No Idea

In a stack of papers called Instruction.

  • Sep
  • 19
  • 2008

I have no idea what I’m doing. No idea.

When I close that door, I’m on my own. I’ve got fifty-three minutes with a group of thirty kids who want entertainment if they want anything. I need to take those kids wherever they are and help them improve by the time they walk out the door. I need to give them at least one new idea today and one reason to come back tomorrow.

I have no idea what I’m doing.

My first year of teaching, I was too frantic to worry about this. If an idea looked good, I did it. You have a packet of Poe stories and a week-long lesson plan for them? Sign me up. A set of Longfellow poems that end in a presentation? Hand ’em over.

There’s reason to teach Poe and Longfellow, but I was just teaching them to fill time with what seemed to be worthy material. I hadn’t been thinking about the way students would benefit from what I presented to them.

It wasn’t until my third year that I really started to scratch my head. “Um, why do this project with Poe? What do the students get from it? I’m just asking ’cause…” That’s when I started to give more thought to the time I asked my students to spend with anything. And for the past 6 years or so, I’ve been suffering this existential crisis, wondering why I’m here, why I’m at the front of the classroom and not in a seat in the back somewhere.

The good thing is that I do know a few things. I know better now what I want out of my students and why I want that out of them. But, specifically, why am I teaching Hawthorne, Whitman, Thoreau, and Fitzgerald? Shakespeare, Sophocles, Plato, and Kafka? Because we have them. Nothing more.

What am I doing to make my students better writers, readers, speakers, and thinkers? Beyond just giving them more chances to practice those skills, pointing out where they can improve, patting on the back when they do well, how am I helping my students?

I have no idea what I’m doing.

Here’s the scary thing: this job almost demands that you get to a point where you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s the only monitor to let you know you’re even trying to improve.

Any teacher could walk in the door, press “play,” and collect the same paycheck as the teacher who regularly puts in 80-hour weeks planning, grading, and preparing. So you’ve only got yourself to rely on. It’s that nagging feeling that urges you to do better than you’ve been doing, but never gives you the satisfaction of knowing that you’re even doing an OK job, let alone a good one.

I have no idea what I’m doing. I really don’t.


1. dy/dan » Blog Archive » Best Post Of The North American School Year To Date says:

[9/19/2008 - 10:12 pm]

[…] Seal’s post, No Idea, cut through all that blogospheric flotsam tonight like an arc torch and left me nodding my head, […]

2. Nick says:

[9/20/2008 - 4:47 am]

I have no idea what I’m doing either. This is my fourth year teaching calculus, as part of my graduate student requirements (admittedly, my favorite part of grad school), and I’m noticing similar thoughts to the ones you mention above. What are we doing?

3. Brian says:

[9/20/2008 - 5:33 am]

This reminds me of something one of my English methods professors constantly told us about: the rule of “So What?” Everything we do should have a meaning and a purpose. We should have a reason for doing the things we do. She meant it in terms of writing assignments and for students to look at what they were writing, and ask themselves what the point was. But we had a presentation in there, and my group asked the question aloud — what’s the point of this? And it made for great discussion.

We need to challenge ourselves, our colleagues, and our students to always ask “so what?” to everything we’re doing in the classroom. If we keep doing this, we will continue to succeed.

I love this post. Thanks for sharing!

4. Tom Hoffman says:

[9/20/2008 - 6:07 am]

I recommend The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline by Robert Scholes.

5. T-DAwg says:

[9/20/2008 - 6:49 am]

Thank you for articulating what I’ve been thinking all week. I sit in meetings and think to myself, I have no idea what I’m doing. I can’t stomach “schooliness” and yet I’m surrounded by it…

6. Kate says:

[9/20/2008 - 7:47 am]

Guilty! It must be the time in the school year when the existential angst flares up. Nice to know I’m not alone.

7. atw says:

[9/20/2008 - 8:54 am]

You know, I am an “old dog”. I have been teaching at multiple levels for over 20 years. I agree with you that it is DEPRESSING to work so hard and see someone down the hall making the same money, getting the same perks, but doing 1/10th the work you are. Happens in higher ed just as much as it does in K-12 settings. You have to keep your eye on your own standards, and your own goals. It isn’t about them, it is about you and your students. Find some like minded folks to encourage you, and hang in there!

8. Dina says:

[9/20/2008 - 11:58 am]


You seem to be kicking around two problems here.

First, you don’t know what you’re doing because you are questioning the relevance of your content– the REAL relevance, mind you, not 90210/Ipod/Hannah Montana relevance.Commenter Brian nailed this pretty well for me (I actually have a three foot banner declaring “So What?” to each of my classes, all the time), and I am convinced that systematically exploring this question with kids in regards to literature and communication is the most powerful means of teaching we’ve got. It’s buried deep in standards and essential questions, I’m finding, and so one of the emerging tasks for me this year is bringing those big ideas to the surface– the REAL big ideas, mind you, not the Wiggins ripoff/state-contrived/sop to the principal big ideas. :)

Second, you don’t know what you’re doing because no one and nothing is in place to really *tell* you. Genuine, useful, multi-measure accountability in our profession does not exist, put bluntly. You have to create it for yourself– no way around it– and move silently, compassionately, but determinedly beyond those who will take advantage of the fact that they don’t have to.

