Working on a "Kaizen" Model by Joel Schlabach

When I helped to coach the Virginia Wesleyan Marlin women’s’ volleyball team for several years, the team motto was the Japanese word “Kaizen.” Our head coach, Andrea Hoover, defined this word as small, incremental improvements on a regular basis. In other words, we pushed a focus on getting slightly better on a daily basis and an emphasis on the process of improving over the result. We tried to both encourage the players to adopt this idea and model it on a regular basis for them. Meanwhile, life took me and my family to Indiana, and while I remembered coaching those teams fondly, I hadn’t thought about Kaizen in 5 or 6 years.

Leap forward to last week. I was awarded the honor of being voted Teacher of the Year by my colleagues at the high school I teach at and to be honest, I can’t help but feel a little bit of “imposter syndrome.” The praise, accolades, and attaboys are extremely appreciated but make me wonder…

  •  Am I really that good at this?
  • Do I feel any different in this, my 13th year, than I did in my 3rd?
  • Am I really making large-scale changes for my students and my classes?
  • Is my classroom a transformative place for students?
  • What, if anything, am I doing anything better than any of my colleagues to deserve this  honor?

After a week or so of reflection, I have realized that, intentionally or not, I have adopted a Kaizen mindset in my classroom. Whether making slight changes to improve the questions I ask, or the incentives I provide, or the diversity of assignments I give, these small changes over a long period of time have helped me to continue my growth as an educator. In thinking about my classroom, I don’t do things majorly different than I did 5 or 10 years ago, but almost all aspects of my teaching are better.

Sometimes, as someone trying to pay attention to the latest innovations in education, I feel the pressure to shoot for the moon or make significant changes to my style, attitude, or classroom. Kaizen is more authentic to my journey as an educator. I don’t have a “lightbulb” moment when I decided to become a teacher. It just sort of grew on me as I went.  One thing I know is that I can make small, purposeful changes to get better. Focusing instead on Kaizen provides both a comfort and a motivation.  It’s something I can keep up with and something that has become a habit.

If you are in a rut, or have similar thoughts about being imposter, I encourage to focus on Kaizen. Or, if you prefer the classic Dr. Leo Marvin (What about Bob?) line, “Baby steps!”

- Joel Schlabach

Joel Schlabach

Joel has been teaching social studies since 2004. His favorite topic is imperialism. He enjoys leading academic teams, playing disc golf, and spending time with his kids. Find Joel on twitter at @Schlabteach