What a Teacher Really Needs

Heading for blog about curriculum and instruction

The diploma reads, “Curriculum and Instruction.” Two words often tied together with an ampersand. It wasn’t until much later, during a job interview, that I ever considered why both words came bundled together.

Her eyes moved to the next question: “What is the difference between ‘curriculum’ and ‘instruction’?” 

I stumbled, “That’s a great question…” Face turning red, reaching for thoughts that swirled without form. 

For the next five minutes I vomited up nomenclature and ed-speak, smatterings of “assessment” and “delivery” and “pedagogy” all blurring together. After the interview, I was embarrassed–how did I finish a masters degree in a field I can’t even define? When I was done cycling through the “shame and blame game,” I created a simple working definition: 

Curriculum = What

Instruction = How   

There is nothing revolutionary about this definition, but it does benefit from its simplicity–curriculum is what you are teaching and instruction is how you teach it. The simplicity is the Occam’s razor to slice through the gummed up discourse and confusion surrounding much of education. 

“Unfortunately, in the pursuit of standardization, the education system gums up the path to inspiration.”

You see, at NuMinds, we believe in the power of the impassioned educator–we use the term Inspirator. When an Inspirator is fully alive, getting his or her “teach on,” it’s amazing to watch. Whether joining the students on the rug for reading time or positioned behind a lecturn, an Inspirator uses her eyes, voice, and gestures to move about the room. The simple shift in inflection, the gleam of excitement–all adding to the magic. 

Unfortunately, in the pursuit of standardization, the education system gums up the path to inspiration. Teachers are required to write lesson plans using scripted templates, log every phone call, use the required textbooks, forego planning in order to attend meetings or monitor the cafeteria. Teachers are expected to be on the “same page” as the rest of the team–even when the same “lock step” isn’t feasible . Test data is analyzed with a focus on wrong answers, with little consideration for the individual student. 

What does every teacher (including the best Inspirator) really need? Ready for the razor? The answer is access to flexible curriculum and support with instruction. 

Provide teachers with access to curriculum (the what) 

  • Engaging questions a teacher can ask his or her students; 
  • Resources (passages, videos, websites) a teacher can pick-and-choose from; 
  • Short problems used to practice applying knowledge and making manageable mistakes, 
  • Projects that are relevant, challenging, and adaptable based on student’s interests. 
  • Assessments that demand critical thinking, 

Support teachers with instruction (the how) 

  • How to spark curiosity and engagement;
  • How to know what needs to be taught directly versus what the students can learn best by trying themselves;
  • How to monitor learning to make sure the students are getting it; 
  • How to provide feedback and encouragement that supports growth; 
  • How to get to know students and form relationships; 
  • How to foster creativity; 
  • How to support students working in a group; 
  • How to encourage students to become aware of their own behavior and choices;
  • How to help students take ownership of their own learning.  

“…the what and the how serve more as a litmus test to know if our efforts are truly supporting a teacher and the work she does in her classroom.” 

These are not some idealized lists or lofty goals, nor are they a panacea for all ills in education; instead, the what and the how serve more as a litmus test to know if our efforts are truly supporting a teacher and the work she does in her classroom. 

As a curriculum writer and a trainer for teachers, I use this list with every lesson and training we create. When creating curriculum, we need to know if the content is aligned, providing a clear pathway to learning, and at the same time, is it flexible enough for a teacher to adapt as needed? If one rowdy kid in the third row acts up, if the video isn’t as interesting as anticipated, if technology fails, or if the teacher uncovers a handful of students have learning gaps–is the curriculum flexible enough to bend to these unique demands? 

Every teacher training we create must focus on the how by sharing strategies, ideas and examples, while always recognizing that there is not one right way. Effective instruction varies by grade level, class, or even time of day; so our training must reinforce the value of coaching–real time feedback on actual performance.  

If I could turn back the clock and sit in that interview again, I would quickly use what and how to explain the difference between curriculum and instruction. And then, instead of babbling, those next five minutes would unpack exactly what teachers need in order to do their job and thrive–access to flexible curriculum and support on how to deliver. I would end my interview response by saying, “Anything else is a distraction.”  

