Straight as an Arrow – Not!

By Marsha Levering

Think of an accomplishment you have experienced in your personal life—something you felt compelled to complete.  Some examples might include:  landscaping your yard, painting a room, changing careers, learning to play an instrument,  putting a swing set together…the list goes on! Now reflect on a professional accomplishment—finishing a course, earning a degree, reaching a hard-to-teach student, organizing literacy night, introducing peers to team teaching….

Consider this: Were you able to immediately accomplish the task, or did you encounter issues and obstacles along the way? Let’s think about painting a room. It sounds like a simple, straightforward plan–get the paint, move the furniture, tape the woodwork, and GO, right? Except that, somewhere along the way you forgot to pick up a paint roller, and the brush you planned to use has disappeared. So you make a trip back to the store and then begin preparing the room. Wow! That big roll of painter’s tape—well, it looked like there was plenty on the roll! But no, one more trip to the store! So now you’ve taped the woodwork, created a workspace around the room, protected the floor, set the ladder in place, stirred and poured the paint in the pan, you’re set to go. This is exciting! You like the color, you’ve got the hang of edging the ceiling, the paint is going on smoothly, then you look back and realize the darker color underneath is showing through. You sigh, wondering if it’s going to take two coats, even though the paint label and the salesperson guaranteed one coat would cover!! Well, you’ll have to see what it looks like when it’s dry. Turn the corner of the room—oops! The ladder won’t fit, you have to move some furniture, your son comes in looking for a video game somewhere under the furniture covers, there’s a substantial crack in a corner that needs several coats to look good….Eventually you succeed in painting the room, and you are happy! It has taken far longer than you expected, you’re tired, covered with paint, sore from climbing up and down a ladder, but you’re happy. You can’t wait to see it in the morning light! And then…the morning light reveals it is definitely going to need another coat.

It has been my experience that even when a course of action seems straightforward, sensible, and simple, it rarely turns out to be that way! I may want the accomplishment in the worst way, but my best preparations cannot prevent unforeseen factors and events that cause slow-downs, stops, and rerouting. Let’s think about what this means for our commitment to children’s learning. There is much we want to accomplish with students, and our plans reflect directness and thoughtful intention. Yet often we can’t anticipate the impact on learning that will come from our students’ home lives, their learning needs, the newest wave of testing, or budget cuts. There is seldom a straight line to success and achievement.

I often consider the title of Marie Clay’s book, By Different Paths to Common Outcomes (1998). It reminds me that no two children arrive at literacy learning in exactly the same way, so our teaching has to be wide enough and flexible enough to include all learners at varying phases in their development. Clay (p. 88) tells us, “Their individual different problems arise from different kinds of learning opportunities in their real-world context”. We have to be ready to teach students at this point, even if it means adjusting our plans and schedules.

In Margaret Mooney’s forward to By Different Paths to Common Outcomes (1998), she discusses her teaching responsibilities and opportunities to help all children achieve their learning potential. She further writes,

I am sure readers of this collection of Marie Clay’s thought-provoking writings will find themselves on a similar journey. The journey will not be along a speedy freeway, but      will involve detours and crossroads, exploring new vistas and revisiting some so familiar that the signposts are in danger of being ignored. I am also confident that the resting spots will      include reconsidering and re-evaluating beliefs and practices about learning and teaching….It is likely the journey will cross some rough terrain and the traveling will bring some  discomfort. But readers can rest assured they will be guided back to the highway and the vision ahead” (Mooney, 1998, p. viii).

Clay’s (2005) work supports our interactions with students every day. She reminds us that teachers are like craftspeople. They monitor how a product is shaping up and make adjustments accordingly, like an artist who adjusts the light, shade or color of a picture. There is no straight line from the painter’s blank canvas to the final product. There is no straight line from the start of a student’s learning to a future goal.

So how do we meet setbacks and still focus on accomplishing our goals in teaching? First, be persistent–begin the work and know you are going to see it through. Think flexibly and creatively—look at the situation in a new way, consider your options, and try something different. Use past knowledge to help—what do you know that can be applied to this situation? Finally, think collaboratively—work with and learn from others who are also committed to accomplishing great things for children (Costa & Kallick, 2008). You hold the key for impacting those you teach, and whatever the obstacles, you are on a journey that will require a willingness to look around the next curve and adjust the route you are currently taking.  As Alice Walker reminds us (as cited in Costa & Kallick, 2008, p. 15), “The impeded stream is the one that sings.” Let challenges deepen your resolve for reaching high!


Clay, M. M. (2005). An observation survey of early literacy

           achievement(3rd Edition.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Clay, M. M.  (1998). By different paths to common outcomes. York,

          Maine: Stenhouse.

Costa, A.L. & Kallick, B. (Eds.). (2008). Learning and leading with

           habits of mind: 16 essential characteristics for success.  

          Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and

          Curriculum Development.

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