Safe teaching is risky teaching


Teaching | Thursday, March 16, 2017

Safe teaching is risky teaching

We teachers can be pretty risk averse. We don't like to take chances. But by trying to be safe, often we're engaging in risky teaching. (Public domain image via

We teachers can be pretty risk averse. We don’t like to take chances. But by trying to be safe, often we’re engaging in risky teaching. (Public domain image via

I remember lots of important moments from my time in all levels of school. Many of them are my times with friends, conversations at the lunch table, sports competitions, etc.

I remember some lessons from the classroom. The most vivid ones are projects I did with others or collaborative activities:

  • I remember getting worksheet packets (blech!) in calculus and how groups of us divided and conquered them. (Memorable for the teamwork, not so much for the delivery of instruction.)
  • I remember preparing a group presentation on Zoroaster for world history. The two most memorable parts: how hard it was to say “Zoroastrianism” and how we slipped in a picture of a dog named Zoroaster we randomly found on the Internet.
  • I remember trying all sorts of things to learn all of the components of the Calvin cycle in science.

Most of them were memorable because of a decision I or a group made independently.

Truth: Very little of my calculus, Zoroaster information or the Calvin cycle stuck, and I remember very little of it to this day.

Truth: With most of that stuff, I don’t need to remember it. I can call it all back up with a Google search now. (If I need it. Not sure that I will need it, though.)

I have a hard time remembering all of those classes I took and especially what in the world I learned in them. Part of it is probably because of the volume of it all. Just from sixth to 12th grades, seven classes a day x 180 days x seven years = 8,820 class periods.

Part of it, though, I believe, was how I was taught. My high school career consisted of a LOT of lecture, a LOT of worksheets, and a LOT of quiet busywork.

A LOT of “safe teaching.”

That’s what we tell ourselves, anyway. This is the way education’s been done for decades, and it’s a way that isn’t going to rock the boat or make waves. 

The problem is this: I didn’t get into education not to rock the boat or make waves.

I want students to be challenged. To think. To be caught off guard. To have their worldviews turned completely upside down — mainly because your worldview is kind of upside down and self-focused as a kid.

Safe teaching isn’t going to do that. Safe teaching is going to slide by silently. It’s going to be forgotten the moment that students step out of class. It won’t mold the well equipped human beings that we need to guide us into the future.

Safe teaching is risky teaching.

Our safest option is to take some risks.

Try that crazy lesson idea that came to you laying in bed last night. Create an activity based off that YouTube video or show that students are nuts about right now.

Ditch the worksheets and the workbook pages and make something. Or go somewhere.

I can hear the dissent: But that’s risky. I don’t know how it’s going to go.

What’s risky is letting kids breeze by with a lot of activity that doesn’t actually produce any learning. That’s risky. Students have SO MANY demands on their attention these days — chief among them being electronics and mass media.

Want to get through to them, to cut through the noise? Take some risks. Be bold. Create classes that are different, that throw them out of whack.

You’re not being risky at all. You’re doing something that might actually work.

But what about those standardized tests? If I do all of these crazy, fun activities, they’ll never be ready.

Do you really think those worksheet packets and those uninspiring test prep sessions are actually preparing them for those tests?

Let’s compare:

Scenario 1: We reteach lessons that didn’t land by using the same instructional techniques that didn’t work in the first place. Students are mentally checked out in the first five minutes and it doesn’t matter what we’re saying. We hand out worksheets and busywork. Students give halfhearted effort (probably less than half) and are no different than before they started.

Scenario 2: We shake things up. We bring something in from the news that day OR we tie content from the test to their personal lives OR we get some PlayDoh out to make replicas of what we’re learning. We leave the worksheets in the filing cabinet. Students are actually engaged because it doesn’t feel like a mindless repetition of every other class.

Scenario 2 could be seen as risk-taking. I see it as a safe option. “Safe teaching” is a lot of activity and not a lot of learning. That doesn’t sound safe to me at all. We have to shake things up.

What we need are mavericks.

We need the teachers who will take risks, who will reject the status quo if it isn’t producing results.

Will you reject “safe teaching” because it really isn’t safe at all?

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  • Kelsee Ready says:

    Wow this is an amazing blog! I am currently in a masters program and a classmate mentioned this as a blog she is really into so I thought I would give it a chance and I was not disappointed! I recently had a baby and while on maternity leave from my 1st graders I did a lot of researching in hopes of finding a way to spruce up my classroom. I came across ideas like making homework optional, teaching outdoors, hand-on teaching, morning tubs and alternative seating. Two that I have started implementing in the weeks I have returned are morning tubs and alternative seating.
    With the alternative seating my classroom looks like a lounge and in the morning when my scholars are using the morning tubs it looks like recess on a rainy day. Needless to say, I got some backlash from my classroom parents. Luckily I received approval before implementing this so as concerns came in administration supported me.
    WOW! I have seen a huge change in the scholars engagement, motivation, general attitude towards school, and problem solving skills. I have seen alternative seating before but was always nervous about the backlash, so i never implemented it. Something clicked when I had my daughter and I suddenly had the courage to inquire. While it may not be the biggest risk I could have taken, it was risky and I have no regrets. Now that parents are seeing positive changes in their scholars I have their support.
    This blog validated a risk I took as a teacher and I am so happy. Seeing the success I have had in my classroom coupled with this reading is motivating me to take more risks as a teacher. I want the best for my scholars and your right in the necessity of change and risk. Risk can be scary, exciting, and invigorating. In the end, if the risk doesn’t pan out, this becomes a teachable moment for the scholars and a great time to reflect for the educator!

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  • Corey Coble says:

    This is a fantastic article. I was “that” teacher many years ago. Safe teaching was easy. Make 200 copies of the worksheet, go over the same slides, repeat the same lame joke, reteach over and over again and celebrate when the students “passed” (which was they just memorized what I forced into them).
    Then I realized my classes were the same as when I was a kid. Not very memorable.
    Now my students have choice, we do projects for a real audience and conduct experiments they want to do.
    Thank you for reminding us that teaching should be memorable for the students and not for a standardized test. Keep bringing these amazing stories. I’m sharing it with everyone I know!

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