The Next Wave in Education

The day is calm. Your feet are in the sand. Waves gently lap onto the shore, rising to your ankles and gliding across the tops of your feet. Silently, the wave retreats, tugging gently on your toes as it returns to its undulating dance. 

Although you stood still, you are surprised to find your feet have sunk millimeters deeper into the sand. With each passing wave, your feet become more encased–cool to the touch, comforting, and at the same time, morbidly fascinating as you watch yourself received into the belly of the Earth. 

In 2013 the tide of education was turning. For a decade, the wave of No Child Left Behind had slowly eroded the foundation of our schools. With no end in sight, many educators began to revolt, forming new collectives with new ideas and new approaches to learning that abandoned the old, sinking model. Project-based learning; curriculum infused with creativity and innovation, and a global charge to individualize the profession.

“It was amidst this Edvolution that NuMinds was formed. Utilizing a love for curriculum creation and enrichment learning…”

Following the first step of any bohemian revolutionary, we created a manifesto. Replace absinthe with coffee and paint brushes with dry erase boards, and you have the stage set for constructing our new model for learning. We borrowed from the old while synthesizing our beliefs and experiences. What we created, we named Bamboo Curriculum. It served as our initial compass, and it still guides every learning experience we create today. The formula, the approach, and the structure was so unique, we even applied for and received a U.S. patent.

Over the next six years, we were met and embraced by so many unseen hands–like-minded individuals hungry to change the world, who believed in us as we believed in them. This web of support allowed us to train thousands of teachers in our methods; write hundreds of courses and deliver amazing programs all over the world. In true devil-may-care fashion, we took from our profits and created programs for those in need. It is one thing to practice your own methods and believe in their validity; it’s another to watch refugees, children in foster care, Syrian orphans, impoverished inner-city and rural youth, English learners and countless others respond to our passion-based approach to integrated learning. 

In 2019, we piloted a new business model, a way to deliver programs across the globe–which cost communities very little but delivered a huge impact. The key was building the capacity of local teachers. With training, support, and healthy autonomy, open-minded teachers edvolved into Inspirators–igniting their own spark and delivering our programs with fun and fidelity. 

The pilot took attention and time, and making a full operational pivot for 2020 was a huge gamble. We knew that this approach would only work through economy of scale (i.e.–make a little money in a lot of places, and you can keep the lights on and the absinthe flowing).

As we all now know, 2020 was not a year to make large gambles.

Shipwreck Boat Ship - Free photo on Pixabay
“All the while, from our tumbling vantage point, the monolith of education could be seen in the distance.”

As we all now know, 2020 was not a year to make large gambles. 

An unexpected wave pummeled the shoreline, impacting everyone. We spun like flotsam, treading to keep our head above water. Tumbling. Free resources. Furloughs. Tumbling. Virtual programs. Lay offs. Tumbling. Skeleton crew. Half time. Part time. All the while, from our tumbling vantage point, the monolith of education could be seen in the distance. The edifice of public education wasn’t just sinking into the sand, Covid had cracked its very structure!  

2021. The wave has not yet receded, the devastation is not yet over. However, instead of the battering of an oncoming surge, we are instead finding our footing on the sand–a beach strewn with litter, wrack, and broken shells. Covered in grit, those who have withstood the wave are taking stock of where they are, who they are, and the best next step.       

“I wish to God is didn’t take a global pandemic and so much suffering to finally awaken this level of clarity. Unfortunately, it did…”

Teachers are covered in grit, and it is now clear to everyone that they are the most important component in education. Policy makers failed, awash in political tumult. Organizations closed their doors before crumbling. The top heavy structure of education was exposed by the storm for its indecisiveness and poor decision making. The only thing that truly matters are teachers–teachers who strive to reach their students, imparting knowledge, wisdom, and love.  

I wish to God that it didn’t take a global pandemic and so much suffering to finally awaken this level of clarity. Unfortunately it did. The flight of fancy that launched Numinds in 2013–a vision to upturn education by empowering teachers–proved to be more prophetic than we ever anticipated. 

