(This is the fourth post in a eight-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)
The 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?
Carissa McCray, Ph.D., Latrese D. Younger, Kayla Towner, and Verónica Schmidt-Gómez, M.Ed., started this series in Part One.
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.
In Part Two, Aisha Christa Atkinson, M.S., Angela M. Ward, Ph.D., Meghann Seril, and Altagracia H. Delgado contributed their suggestions.
In Part Three, Ron Berger, Nancy Frey, Ph.D., Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., and Mary K. Tedrow continued the discussion.
Today, Jennifer Orr, Jennifer Casa-Todd, Ann Stiltner, and Rebecca Alber share their thoughts.
‘Being Reflective Requires That We Slow Down’
Jennifer Orr is in her third decade of teaching elementary school students in the suburbs of Washington. She is a national-board-certified teacher, mom to two teenagers, and an obsessive reader of books of all kinds:
Improving our craft requires that we are reflective. That’s a challenging thing as a teacher because being reflective requires that we slow down and focus on our instruction. Slowing down is tough in a job that never stops. We make countless decisions every day, mostly without thinking about them because there isn’t time. Forcing reflection and making it a habit is the most crucial thing we can do to get better at teaching.
I’ve tried several ways over the years to do this. Some have stuck, and I still do them regularly, even as I near a quarter century in the elementary classroom. Others didn’t seem to be a good fit for me. Just like strategies we offer our students, there is no one way that will serve everyone. You have to try on some different reflection ideas and see what works for you.
One of my favorite ways to force myself to slow down and reflect is writing. This can be done in a variety of ways. For me, it frequently means blogging. Making myself write (and writing for an audience—even if it’s a small one—helps me) means my brain focuses on the idea at hand rather than jumping around, as it normally does. As I write, and even as I plan for writing in my head, my ideas get organized, sorted out, and more detailed. My thinking is clarified through the writing process.
Blogging might not be for you. You could write in a journal or email back and forth with a trusted colleague. Setting yourself a structure for writing can be exceptionally helpful. Whether that looks like carving out time regularly for writing or setting a goal for writing a certain number of times each week or finding a writing accountability partner, any kind of routine will help you make this form of reflection a habit.
Another possibility is to record yourself teaching. Watching yourself is a powerful way to reflect on the choices you make in your instruction. No one else needs to see your videos (or hear your audio recordings, if that makes more sense to you). You can watch and immediately delete if the existence of these recordings causes significant anxiety. I recommend recording brief snippets, maybe an introduction or a wrap-up of a lesson. The longer the recording, the less likely you are to watch it. Again, set a goal. Maybe make one recording per week. Think about where you want to grow and focus on that. Are you feeling like your responses to students are not as thoughtful as you’d like? Record a time when students are sharing their thinking and you are responding. Do you want to improve the ways you work with small groups of students? Record one. When you watch, remind yourself to notice all of the amazing things you’re doing in your instruction and not just the things you want to change or improve. As teachers, we seem to be naturally inclined to focus on the challenges rather than the strengths. Identifying our strengths helps us build on them, which is an amazing way to get better.
Finally, one last strategy is to use your plan book for reflection. This can not only help you build a habit of reflecting but can also set you up for stronger lessons next year. At the end of a period, or when you have a break, or at the end of the day, look back through your lesson plans. Make notes about what went well and what you might want to do differently. Many of those thoughts likely spun around in your head during and after the lesson; the challenge is to get them written down. Again, it forces you to reflect on your instruction, but it also means you have notes for when you teach those lessons again.
Building a habit of reflecting, in whatever way works for you, will be a powerful tool for professional growth. It requires time and dedication, but it will pay off.
‘Develop Relationships Early On’
Jennifer Casa-Todd is currently a teacher-librarian, a former literacy consultant and English teacher, and the author of Social LEADia: Moving Students from Digital Citizenship to Digital Leadership:
- Develop relationships early on. Some of the kids other teachers consider to be difficult are always really awesome with me. Learning names, creating a playlist of music that your kids like which you can play during work periods, and asking them about their interests goes a long way. Sharing your own humanity and interests also helps to develop relationships. Everything is easier in the classroom when your kids like and respect you. If you suspect a few kids are going to have problematic behaviors, give them leadership roles within the classroom and then call home to tell their parents/caregivers something positive about them.
