Teachers As Learners...

by Hal Portner

Want to Learn? Then Learn to Risk!

Material for this article is adapted, with permission from the publisher, from Portner, H. (2002) Being Mentored: A Protégé's Guide. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Corwin Press, Inc.

Learning implies change; change implies risk. This maxim places "teachers as learners" on the perplexing horns of a dilemma. After all, risk-taking can be foolish --- even harmful. Yet, taking a chance is sometimes called for in order to learn to teach better. You might well ask yourself, "Do I dare I take risks?" The answer is a resounding yes, provided your decision is an informed one.

You can learn to risk wisely. That is to say, you can develop the skills and understanding needed to be an informed risk taker. Start small. Confine your risk-taking practice at first to making slight variations in your classroom routine (ask a student to hand out materials instead of doing it yourself, for example, or try using overhead transparencies instead of the chalk board).

Risk-Taking Ground Rules

Before you decide to take a risk that involves others, take the time to inform your decision by testing it against the following two criteria.

  1. Look at the moral and ethical implications of taking the risk. In the medical profession, doctors take the Hippocratic oath which begins "First, do no harm . . ." The same holds true for teachers. While we all may make mistakes when learning, our laudable efforts to learn to be better teachers does not include the right to threaten our own or someone else's physical or emotional health or safety, or to infringe on the rights of others. If taking a particular risk may cause harm, don't take the risk.


  2. Consider whether taking that risk would violate the formal or informal policies, practices and perceptions in your school. Think twice before deciding to break those rules. Staff in most schools operate within a set of official or formal policies and procedures that fall under such categories as curriculum standards, discipline protocols, and ordering supplies. There are also unofficial practices working within virtually all schools that have as much to do with how a school functions as do the formal ones. These are culture (this is the way we do things around here) and tradition (this is the way we've always done them). In many schools, teachers share such unstated conventions, for example, as collectively taking responsibility for all students learning to write well. So if taking the risk violates such issues, don't do it --- unless you want to risk changing those conventions first. Always let wisdom and decorum prevail.

Should You or Shouldn't You?

James Bryant Conant, President of Harvard College from 1933 to 1953, believed in the value of taking risks. "Behold the turtle," he is credited to have said. "It makes progress only when it sticks its neck out."

Suppose you want to ‘stick your neck out' but are afraid of having it chopped off? Or suppose you tell someone what you plan to do, and they respond with a killer comment that sets you aback? Some classic killer comments are, "We tried that before. . .don't waste your time," and, "Been there; done that; didn't work then; won't work now."

Uncertainties and killer comments can give you second thoughts about taking even the most worthwhile risk and can cause you to ask yourself, "What if I take a risk and it fails?" Thomas Edison supposedly tried thousands of times before he succeeded in coming up with a filament that made the electric light bulb possible. "I didn't fail a thousand times," he is purported to have said. "I successfully eliminated a thousand materials which wouldn't work." So ask yourself, "What is the worst thing that can happen if I take the risk and fail?" More than likely, you will decide that taking informed risks, while possibly resulting in failures, are worth taking.

Help the Risk Succeed

Once you have decided to take a risk, you may be able to increase its chances of success by doing the following:

  1. Define as clearly as possible what you plan to do and why.


  2. List everything you can think of that might resist or get in the way of achieving your intended outcome.


  3. List everything you can think of that might help achieve your intended outcome.


  4. Develop strategies to intensify items that help, dilute items that hinder, and change resisting items into supporting ones.

Finally, Risk with Conviction

Once you have decided to take a risk, do so with confidence and joy. If the risk you consider taking will cause no harm and does not impinge on formal or informal policy and practice, and if you are convinced that taking the risk will reap benefits, then go ahead, take it.

Take a moment to reflect on an occasion that involved your taking a risk that opened up a new and better way to do something. What did you do and why? What did you learn from the experience?

A teacher who took the risk of sharing her thoughts with unfamiliar colleagues by responding to the task I assigned in my February Gazette article, identified the area of focus for her individual professional development as "challenging our teachers to utilize different instructional strategies in the classroom in order to improve student achievement . . . specifically, to get our students interested in reading." The data she used to decide on this focus was that literacy comprehension scores in her school have fallen. She went on to say that she intends to use the internet and professional journals to gather ideas and to seek out training sessions that are offered which introduce varied instructional strategies to address her focus.

In Summary

We all have our own styles and ways of doing things; some work, others don't. Often, it is by trying out new strategies and behaviors that we learn and improve. Changing what we do and how we do it involves risks, including the risk of making things worse, and the risk of being ridiculed if things go wrong. You can make risk-taking more beneficial and less risky when you do the following;


Do not take a risk if there is any possibility that doing so will cause harm.



Be willing to go ‘out on a limb' if need be, in order to follow through on your convictions.



Resist the impulse to take a risk until you have considered its ramifications, i.e., inform yourself.



Once you have decided to take an informed risk, do so with confidence.

Once you are certain that taking a particular risk will do no harm and will likely lead to some benefit, don't hold back. Do it the best you can. Taking a risk can open up a new learning experience.

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