Now that we are all here and now that we are all covered in grit, please listen. We must empower teachers. They need support and resources, but most importantly, they need the autonomy to do what is in their professional capacity to do–teach children. We cannot train and certify teachers only to have them squashed by oversight, fleeing in search of other opportunities. Instead, we must all allow teachers to design and enact learning experiences that speak to each student’s individual zone of genius. 

In 2021, NuMinds will continue to hoist the flag of real inspired learning. We’ll use this time of rebuilding to offer training and resources–including turnkey curriculum and methods from our Bamboo Curriculum that enable teachers to create their own learning experiences. We do not claim that our way is the only way; every student is different, and there is nothing under the sun that will work every time with every kid. But by focusing on empowering the individual teacher, instead of pouring into policies and oversight, we now know that it is the best step towards rebuilding a sustainable model of education. So that when the next wave in education surfaces, this new foundation will stand above the sinking sand. 

Balancing High Expectations with Emotional Support

You change your tone of voice–it’s more demanding now: “Because I said so.” Immediate frustration–her eyes begin to well. Now you’re met with stonewalled resistance.  You know there’s a better way. New strategy. New tone: compromise. “Look, sweetie, if you study your vocabulary words then you can have technology time.”

Still nothing.

You pivot again. This time, pleading: “Come on. If you won’t do it for me, do it for your teacher; she’s works so hard.” Finally, with nothing else working, here comes guilt: “I work every day so that you can have the things you want, and you have one job–to do well in school.  What if I ‘just didn’t want to’ go to work one day?”

Ultimately, this whole conversation ends in some degree of defeat. You think you’re being supportive, but actually you spend 25 minutes of painful, step-by-step hand holding–where you do the majority of the work.


It doesn’t matter if you have a six-year-old or a sixteen-year-old, parts of this conversation have taken place in your home. When we ask our kids to do something–like complete schoolwork, write thank you notes, or clean their rooms–there is a wide range to how we ask. On the far right is ordering and demanding (“Because I said so”) and on the far left is defeat and enabling (“Fine, I’ll just do it.”)

We’ve heard the arguments: if you push too hard, you’re a tiger parent, driving your kids to succeed with stress that ultimately drives them away[1]. If you enable, you create entitled kids who lack resiliency[2].  Fortunately, there is a middle ground, and it is a choice that is quickly gaining popularity.[3] The choice is empathy.

As a quick, working definition: empathy is where you feel with the other person. This is different from its cousin, sympathy, where you feel for the other person. Showing empathy allows us to love our kid for who they, where they are, while still holding them accountable with high expectations.


But what does it mean to show empathy?  The following three steps are simple to type, simple to read, but only manifest with patience and practice. But I promise you, as someone who practices, fails, and reattempts these steps every day, the times that you get all three steps right are the greatest moments of parenting and bonding you will experience with your child.

Step One: Remove the self.  At first, this step sounds like you simply leaving the room.  Although that may be necessary to gather yourself, this step is actually about removing your sense of self (aka — your ego) from the equation. Too often, when our kids get angry, we get angry. Any parent can attest that this never ends well. Meg Meeker in her 2017 book, Hero[4], implores us NOT to take our child’s anger personally. Our child may be angry that free time is being used or that he has to do something less interesting than video games and playing with friends. This frustration will be pointed at you, but your child is not angry with you. So, when your kid gets angry, remove you from the equation–know that they are angry at something, but not necessarily you.

Step Two: Meet your child where he is (without judgment). Put the following words in your mouth: “You’re right.” Now, say them with feeling and sincerity–you’ll know if you’ve got it because the pitch of your voice will go up, not down. Once you’ve got it, try the following phrase, but while you’re saying it, imagine talking to someone who just lost his or her job.  “You’re right; that is tough. I’m sorry you’re having to go through that.” This practice is not meant to belittle you, it’s just that this exact phrase meets the individual right where he or she is at, without putting any personal spin on it.

Unfortunately, if you’re like me the personal spin does come in, and I often say things like, “Don’t worry, it’s not that bad,” or “You got this. This is nothing.”  Although well-intended, these phrases do nothing to build the other person up. Quite worse, they undermine the other person’s feelings. If you’re six, then cleaning your whole entire room is an insurmountable task comprised of endless hours of work; you saying, “It’s nothing, you got this,” is not helpful. Instead, meet them where they are without judgement.