9. Todd says:

[9/20/2008 - 12:09 pm]

No, no, Kate, you’re not alone. Feels good not to be, but if all teachers feel this way, that’s a frightening image of public education.

atw, I need to do more than just hang in. That’s not getting me anywhere, though I’ve been doing that just fine for quite a while now.

None of this is so much about the comparison to other teachers (that only pops up briefly at the end), it’s that I’m just not sure any of this matters or that I know how to help students improve. I can certainly help them practice, but improvement is elusive. Is what I’m doing of any use to students? Is it helping?

10. Jenny Luca says:

[9/20/2008 - 3:55 pm]

What you’ve articulated is what I think on a daily basis and I’ve been teaching for over 20 years. And you know what, I think thinking these thoughts makes me a better teacher and I bet it does for you too. I knew long ago I was not the world’s best expert in my subject matter and it used to make me feel not up to the task. Like you I searched for new ideas, the best material, innovation, etc etc. I still do that, but I’ve learnt something else along the way. I’ve learnt that it’s the climate I establish in the classroom, the tone, the respect I extend to my students, the interest I take in them as people, that is fundamental in my success as a teacher. We still do the work, we still push ourselves and learn but we do that together. They recognise that in large part I am learning with them too. Never a day goes by when I don’t take something away that I have learnt from a student. Teachers like you who actually question what it is they are doing are the teachers who need to stay in classrooms.

11. Sharing, Hoarding, or Hiding? | Alien Pedagogy says:

[9/21/2008 - 12:00 am]

[…] forwarded this activity along with this one (original) to a colleague. Her life has […]

12. Laurie says:

[9/21/2008 - 2:03 pm]

This is what we should do every day. Question what we are doing. Isn’t that because teaching is an art not a science? And artists question what they do all the time. I am always searching for the truth about what I am doing in the classroom. Is this lesson sound? Did it work?

13. No idea - a post to read « Lucacept - intercepting the Web says:

[9/21/2008 - 7:43 pm]

[…] what they are doing in their classrooms and the anxiety they feel about the profession. Todd Seal is one of these young teachers who I have added to my Google reader. He has written a post […]

14. Pam Thompson says:

[9/22/2008 - 1:13 am]

Most of the teachers that I hold in high regard seem to battle with this very same question.It seems that the most dedicated are the ones who never feel like they’re doing enough or having enough of an effect on their students.

15. JClark Evans says:

[9/22/2008 - 2:46 am]

At the end of the last school year, the teachers in the English department at my school sat down together and articulated essential questions for each course that we teach. You can see them here: Having this “goal” in mind helps me on those days when I have no idea. I like Laurie’s comment about teaching being an art. Sometimes we try too hard with rubrics and progress charts to make it a science. Give of yourself genuinely, create opportunities for your students, and they will be enriched.

16. Pat says:

[9/22/2008 - 5:14 am]

Thanks for sharing this! I have felt this way many times over 28 years. I think that is what makes a good teacher because when you stop questioning what you are doing, you don’t care anymore. I’ve seen too many teachers just biding time until they retire. Just that you worry about this, means that you care and you are constantly searching for things to be better for your students. I really had to find the relevance to my students with what I was doing and that helped them understand why we were doing something. If I couldn’t show relevance, I really shouldn’t be doing it. You were given the gift to teach and sometimes you just have to have faith that you can do it. It is this faith that gets you through the tough times. When former students come up to you (and they will, believe me) to tell you that you made an impact on their life, you will know it was all worth it.

17. Darren Draper says:

[9/22/2008 - 10:11 am]

You have no idea?

Welcome to the club.

At least you’re honest about it! Too many of us just try to fake our way through, one step in front of the kids.

18. Tom says:

[9/23/2008 - 5:02 am]


I think you might like this interview. It’s realmedia which sucks but it’s two pretty interesting college professors echoing some of your thoughts – around the 15 minute mark but there’s some interesting conversation around critical thinking and how it works in the history classroom.


19. Elona Hartjes says:

[9/24/2008 - 3:16 am]

That’s what’s so great about being a teacher. You can be creative and do not have to press the “play” button. Imagine if you were handed a binder and told this is what you have to do for the next 25 years.

20. Teaching, learning and sharing the load « Rhondda’s Reflections - wandering around the Web says:

[9/24/2008 - 9:39 pm]

[…] Luca’s post entitled No idea: a post to read. I then read about a post by a young teacher, Todd Seal, about how  he is feeling the classroom. Most of the comments also reflected that same feeling I […]

21. Tom Krawczewicz says:

[2/2/2009 - 9:30 pm]

Sorry that this reply comes many months removed from the initial post. I think all teachers have this thought and when it comes too early in a career and they can’t answer it, they move on. For those of us who do feel this way it’s a reminder that we are still reinventing ourselves in the classroom and are quite healthy, thank you. I have never been sky diving but I bet it is similar to that moment when you first jump.

Sometimes when I have no idea I ask the students what they think I want them to learn at this point or from this material. Their answers serve as a reflection of what and how I have been teaching recently. They can be brutally honest and that helps in giving me an idea, at least, of what I need to be doing.

22. Because we have them. « Rhinosplode says:

[8/18/2009 - 1:09 pm]

[…] 18, 2009 in Matters Educational Todd Seal wrote this last year, and I’m just getting around to reading it now: The good thing is that I do know a […]