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Teacher guilt is a compelling topic. Of all things the ideas captured in Emily Hanford’s At a Loss for Words (opens in a new window), the recording of me talking about my guilt has become one of the more popular snippets. Yes, I said this:

It’s true. And no, that’s not the way I want to be remembered… unless it somehow facilitates kids somewhere getting the instruction they need and deserve. But I worry that this attention to teacher-guilt may actually backfire if well-meaning advocates use my guilt to push change onto other teachers.

Of course, I cannot speak for every teacher who has encountered the science of reading after years of teaching so I encourage others to share if they feel inspired to do so. Here’s what’s true for me:

Guilt isn’t what changed my teaching.

At the time I was using ineffective techniques for teaching reading, I did not know that is what I was doing. Once I became skilled in a more effective approach and began to see the difference it made for students, that’s when I began to feel guilty. Only when I knew what student success looked like was I able to look back and see the missed opportunities.

Guilt isn’t what drives me to do better.

When a wave of guilt hits me (as it did in an interview with Emily), I am at risk of wallowing. Sometimes I need to sit with the feeling, other times I can shake it off more quickly. Several times I have attempted to write letters of apology to my former students, only to realize how selfish it is for me to burden them with my guilt. They get nothing from me feeling bad, but they get something from me taking action and getting them the instruction I wish I had provided.

I am deeply committed to our pilot-project in Oakland which is designed to help teachers, coaches and principals learn evidence-based reading instruction. It’s not fueled by guilt; no one would be willing to participate were I to lead based on a desire to avoid shame. On the contrary, my work is appealing to others because I am inspired and I believe that better is possible for our kids and teachers.

Other teachers’ guilt does not help my work.

But I do empathize! I have spent many a coaching session, happy hour, and PLC discussing the feelings of guilt that can be stirred by the 20/20 vision of hindsight. I believe that time has been well-spent because, on the other side of it, I can often support teachers in pushing through to face another day, a better day, of teaching. Some teachers I have helped have become coaches and instructional leads, supporting others. This community is important, but guilt is not a requirement of membership into the club of evidence-based instruction.

Some teachers feel plenty of guilt, but it does not drive them to improve instruction. Some lose their confidence and then avoid the very teaching that would help this year’s students escape a tradition of low performance. Others are frequently absent or they quit (even mid-year).

Other teachers show no signs of guilt and yet they transform their teaching based on new knowledge.

Teacher I Coached: “We’ve been teaching these kids wrong for years…”

Me: “How does that make you feel?”

Teacher:  “It makes me feel like I’d better do better tomorrow. Can you show me how to do Heggerty?”

I worry that if advocates believe that teacher guilt is a necessary phase of growth, we will undermine the quest for improved instruction. Guilt may have the power to make us stop doing something, but I don’t believe that it is a good source of long-term motivation. Shame is no rallying cry. Leaders of instructional change need to come from a place of confidence; they need to inspire. Teachers need and deserve to be treated as professionals and crying on the job should not be a requirement.

What might be more effective than promoting teacher guilt and shame?

  • Sharing success stories
  • Leading by example
  • High-quality training
  • Ongoing support

It’s important that supporters of instructional change know that teacher-guilt is a frequent, but not required, component of changing practice. Making a teacher feel bad is not part of healthy advocacy. Teaching is exhausting and we need fuel, so give us hope and some guidance and we’ll turn what’s offered into the best instruction we know how to deliver.

About the Author

Margaret Goldberg is the co-founder of the Right to Read Project, a group of teachers, researchers, and activists committed to the pursuit of equity through literacy. Margaret serves as a literacy coach in a large urban district in California and was formerly a classroom teacher and curriculum developer. All posts are reprinted with permission from the Right to Read Project (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
September 11, 2019