We Can’t Change Our Past, But We Can Change Our Narrative


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By Eric Carbaugh

Part I

BackToSchool Carbaugh 300x300If there were such thing as a DeLorean that took people back in time, I’d love to use it to give first-year-teacher me a few pointers. Back in 2002, I was hired at my old high school, James Monroe, to teach world geography and given two days to prepare for the start of the school year. I tried my best that year. I got there early and stayed late. I volunteered for clubs and I coached the swim team. I stayed afloat using my prized asset—the geography textbook. I also dug through resources that a retiring teacher left me and stockpiled whatever handouts, tests, or worksheets my mentor teacher had to offer. The result? A disjointed mess that made little sense to me and even less to my students. As an illustration of my ineptitude, I ran into one of my former geography students at a trivia night a few years later while he was an undergrad and I was a graduate student at the same university. As we sat at separate tables, the trivia announcer informed us that the first category of the night was geography. My former student looked at me from across the room with his arms raised and yelled “Carbaugh?!?!” Both our teams lost. So, where had I gone wrong as a teacher? I had a bunch of resources. I knew how to design activities, and I knew how to cover content. I tested my students regularly. I was definitely teaching them . . . that should be enough, right? In short, no, it wasn’t. My curriculum was structured around discrete pieces of information and lower-level skills. I knew what topics I was trying to teach but not what specific outcomes I expected of my students. I was so focused on being a teacher to my students that I wasn’t focusing on their learning, first and foremost, and therefore the long-term geographical potential of my students suffered.

Part II

A few years later, I earned by PhD in educational psychology from the University of Virginia. I became an expert in how people acquire and understand information, what effective curriculum is, and how to meet the needs of diverse learners. I took a job teaching future middle and secondary educators at James Madison University (JMU) in Virginia. This world can be a funny place, and sometimes it is hard to completely escape your past. As luck would have it, the very first student I met at JMU was a graduate of the high school where I taught. “Didn’t you teach at James Monroe?” he asked when he walked in, just the two of us standing there. I wanted to say no. I was afraid that he’d scoff at the notion that I was teaching him how to be a teacher. But I laughed and said yes. He told me my hair was shorter now (I went with the Christopher Columbus look for my first year teaching—I was full of good decisions back then). I thought about telling him to ignore everything he remembered about me, but I knew that wasn’t a good idea. I did a few effective things my first year teaching at James Monroe. I cared about my students and worked hard to help them be successful, and I didn’t want to discount that. The problem was all that hard work wasn’t as influential as it should have been because I was fuzzy about what I wanted them to learn, and whether or not they were actually learning it on a daily basis. I wasn’t seeing my teaching through my students’ eyes. Back then I was just a teacher. If only I could go back in time and tell myself what it means to be both a teacher and a learner.

Part III

No, we can’t change our past, but we can change the narrative. Instead of being known as that high school world geography teacher who struggled in his first year, I could be recognized as someone who assisted my first crop of future educators to avoid the same fate. I could help them come to understand, know, and do that which I wish I did. So, I made a clear plan so that my students wouldn’t repeat my mistakes. In the words of John Hattie (2012), I would both prepare and model for my students the notion of visible teaching and learning.

Visible teaching and learning occurs when learning is the explicit and transparent goal, when it is appropriately challenging, and when the teacher and the student both (in their various ways) seek to ascertain whether and to what degree the challenging goal is attained. (p. 14)

Being “explicit and transparent” required me to start with the end in mind and work backward from there. I needed to provide effective feedback so that my students (and I) could see their learning. Here are some of the key ideas we explored—ideas that I would have loved to have shared with first-year-teacher me:

  • Instruction and assessment are parts of the interdependent process of instructional design.
  • Intentional alignment of instructional goals, learning experiences, and assessment leads to the implementation of powerful and efficient instruction.
  • Students are academically, developmentally, and culturally diverse and differ in their approaches to learning.
  • Deep understanding of both students and content should drive instructional design (developed along with Kristina J. Doubet, James Madison University).

I am entering my 8th year at JMU, and each and every semester I get a chance to rewrite my narrative. I make sure that the plot begins and ends with a clear plan that centers squarely on student learning. After all, anyone can teach, but what makes teachers special is their ability to help students learn. I’m not just a teacher anymore. I’m also a learner. As you embark on your first year of teaching—or your 34th—think about your narrative. Remember how important it is to guide your students toward uncovering important ideas, and plan with a clear picture of what these ideas are and the knowledge and skills that support them. Remember what you value. And most important, remember what it means to be a learner. Have a wonderful year!


Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge,


Eric Carbaugh is an associate professor in the College of Education at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., and an ASCD Faculty member. He works with teachers across the nation and abroad on the topics of curriculum, assessment, differentiation, and digital learning.


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