I used to rip on lectures until I had a student remind me that "I Have a Dream" was a lecture. Suddenly, lectures became a rare, powerful opportunity to bring vivid imagery and powerful language into direct instruction. I used to rip on homework, until I had a few students who wanted to do homework. Suddenly, I saw the solution. Make it optional and some kids will choose to do it for fun. I used to rip on worksheets, until I realized that what I called "handouts" or "guides" were simply better-constructed worksheets. There was nothing inherently wrong about a photocopied paper.
This year, as I have worked with a broader range of skill levels than every before, I am reminded that there is no such thing as a sturdy set of "best practices" that work every time. There are general trends: introduce knew knowledge, ask for inquiry, get kids excited about learning, allow for reflection, push for discourse, use critical thinking.
However, those ideas, those trends, are the theoretical knowledge that a teacher picks up pretty quickly. It gets trickier in the moment, as teachers plan lessons. Take reading, for example. Do we do reading groups? Silent reading? Read alouds? Choral reading? Do we use informational text? Functional text? Graphical text? Fiction? Do we allow student choice? Teacher-chosen materials?
And the short answer is yes.
The tricky part is figuring out when to use each strategy in a way that makes sense for each students. It requires wisdom to figure out what is best in which particular context. It takes relationships to know a student well enough to guide him or her in an effective way. It takes humility to listen. It takes courage to try new strategies that might fail.
In other words, when I'm using "best practices," it is less about professional development and more about character development. Don't get me wrong, the knowledge is valuable. I love reading up on strategies and geeking out about educational theory. But ultimately the wisdom is where things will either fail or work. Humility will determine whether I know students as people or as data points. Faithfulness will determine whether I stick with it when it gets hard. When that happens, I'm more likely to see "best practices" happening in my classroom.
I know that sounds a little sanctimonious. Sounds a bit like fortune cookie advice. But courage, wisdom, humility, faithfulness - those aren't shallow things. They're hard. Damn hard. And ultimately, I'm realizing that if I want to continue to grow as a teacher, it will be less about how I teach and more about who I am as a teacher.