crying shame. English is becoming ever more important in this globalised world, and these kids are being let down. Nature has endowed kids with a tremendous ability to learn languages, but what they get is grammar lectures and mindless “listen and repeat”. I’m not the “real” teacher, so I can’t challenge that status quo. And as for the real teachers, they are primarily civil servants — state bureaucrats — not teachers. There are literally no rewards for teaching well, and no penalties for teaching badly.

    But still, I can make a difference at the margins. I can get the “special needs” kids — the ones that the “real” teachers have given up on — doing things that are supposedly beyond the capabilities of the mainstream kids.

    Your blog reminds me of what is possible. It reminds me that kids actually WANT to learn … they WANT to show you just what they’re capable of … you just have to give them the means.

    So please, keep on doing what you do, Shelley.

    Warm regards,


  29. Kevin says:

    Hi Shelley, do you make your class wiki available? I teach chemistry and my students’ stoich unit is rapidly approaching. Thanks!

    Kevin Taniguchi

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  31. Wanda says:

    Hi Shelley,
    I would love to hear your ideas for working with high ability students. Do you have suggestions for the best way to meet their needs?

  32. Hello Shelley,
    I have re-read your post several times. This just might the perfect piece for kick-starting our PD sessions. I appreciate your honesty and willingness to shine light on areas that need to be confronted with the help of our students. In my middle years, I have plunged eagerly into the SRL waters. I am convinced that we should be dousing our students in the same learning water. They will come to realize how rewarding it feels to swim as part of, dare I say it, a school.
    Thanks for the inspiration,

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  34. Erin says:

    Hi Shelley, Thank you for this post (and all your others). I have a question for you. How do you survive in the education system? I personally am constantly frustrated by it. I am an elementary school teacher in Ontario and I was to teach and learn the way you talk about above. I try but I get stymied by the curriculum, the administration and the EQAO test (which is the entire basis of our school improvement plan and I am REQUIRED to give practice tests using previous years tests). Frankly I’m finding myself depressed and unhappy because I feel I am always fighting. There has to be a better way. If you have any advice at all for me it would be much appreciated. Feel free to email me if you prefer that to responding here. Thank you again.

  35. Suzanne Herbert says:

    Shelley, looking forward to reading your past blogs as so enjoyed this and the comments made.

  36. Brett Dow says:

    Honestly one of the best blogs I’ve read, I couldn’t agree more that our education needs to change. We need to change and cater to students needs, struggles, and passions. If we think back to when we were students the subjects that inspired us the most, were the subjects we were passionate about. Unfortunately the days of having students deeply enthralled in any subject are gone, but we can find a way to connect the old with the new. I currently live in Kuwait in the middle east; nothing matters to parents more than grades, and the material you’re covering in class (content). Do you have any suggestions for an English/SS teacher trying to break this theme of text work, vocabulary etc? Or suggestions on moving past strict work, keeping in mind class sizes average 25-27? Its become so repetitive that i find i need some new strategies to make my students more engaged.
    Thanks again for sharing your wonderful ideas about education, i really enjoy reading this blog.

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  38. Brennan says:

    It’s heartwarming to know there is a true educator like you out there who really cares about what impact you have on learners. You are appreciated!! Thank you so much- from a possible parent one day.

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  40. Paul Scutt says:

    Great thoughts and beautifully crafted, thank you Shelley.
    Three years ago I and some friends started Princeton Learning Cooperative in order to address some of these issues and we continue to thrive. Copy us, so many kids out there need an alternative to traditional school.

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