Step Three: State your expectations (they will figure it out).  When students are asked what grade they think they will earn on an upcoming assignment, they are surprisingly accurate. In fact, the third most accurate indicator out of 195 other indicators and influencers[5]. Why? Because kids know what they’re capable of and what they’re willing to do to get there.

Want another example? Pretend that your kid says he’ll only score a 70 on an upcoming spelling test; so you ask him, “Why didn’t you choose a higher score?” He answers with things that fall outside of his control–the words are too hard, the teacher doesn’t like him, he only has one day to study.  However, if you ask, “Why didn’t you choose a lower number,” your kid will respond with everything he does have control over: “I’m not dumb. I know how to spell over half of these. Some of these words are easy. I’ve already studied some.”[6]

These examples may be focused on grades, but they really do drive the point that kids know what is expected, what they are capable of, and what they are willing to do to get it.

For the parent who has utilized the first two steps (remove the self and meet your child without judgment), the third step is to layout clear expectations. There is no anger because you are removed from the situation; instead, you simply state the fact that “In this house we don’t do half of our homework”, or “We clean our rooms on Saturday,” or “We always put forth our best effort.” Don’t budge, your child will figure out what they are capable of doing.

This is not a new concept. Many schools have caught on to this tactic by utilizing a system called PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support[7]). You’ll know if a school has a PBIS system if the hallways are covered with posters that say “At Smith Elementary we show respect, follow directions…” The school is making it clear that these are the expectations, and the students then learn to rise to this level. You love your children, and Brene Brown tells us[8] that love is manifested through accountability, so state your expectations without wavering–they will figure it out


Let’s return to that opening conversation–this time eavesdropping on what you might say using our three-step approach to empathy,

“What homework do you have to do? … “You have to memorize all 20 of these words?” … “You’re right; that is tough. I’m sorry you have to do all that.” … “When’s the test?” …. “What do you think you’re going to get?” … “A 70? Hmm…why didn’t you say 50 or 30?” … “Okay, so you know how to spell some of them. What would you need to do to score a 90 or a 100?” … “It sounds like you know what to do in order to do your best work.” … “In this house you are expected to do your best work.” … “Well, you just told me what you need to do, and it sounds like you know how to do it.” … “I won’t do any of your work for you, but let me know if you get stuck.”


Then we delegate, give directions, or teach others, there is a continuum of support ranging from demanding to enabling. Either one of these extremes is counterproductive, stagnating affective growth and decreasing chances of both short and long-term success for the person we are ultimately trying to help. Somewhere in the middle, is a place of empathy–a form of genuine understanding where we remove ourselves, feel with the other person, and hold those we love accountable while showing respect. Continue to practice these three steps with me, and you will experience the rewards that come with cultivating resilient, caring, respectful, fun, interesting, and successful kids.


About the Author

Justin Vawter is Co-Founder and CCO of NuMinds Enrichment (headquarters in Addison, TX). He has taught and brought inspiration to his students for almost a decade–ranging from 6th graders to college-bound seniors. He holds a Master’s Degree in Curriculum & Instruction from the University of North Texas, and has served as both a curriculum writer and professional development author/presenter. His passions include travel (most recently a Western European and Central American excursion), long-distance running, triathlon, and implementing new ideas into the classroom. As of today, he has finished over a dozen triathlons, including the IronMan, and seven ultra marathons. Publications include submissions to The Delta Blues Symposium and The Dallas Morning News. He can be reached directly at Justin@numien.com.

[1] examples found in Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley (2013)

[2] The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups by Leonard Sax (2015); The Me, Me, Me Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World by Amy McCready (2015).

[3] “Alan Alda Wants Us To Have Better Conversations,” Hidden Brain (audio recording), released 1/22/2018

[4] Hero: Being the Strong Father Your Children Need (2017) by Meg Meeker

[5] Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning by John Hattie (2011)

[6] Instant Influence: How to Get Anyone to Do Anything–Fast, Michael Pantalon (2011)

[7] PBIS.org

[8] The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown (2010).