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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

10 Concrete Ways Teachers Can Hone Their Craft

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 14, 2023 15 min read
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(This is the first post in a seven-part series.)

The new question of the week is:

What do you think are the best one-to-three things a teacher can do to improve his/her/their craft?

No matter how good we are as teachers, we can also get better.

This seven-part series will share advice from fellow and sister educators about things we can keep in mind as we all try to evolve and improve.

Today, Carissa McCray, Ph.D., Latrese D. Younger, Kayla Towner, and Verónica Schmidt-Gómez, M.Ed., start us off.

Carissa, Latresee, and Kayla were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Before we get to guest responses, I thought I’d share my “two cents worth.”

I used to say that good teaching for English-language learners is good teaching for everyone.

Now, however, I say that good teaching for ELLs is better teaching for everyone.

I would strongly recommend that educators improve their craft by becoming as familiar as they can with the instructional strategies used by ELL teachers, including providing scaffolds like writing frames, graphic organizers, and question and conversation starters; looking at students through the lens of assets and not deficits; and applying the many other well-honed tools that we have used for years to “accelerate learning.”

Now, to today’s guests ...

Mission Statements

Carissa McCray, Ph.D., (she/her), the author of Equitable Instruction, Empowered Students, is an English instructor in K–12 education who has worked in urban Jacksonville in Duval County and in rural Sumter County, Fla. With insight gained from teaching grades 6-12, she has refined her craft to focus on redefining the educational trajectory for students of color that addresses equitable education, rural education, and the impact of trauma:

Strategy 1: Develop Purpose, Vision, and Mission Statements

Without a purpose, vision, or mission statement, I’ve found myself to be directionless in my interactions with students when I blindly follow such others as my colleagues, principals, superintendents, or literacy coaches. Purpose, vision, and mission statements declare what you want to see in the future, and because the future is uncertain, you must ensure that these statements are clear, purpose-driven, and can evolve to remain relevant. Teachers encounter challenges, adversity, obstacles, and other forms of struggle as they create an equitable classroom and align with culturally competent pedagogy, so developing purpose, vision, and mission statements is vital.

It is important to begin with the purpose statement. Why? Think about what we are taught as educators—students must have purpose, a reason for reading, writing, and thinking about a subject before they can fully engage. The same is true for teachers. Our purpose answers why we do what we do. The following questions can inform the development of the purpose statement:

  • How do you live your life?
  • How do you want your students to live their lives?
  • What is the driving power that helps you provide the best for your students?
  • What values or vision give meaning to your life?

The vision statement is similar to the purpose statement, but the latter is more specific. The following questions can help develop the vision statement:

  • What do you want students to be able to do?
  • Who do you want students to be?
  • How do I envision education for my students?

The mission statement is even deeper and more specific than the purpose and vision statements. The mission defines the tasks that will help you achieve the vision and purpose. Articulating your mission ensures you have the means to accomplish your vision so that your dream does not remain in your imagination. A lengthy mission statement will address multiple areas of your educational practice to guide and support the curriculum as well as instruction and assessment practices. Your mission statement will also question what you need to reach your purpose and vision statements. Question how you will expand your knowledge, widen your network, support your own emotional health, engage students, and collect data.

Strategy 2: Use the Language of Teacher Evaluation/Observation Rubrics

When teachers are creating equitable learning environments, they must also engage in creating their own narratives for their profession. Teachers can no longer accept the status quo of expecting supervisors at the school, district, regional, state (or province), and national levels to dictate how they should be supporting their students. As we’ve seen through the lens of justice-driven pedagogy, that’s because there’s no universal ideal or norm of what a student should be. Every student is a unique individual with needs and values. Inclusive and culturally competent pedagogy allows teachers to reshape their practice to embrace and celebrate this reality. Teachers are the driving forces for change in education. We already know that change is needed to achieve the tenets of our vision, purpose, and mission.

