On The Dangers of Continuous Improvement

My school has a set of explicitly stated core values. They were derived at one or two faculty meetings in my first year. I remember we broke into smaller groups and talked about values that are, and I quote, “bone deep” at our school.

One of these core values is continuous improvement.

It sounds great when you say it to your kids. I mean, “We’re always working together to get better!” Who dares say that continuous improvement could be anything but positive?

In fact, I do. I have come to see that it isn’t always good.When done right, for example with all those Standard Based Grading enthusiasts who have seen results, it can be powerful. Carrots and all that. But it can be done wrong — and I think I’ve finally come to see the insidious side of continuous improvement.

It implies that we should always be working to do better. It also implies that we are never going to be good enough.

I’m in a bit of a teacher funk — and for those of you who read this, you might know by now that I get this way every so often. And then I do snap out of it. But it’s a cycle. I know some of you out there feel the same way as I do. I read it in your posts and your tweets. The sentiment: “I never knew how much I sucked until I met all of you.”

I have over 120 blogs in my google reader, I follow twitter daily (until a few days ago), and I stand up with all of you and engage when writing this blog and commenting on other blogs and tweeting about interesting things I read. I am constantly engaged and engaging and interested. And for 90% of the time, I love it. I love it because it brings meaning to my vocation — meaning that lies outside of me talking to myself in a self-contained bubble. It encourages me to have high standards and always keep striving to do better and provides me with models which to emulate.

And then, then, I get overwhelmed by it all. Usually brought on by a contemplative realization. Where I feel like I should be improving and I’m not. Where I’m making the same mistakes that I did as a first year, and wonder how is it I can’t overcome them? And where I’m just never going to get to that place where I want to be at.

Which is to be great. Which is where I can reach every kid and have them not hate math at the least, and love math at the best.

And I know it’s idealistic and Sisyphean and naive. And it’s what I want.

It’s the dark side of continuous improvement. Because I start feeling like I’ll never get there, and in fact, I won’t, because perfection is impossible.

I will snap out of it. I always do. But I don’t want to be in this cycle forever. I fear burn out if this continues to happen.

So I’m wondering if I should do what I tell my students to do when approaching a huge task. Break it into smaller chunks. And those into smaller chunks. Then the gargantuan task won’t seem so impossible, because in those chunks is an actionable plan. And then work on achieving some of those chunks.

Here’s my thought: I should make a list of 5-10 goals I want to accomplish next year (e.g. build a sense of community in each of my classes). And break those things into smaller actionable chunks (e.g. concrete actions I can do and check off which will hopefully build a sense of community). And make a sticker chart which I have on my desk — which I can see if I’m actually taking the steps I’ve outlined to achieve those goals. [1]

Perhaps if I do that, I won’t have this insidious and amorphous “continuous improvement” thing looming ahead of me. But something that I can realistically accomplish, and keep track of, and feel good about. Because who doesn’t feel good when looking at a chart full of stickers?

[1] Yes, you SBG enthusiasts out there, like your standards…



  1. Agreed! It’s fun to play in fantasy land where we get around on environmentally friendly jetpacks and live in trendy houses etc. And maybe one day we WILL get there, but we need to take baby steps. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3JPa2mvSQ4

    There’s a big picture for hopes and dreams and there’s a big picture for reality. Be contemplative about how much you’ve got going for you now. You’ve got students who learn a lot from you and have a good time doing it. While there is the sentiment of “if less is more, think of how much more MORE could be,” you’re currently doing very well.

    For example, some of the most comforting things I’ve read from Dan Meyer is when he says stuff like, “By even using twitter to communicate with other teachers, you’re in the top 2% of teachers out there.” (paraphrase)

    Also like you, I went on a vacation last week and am getting married in a couple weeks and will be in Italy for a few weeks after that. Part of my is so scared of not being able to follow everything going on in that time and I know I’ll come back to Google Reader having 5000+ unread and having no idea what’s going on at Twitter and I’ll feel lost and disconnected again. But, maybe I’ll realize that this world turns on without me just fine and I’ll plug back in somewhere and be welcomed back by friends. Well, I hope so anyways…

  2. @samjshah Be sure to set goals/targets for things within your control. For example, set as goal “Learn about 5 things that helps build a sense of community and do 1 or 2 of those in each of my classes then reflect at the end of the year. Try the other 3-4 items on list the following year if nothing worked”. If kids happen to warm up to you and to your class/community then consider yourself fortunate.

    Thanks for being reflective and for sharing it on this blog.

    @CalcDave My Google Reader has been stuck at 1000+ after the first month of using it (it’s been a few years). I read all kinds of stuff and sometimes, if I’m lucky, ideas for lessons come to me. Not terribly efficient as a method for lesson planning but I get to learn all kinds of stuff while fishing for lesson ideas.

    There must be a few people you follow religiously, create a folder “AAA” and tag those blogs with it.

    1. You are totally right – you need to come up with concrete actionable things. Not ambiguous things.

      When I ask my students what they’re going to do, after doing not so well on a test, and they reply “try harder” I say “Great. What does that mean? Specifically. In a way you can see if you are doing it.”

      I need to remember to do the same thing for me.

  3. I am wrestling with a similar thing right now. I’m nearing the end of my first year of consulting after 18 years of teaching. Last year in the classroom, I really felt like I had it down. Everything went pretty well, and I even experimented with some constructivist theory for the first time. Now I’ve spent an entire year working with teachers, reading, researching, observing, commenting, and reflecting. I’ve come to one conclusion. I wasn’t as good a classroom teacher as I thought I was. There is so much more I could have and should have been doing.

    I’ve committed to another year of consulting next year, but part of me wants to get right back into the classroom and try out all the things I’ve learned.

    1. Hi @John! I’m interested to hear what you learned by working with teachers… and how working with them changed your view of your own teaching.

  4. We’re both on the same island of self-doubt. I visit it frequently and am thinking of building a home there.

    Where I’m making the same mistakes that I did as a first year, and wonder how is it I can’t overcome them? And where I’m just never going to get to that place where I want to be at.

    I’ve been reading the Einstein bio that came out a couple years ago and one of the things I started thinking about was time travel. Did I think about all the awesome things I could do? Nope. I thought = What if 30 years from now me comes from the future and tells me “We’re going to work really hard for the next 30 years. But you know what? We’re still just a B- teacher.”

    If that’s not horrible self-doubt I don’t know what is. Like I said, I take solace in the fact that I’m working hard at one thing (assessment) spreading out as much as I can via blogs and twitter, and then sucking you guys dry when it comes to content/management/culture issues.

    1. @Jason: Let’s not build a home there. Seriously, it’s annoying and crippling! That 30 years in the future thought of yours – you’ve put it in my head. YARGH.

  5. Relax, Sam. Learning isn’t a continuous function, it has starts and stops as you assimilate and internalize everything you’ve been trying out for the last x number of years. In fact it may actually be necessary to take a rest time to put all of what you’ve been learning into action – which will be a learning process by itself ;-).

    The fact that you are in a funk is indicative of a level of reflection in your teaching practice that is not at all common. Revel in the funk. It’s your brain telling you that you need some time to put things together. Make this your goal.

    5 – 10 goals!!!! Some teachers that I’ve met only have one or two, and they don’t necessarily relate to improving practice. My wife is ready to kill me with everything I’m doing this year, so my number one goal next year is to take an assimilation year for everything I’ve learned this year and put it into practice. Goal number two is not to get killed by my wife. Goal number three? Start blogging. Thanks for sharing. You’re a good example to learn from.


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