- Teaching may seem like an isolated practice because it’s just you and your students in a classroom, but when you experience the power of “co”—co-planning and co-teaching with a coach or teacher-librarian—you not only get another set of eyes and ears but an infusion of ideas and collaboration that make your own practice better. As a teacher-librarian, I have worked with teachers of every subject, and at the end of a unit, we are all better because of it. Take advantage of the support people to which you have access or find a buddy within your school with whom to collaborate. And don’t just think same grade or subject. One of the most powerful co-teaching experiences this year was a design thinking task whereby students in a grade 10 science class were to invent a product that would address climate change. We then collaborated with a grade 11 marketing class that would price out the product and market it. The results were amazing; we saw the grade 11s take on a mentorship role and the science class refine their thinking because of the questions the marketing students asked them.
- Move beyond your school to a professional learning network online. When I was at my school, I felt kind of alone, like a lone wolf. I was excited about learning and sharing, and not many of my colleagues shared that passion. When I made connections to a teacher community on Twitter, all of that changed. Now, there are so many platforms to connect with and ways to learn from other educators all over the world. The result for me was that I found a group of people in education who value the same things I did and who inspired me with their ideas.
Observing Other Teachers
Ann Stiltner is a high school special education teacher in Connecticut. She writes the blog from Room A212 (annstiltner.com/blog). Follow her on Twitter @fromrooma212:
The most important thing a teacher can do to improve their craft is make time for truthful reflection on their teacher practice and choices. Use this reflection time to answer: Why are you teaching this content? Why are you teaching it in this way? What do you want your students to learn and what will it look like when they have learned it? Below are six specific ways to incorporate reflection into your daily practice.
One disclaimer before we begin. Please make sure to be open and honest with yourself. Truly effective reflection involves absolute candor and objectivity. It can also be a very humbling experience. Make sure you are in the right head space to hear what needs to be changed. And make sure you are committed to making changes if needed.
Ask a trusted colleague - One of the most important benefits of having trusted colleagues is having a network of professionals you can reach out to to help you reflect and problem-solve challenges. Their objectivity can be invaluable. A strong level of trust is necessary to make sure you can be open and vulnerable. I know the benefits of this support from firsthand experience. I had a wonderful colleague who would question me to think out decisions. Her support included asking a series of questions that forced me to reflect. Her questions would dig down to the core essence of what I wanted to do in the classroom.
Observe - Make time to observe what other teachers are doing in their classrooms to see what is working for them and how you can incorporate that in your own classroom. As a co-teacher, I have a great opportunity to see how other teachers run their classes. I agree with my principal when she says, “The answers are in the building.” My colleagues provide an endless source of excellent ways to change my instruction. Their choices challenge me to question why I chose to do something in my class one way and what the benefits would be to changing.
Tape yourself - Taping yourself by video or audio is a great way to see and experience your instruction from the perspective of students. Once I get over my embarrassment on seeing myself on video or hearing my voice, I can pick up things I do that I want to change to improve my practice. For example, I realized on one audio tape that I used the term “ladies and gentlemen” often. I recognized that this language relies on a gender binary which would not be open and welcoming to some students. This is a viewpoint or detail I would not have picked up without listening to the concrete audio.
Surveys - Throughout the school year, I like to give written surveys to my students to provide feedback on my classes. I find out what they like and what they want to change. I also make sure they are formatted so students will respond. I limit the number of short-answer responses so I don’t get one-word answers like “good” or “OK” which are not helpful. Instead, I tend to offer multiple-choice questions or ask them to rank a list of activities or materials. I also give them the option to complete the surveys anonymously.
Journaling and writing - Sometimes free writing—either on the computer or with paper and pencil—helps me figure out and structure my reflection. It gives me a road map of my thought process. I can go back on this writing and reflect on what those ideas say or reveal. It is a way to get ideas out that have been pushed down in my subconscious during a busy, fast-paced year. It lets things bubble up to my consciousness.
