Are You The Steve Jobs Of Your Teaching?

If you haven’t caught John Siracusa’s essay by now, odds are good you aren’t interested. It’s essential reading, though, for anyone trying to connect blogging to serious professional development and not, say, to an abnormally supportive faculty lounge where everyone shares your exuberance and thinks your last post was great.

Like greed, criticism gets a bad rap, especially when it’s presented in large doses. It’s impolite. It’s unnecessarily obsessive. It’s just a bummer. But the truth is, precious little in life gets fixed in the absence of a good understanding of what’s wrong with it to begin with.

Elsewhere, he describes criticism as “a virtuous cycle created through apparent viciousness” which is exactly how I would describe last month’s (very satisfying) Darren-Dan-Jason slide remix.

For my part, after some large missteps and a lot of reconsideration, I am finally comfortable with this blog’s critical stance. It turns out not to be terribly difficult to respect an individual and her serious commitment to teaching while at the same time holding her work up for serious scrutiny. I’d argue, even, that the two are equivalent, that, issues of tact notwithstanding, to offer any less to each other is the real disrespect.

Some may find this abrasive and check out but my remaining commenters, unsurprisingly, are a seriously critical bunch and keep me relentlessly on message, forcing me to justify and rejustify my crackpot pedagogy. And, most days, I’m pretty sure that’s all the professional development I need.


I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I a similar conversation today in my teachers lounge with a new teacher who was just observed for the second time this year. Being un-tenured she has a mandatory 3 observations per year, 2 by the principal and 1 by the department head.

    Only 3 periods out of a possibly 1,080 periods. To me there should be more observations, even just by colleagues so you can have a discussion about what works and what sucks, and most importantly how to improve it.

    It made me remember this new charter school down in NYC linked here…..mandatory daily observations. Check it out….teachers also paid 125,000k…has anyone else seen this?

  2. I agree completely, wouldn’t change a thing. Good work. You say it exactly as it should be said.


    So, you’re saying that a yes-man is useless? Duly noted. I’ll take this post as criticism for ever agreeing with you.

  3. @Doug, back before I grew weary of no-excuses, Rhee-, Klein-, TFA-, KIPP-, and TEP-style schooling, I posted a positive appraisal of TEP. No matter how I would revise my opinion now, I still think that more observations at lower stakes by both faculty and administration would do far more good for a teacher than bad.

  4. I think the critical/opinionated stance of this blog is what makes it one of the first feeds I check out in my reader. “Look at this awesome tool!” is a refrain heard much too often in the edublogosphere. In reality we construct meaning and understanding best in a critical environment. So the fact that this blog isn’t all holding hands and sharing candy makes it more valuable of a resource in my opinion.

    As for Doug’s comments: Not to be a YES-man, but you’re dead-on. I’ve been observed three times with limited feedback (mostly noting that I need more wall decorations) and haven’t seen an administrator or other teacher step foot in my room other than during the formal observations. If teacher quality is considered a priority, then regular (a.k.a. weekly) walkthroughs should be the norm. I have no confidence that any other administrator or teacher knows anything about who I am as a teacher. We’re wasting one of the best methods to improve teacher quality.

  5. Help me out here Dan. I guessed, given your enthusiasm for criticism, that it would be easy for me to find an example in the comments on this blog of a case where someone has criticised you and you have accepted that criticism.

    But I can’t, after a less-than-comprehensive look back through the last half a dozen or so posts. I found lots of cases where you were criticised and you defended your position, but none where you actually accepted the criticism, or appeared to move an iota from your original position as a consequence of the criticism. If criticism isn’t changing you, is it just entrenching you? Is that really helping much?

  6. Perils of being right all the time, I guess.

    Ha. Please excuse my glibness. I guess it depends on how you define the validation of criticism. Is the only healthy and positive reaction to criticism a complete reversal of opinion? If I react with anything less than the total validation of someone’s dissent does that make my position entrenched and intractable?

    We have a lot of competent, experienced educators around here. You and I both know that if you put twenty competent math teachers in a room they will have, between them, twenty different, great ways to teach linear equations.

    My favorite critical discourse, then, is the kind where we volley an idea back and forth across this digital net, both of us spinning and returning the other’s thesis, even if the spin is only several degrees and not the full 180°.

    I couldn’t have constructed the WCYDWT? framework, for example, without the dozens of dissenting commenters asking questions and forcing me to constantly recontexualize and recast my own thesis, even if at no point I smacked my forehead and said, “Wow. I am doing this 100% wrong.”

  7. damn this is good.

    i’ve complained here before;
    won’t have changed your mind about anything
    (& didn’t expect to)… i mention it to remark
    that you referred *there* to such complaints
    as an “opportunity to clarify my stance”.

    congratulations on having earned
    a great collection of commenters.
    the clarity of your stance is of course
    quite well known… much of what
    one comes back for (in measured doses
    in my case since i find confidence
    like yours sort of hard to be around…).

  8. I’ve leveled my fair share of criticism against Dan in the past and he’s been willing to accept points from time to time. But just because he doesn’t come right out and say, “You’re right!” is no reason to believe he’s never reconsidered an idea because of a disagreement. One can be stubborn and reflective.

    Dan, I hear, “You always say it’s a bad idea” nearly everyday because I operate from the stance of thinking something is a bad idea until convinced otherwise. But the key way I’ve seen lessons improved is through the discussion that stance causes. If someone disagrees with me, I now have to think about why I’m right rather than just assuming it. To not say anything about a bad idea is the real disrespect.

    And more classroom visitations: yes, sign me up.

  9. From what I’ve gathered, most people are observed only a few times a year – when it is a “high stakes” evaluation. We do a nice job of dissecting lessons here. Does that happen in daily practice?

    Do your departments have a culture where critique and questioning are valued? What structures are in place to make this happen?

  10. I work with some great people that I can talk with about what we do. That kind of dissection does happen in those conversations and pushes us to the kinds of improvements that make us so much better. But there aren’t any systems in place to make that kind of thing happen. And I sought those people out and ask them questions on such a regular basis that it’s just become a part of how we interact. If a teacher isn’t reflective, doesn’t seek out others that are critical enough to dissect, and doesn’t ask for that kind of dissection, it isn’t happening.

  11. Todd I understand the seeking people out to have the conversations – I do that too. But it is little pockets of conversations, of reflection. While I find it valuable, that isn’t enough for me.

    Your last line, “If a teacher isn’t reflective, … , it isn’t happening.” implies that it is okay if it isn’t happening. There has to be some way to make it part of the school/department culture, no?

  12. Jackie,

    We’ve changed our professional growth structure to try to get more of that going on- essentially building around creating teacher reflection. It’s fairly new but seems to be gaining traction.

    The initial work was in getting our administrators to observe and conduct the post-observation interview along the Santa Cruz model. Here’s the big picture view of what we’re doing if you can take handle the colors.

    Probably this will give you the best idea of what it is supposed to look like (although I have to apologize for the awkwardness of the video).

    Not perfection by any means but I think a step in the right direction towards making self-reflection part of the culture and in getting people to ask the right questions. I’ve got hope for the concept. It’s far better than the way I received classroom observation feedback.

  13. Dan…Can you please elaborate why you are weary of KIPP? (I couldn’t find any detailed criticism of KIPP on your blog.) Seems like it raises test scores and help more low-income students go to and graduate from college…What’s wrong with it?