The Power of Post-mortem

There’s a John Lennon song that addresses an issue that teachers know all too well: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making [lesson] plans.”

Even the most responsive and differentiated approaches can fall victim to the different kinds of chaos that life throws our way (Technology, I’m talking to you). On top of that, for a host of reasons, even our most school-loving students have off days. I have my fair share of off days, as well.

To be honest though, sometimes, something else is afoot. Once in awhile, my lesson, or unit, plans assume that students bring certain skills and abilities that have not yet been unlocked. Maybe I didn’t pre-assess well enough, maybe I misidentified students’ needs, maybe I made the wrong adjustments.

My first and second semester beat is all about exploring the moves a teacher can make when life happens to our well-made plans. Here, I’ll be detailing successful adjustments, as well, as moves that didn’t work out so well. Most importantly, I’ll be describing some of the key lessons I learn about as common (and not-so-common) issues pop in the Reading and Writing Workshop.

Life Happens Logo

A few years ago, I was asked to be an assistant coach for a high school tennis team, even though (1) I taught middle school, (2) I had zero coaching experience, and (3) I hadn’t played a competitive sport since I was in 5th or 6th grade. Oh, and (4) I’m not a good tennis player.

So, of course, I said yes.

Needless to say, I had a ridiculous amount to learn, so, I watched videos, and I read all I could. The first book I came across taught me one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned.

In the book Winning Winning Ugly, Brad Gilbert describes a phenomenon called “The Happy Camper and the Wounded Bear”. Gilbert posits that the reason for most comeback victories is that when a player dominates early, taking a massive lead, she has effectively wounded the bear, and, as a result, is now a happy camper. She feels a sense of power from taking down this huge creature, and, emboldened, she lets down her guard. Little does the happy camper know, that the bear is still on her trail, but now, she isn’t in fight mode. The pressure she exerted on the bear is no longer there. And this is how a come from behind victory occurs. The player with the early lead stops doing the things that netted her an early lead because the player has exchanged the combat mindset for the euphoric.

I noticed recently that sometimes I fall victim to the Happy Camper state of mind as a teacher. When things start going well, I might let up a little–maybe I’m a little less fastidious when planning. Perhaps I reward myself by sleeping in a few more minutes than usual. Or maybe, I’m a little more loosey-goosey with the wording and focus of a subsequent mini lesson.

And then, just when I think I’m out of the woods, the bear swallows me whole.

The hard thing is, when a lesson is flawed, the result often looks like disengaged, even misbehaving students. It doesn’t always look like a flawed lesson, so it can be hard to tell what was the main cause of the chaos the teacher experienced.

This is why I have found it helpful, at the end of the day, to write up a quick postmortem in my teaching journal, in which I explore what really happened and what might need to happen next.

Now, there are some rules that I need to follow if the exercise is going to be productive. For starters, I never blame a bad teaching day on the kids. I mean, sure, I’ve griped to myself, “Jeez, the kids were wild today,” but when running a post-mortem, blaming the students is not going to get me where I need to go.

Let me explain it this way, back when I was in college, a classmate asked one of my science professors if he believed in God. He replied, “I do, but when I’m acting as a scientist, I have to pretend I don’t. My religious beliefs can get in the way of my search for how things work. For example, years ago, when we were first studying weather as a civilization, we thought that natural disasters were caused by an angry god. However, once scientists put the idea of God aside, they were able to learn about the high pressure/low pressure systems, the Coriolis Effect, and convection.” In other words, a good scientist might have to put aside certain personal beliefs in order to gain a better understanding of what she is studying.

So, sure, maybe the kids were off that day, maybe something’s going on at home, but the thing is–there have been times when kids were off, and yet our lessons and preparation and presence allowed us to overcome.

So, rule #1 of the Post-mortem, leave kid-blaming out of it.

Try to figure out what YOU could have done differently. You might just unearth some interesting discoveries.

Rule #2: structure can help.

When I’m having a fragile-ego day, I might start with a two column chart in which I outline what I did well and what I need to improve.

Sometimes, when at the end of a more scattered day, my structure might take the form of a web or flow chart…

No matter the structure, running post-mortems at the end of a difficult teaching day helps me isolate where I might have done something differently, which gives me my next step for tomorrow. It also releases a good deal of the tension and frustration. When I am able to pinpoint what I could have done differently, my negativity turns into hope as I figure out what I will do differently tomorrow.

Rule #3: Look over your post-mortems from time to time, and look for patterns.

If you look back at the two post-mortems I’ve already shared, you might notice that I usually have decent lesson plans–but I don’t always spend enough time going over them or revising them. In a recent interview on the Heinemann Podcast, Cornelius Minor mentioned that sometimes we need to spend more time with our plans so that we really, really know what we are teaching that day. This allows us to be more present with our students. When we have a tighter grasp on our learning targets, how we are wording our mini lessons, and how we want to explain directions, we are more able to react to the circumstances in front of us.

Here’s yet another sports metaphor: athletes practice techniques over and over so that the techniques will become automatic. Not having to concentrate on technique allows them to be more present and react to new, in-game circumstances.

Looking over my post-mortems, I realized I was working hard at making plans, but I needed to spend more time with them to be more present with students–and maybe to revise certain sections of my plans a bit more so that they would work better for my students.

Rule #4: Post-mortems aren’t just for the bad days.

When we confer with students, we always want to point out something they are already doing well so that we can remind them to continue doing this thing purposefully moving forward. In the same vein, a post-mortem can function as a sort of teaching conference with yourself. You don’t want to be a happy camper, and rest on your laurels. Sometimes, you have done something really smart without fully understanding what made that smart thing happen. After a good teaching day, gift yourself a quick post-mortem, and really figure out what YOU did well so you can keep doing it with intention in the future.

–Noah Waspe

How do you reflect at the end of the school day? What kinds of things have you discovered by running your own post-mortems? Connect with me on Twitter @MrWteach or at

1 Comment

  1. Perfect timing for this message. My team and I have been thinking through the “kids these days” mantra and what we can do about re-engaging them at this point in the year. I like the idea of going back through and more carefully designing the learning experiences and even just making note of what works and what doesn’t rather than focusing too much on the “kid blaming.” Loved the “happy camper and wounded bear” metaphor as well and will certainly be checking out that title for more goodies. Thank you!

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