Teachers sometimes encounter pushback, critique, or skepticism from colleagues as they shift toward equitable classrooms. This can become especially pronounced in teacher evaluations, since they are a determining factor in whether teachers remain employed. One way teachers can communicate their rationale to administrators is to demonstrate how their instructional practices align with the evaluation framework. By engaging in reflection and professional development and by modifying lessons based on reflections, professional development, and feedback, teachers can begin to dictate how they conduct their classrooms.

Teachers can reconcile the perceived differences by looking specifically at the rubric in which they are evaluated. Often, the language is not to follow a particular program with fidelity, but the language is shaped by student independence and the ways in which teachers are facilitating this independence. To implement change in the classroom, take a single component from your evaluation rubric to identify the change you make and evaluate how well those changes worked.

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‘Continuous Improvement’

Latrese D Younger is an instructional lead learner in Virginia. Her passion is English/ language arts, and she believes that she will always be a teacher at heart. Follow her at @leaders_black and @latreseyounger on Twitter or connect on her website:

The best thing a teacher can do to improve their craft whether novice or seasoned is to invest in self-development and commit to continuous improvement.

The worst thing any teacher can do is to declare themselves an expert in the field. You can and will never be an expert in a field that is constantly changing, evolving, and adapting into something else. The amount of changes that our industry has endured during the pandemic has taught all of us to constantly seek out ways to grow and learn in order to rise to the occasion. When we fail to invest in ourselves and rely solely on a district, principal, or colleague for our personal growth and development, we fail to acknowledge the fact that as educators, we should all be lifetime learners.

As an administrator, I know that I am nowhere near complete as a learner. Gone are the days from which I’d started with textbooks, accompanying workbooks, televisions with VCRs for movie days, and overhead projectors with transparencies. There is still so much for me to learn as the field transitions from temporal computer use and class trips to the computer lab to one-to-one Chromebook environments that rely heavily on high-speed internet and quality bandwidth to produce the caliber of instruction that students require. These changes all occurred in a matter of months during the pandemic. With such swift and imminent change, it is imperative that any teacher leader aspire to learn as much as they can to advance and stay current in the field.

For my own professional development as a leader, I have learned that this looks very different from when I was a teacher. As a school-level leader, you are not readily afforded the professional opportunities that teachers receive in-house. Therefore, I lean heavily on my professional learning networks, including social media (Twitter especially) to learn new and innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

I join social and professional organizations and clubs where I can network and interact with other leaders doing amazing things in the field. I read education magazines like EL and Principal Leadership. I attend webinars and virtual meet-ups and conferences. I listen to podcasts that edify and uplift me as a leader. Essentially, the best way to grow and improve your craft is to always stay active in the field, surround yourself with like-minded individuals, and commit to self-development and continuous improvement. No single approach will do for such a monumental, yet worthwhile and noble feat.

thebesthingalatrese

Collaboration

Kayla Towner is a technology trainer/instructor for Utah Education Network (UEN) and a Utah Hope Street Fellow in Salt Lake City. Follow her on Twitter @mrstowner9 or email her at ktowner28@gmail.com:

There are countless ways for teachers to improve their craft in the classroom. Sometimes, there are too many ways to improve craft, and it can get overwhelming to know where to begin. Therefore, it is important to reflect on your own teaching and think about areas where you would want to elevate it. I believe the top three ways to better a teacher’s craft are: Collaboration Is Key, Continue to Learn and Grow, and Strive to Be Significant.

Collaboration Is Key

Have you ever heard of the phrase, “Don’t try to reinvent the wheel?” This is so true in education. It is amazing when teachers are able to create curriculum, lessons, and activities from scratch. However, it is not always the best use of time and energy. It is vital that educators learn to collaborate.

Yes, it does take time, and there will be times people do not agree. However, the ideas and innovations that can come from collaboration are astounding. For example, instead of my students doing the same descriptive writing about themselves, another teacher thought about having them draw a picture of any person. From there, the students had to describe their person in writing. Later, students gave their descriptions to another student, and they had to try and draw that same person. Lastly, they compared their drawings and realized the importance of descriptive details in writing. The students were more invested in their writing, and it was engaging for everyone. Collaboration created this experience.

Continue to Learn and Grow

After teaching for several years, educators can get into a safe zone related to teaching. Therefore, learning anything too different or new can seem daunting and extraneous. So many teachers like to stick to the same old materials. I quickly found this idea to be so limiting to educators. My thoughts after a good or bad lesson are, “How can I make this better?” It is so important to continue to learn and grow. Any time my district or state offered professional development that could improve my skills, I was on it.

One of my favorite PD activities was a Digital Storytelling course. I realized my students could do more than write on paper or use a poster board to tell a story. I had my students present digital stories using Sway where they could add video or audio elements. I had other students create fractured fairy tales in Minecraft on The Three Little Bunnies and Big Bad Fox, where they actually made houses explode. Finally, I had students tell me creative stories using Flipgrid. They were able to creatively video record their story and share it with the entire classroom. Overall, seeking PD helped me innovate and advance my teaching.

Strive to Be Significant

My last piece of advice to lifting education is to strive to be significant. Many teachers strive for pure perfection: polished lesson plans, the best engaging activities, and complete collaboration among all students. In real life, it does not always pan out this way. Teachers have a lot of demands put on themselves by both external and internal influences. Therefore, putting that extra pressure to be perfect is ludicrous. For example, I really wanted my students to have a lot of choices this past year and allow them to be creative in their learning. So with my technology skills, I was able to give them choices in how they wanted to present their knowledge.

We were learning about civil rights, and one group chose to learn more about the Bandit Runner. This was about how girls were banned from running marathons because prescribed doctors said that women would have serious injuries or death if they ran more than 1.5 miles. This group of students then further captivated all of us with a Minecraft presentation. They created a marathon road and characters in Minecraft. It was amazing. I’ll never forget my favorite comment from a student, “Mrs. Towner always gives us a choice.” By using my technology skills and providing choice, I was able to be more significant, not perfect in my students’ learning.

itisvitalkayla

Peer Observations

Verónica Schmidt-Gómez, M.Ed., GC dual language, has been a teacher in the Hillsborough County public schools in Tampa, Fla., for 20 years. She has taught Spanish (6-8), dual-language world history, dual-language U.S. history, and dual-language civics. She is currently the dual-language district resource teacher in Hillsborough County:

1. Professional Development

I believe continuing education in strategies within and outside of your content area help improve your craft. Take courses on differentiating instruction, culturally relevant teaching, English-learner strategies, gender differences in the classroom, learning styles, etc. Take courses on improving reading and writing in your content area as well as courses to increase students’ critical-thinking and questioning skills. You will be amazed at how much learning is happening during a well-run Socratic seminar! Being a lifelong learner helps you learn different ways of approaching your content that will help your students make connections to their learning!

2. Peer Observations/Walk-Throughs

Go visit other classrooms! You won’t believe how many new ways of presenting information you will learn from your own peers! Your peers can have a great impact on your teaching style and methods if you are open to learning from each other. Teachers are unique in their own ways, and their methods of approaching content may differ from yours. Some teachers may be more creative than others, but you can learn to modify an excellent idea to meet your needs! Peer walk-throughs also help if you are struggling with a particular teaching strategy or method of instruction. Work smarter, not harder!

3. Professional Learning Communities (In-Person or Online)

Meet with other content teachers in your field. Sharing lesson plans or lesson ideas only increases your knowledge and understanding in your content! That information can be added to your existing materials. Working with others in your content area, whether in the same school, at other schools, or teachers in other states, can also offer you a different approach on a specific topic. Platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn are filled with content-specific learning communities you can join. Educators from all over the world post lesson plans and ideas for different grade levels, and you can also request ideas and materials on specific topics from them. It is a great way of receiving fresh material and meeting new peers!

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Thanks to Carissa, Latresee, Kayla, and Verónica for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@educationweek.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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