Organizing - Summer is a great time for teachers to start this reflection process. I use time in the summer to go through class materials and files, reorganizing and cleaning out materials for next year. This is a perfect opportunity for me to reflect on what I did this year, what worked, and what didn’t. It helps me organize my thoughts and decide what I want to keep and change for the year ahead.
Rebecca Alber teaches in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA. She has been a high school English teacher, literacy coach, and consulting editor at Edutopia:
I began my teaching career down a completely unconventional pathway. I was long-term substitute teaching at a public high school, and the second week I was there, the principal popped in, observed me for half the period, and then after class, asked if I would like a full-time teaching job. (This was more than two decades ago during a severe teacher shortage, and it was the month of October!) From there, she helped me enroll in a credential program, and I began taking teacher education classes in the evening. I was given my own six periods of students, and to say I didn’t know what I was doing would be an understatement. So, I got proactive: The teachers I had so far met at the school who had thrown golden nuggets of advice in passing my way or had given me helpful curricular materials, I asked them if I could come observe their classrooms during my conference period.
What happened next was far beyond what I was learning in my teacher education program, or should I say, it made tangible—brought to life—much of the theory and the practices we were reading and talking about in my program.
As I quietly sat in the back of those colleagues’ classrooms, I saw pedagogical experts handling expertly (and seemingly effortlessly) some of the following: interacting with students in friendly but firm ways (also referred to as being a “warm demander”), transitioning between activities, scaffolding lessons, arranging student grouping, engaging students in active reading, introducing new content and concepts, using writing strategies, and facilitating classroom discussion.
And it didn’t just stop at the observations; reflective conversations followed. The teachers whom I had observed were always interested in hearing about what I had seen and what I thought. And, of course, I always had many questions for them as well. Those debriefing discussions elucidated the purposes and the labor they had put forth in the planning and the intention. My seedling of a practice grew greatly from those experiences.
A number of years ago, when I moved from teaching high school English to serving as a literacy coach, this was a staple of my coaching; I’d advocate for administrators to “sub out” teachers (whether they be novice or veteran) so that they could visit classrooms to observe and, then after, reflect and debrief on what they saw and learned. The feedback from the teachers who participated was wholly positive, and I witnessed long-time teachers begin to take new approaches and strategies they saw and bring those to life in their classrooms.
I continue to value the practice of observing and reflecting with colleagues afterward so much in my own growth as an educator and in my job of advising preservice teachers. However long you’ve been teaching, if it’s been awhile since you’ve observed your colleagues, consider making some time to do it this coming school year. Even popping by to observe a colleague’s classroom for just 20 minutes can leave you with new and exciting ideas to put into action.
Thanks to Jennifer, Jennifer, Ann, and Rebecca for contributing their thoughts!
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at email@example.com. 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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- It Was Another Busy School Year. What Resonated for You?
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- Schools Just Let Out, But What Are the Best Ways to Begin the Coming Year?
- Classroom Management Starts With Student Engagement
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- 10 Strategies for Reaching English-Learners
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- Give Students a Role in Their Education
- Are There Better Ways Than Standardized Tests to Assess Students? Educators Think So
- How to Meet the Challenges of Teaching Science
- If I’d Only Known. Veteran Teachers Offer Advice for Beginners
- Writing Well Means Rewriting, Rewriting, Rewriting
- Christopher Emdin, Gholdy Muhammad, and More Education Authors Offer Insights to the Field
- How to Build Inclusive Classrooms
- What Science Can Teach Us About Learning
- The Best Ways for Administrators to Demonstrate Leadership
- Listen Up: Give Teachers a Voice in What Happens in Their Schools
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- Educators Weigh In on Implementing the Common Core, Even Now
- What’s the Best Professional-Development Advice? Teachers and Students Have Their Say
- Plenty of Instructional Strategies Are Out There. Here’s What Works Best for Your Students
- How to Avoid Making Mistakes in the Classroom
- Looking for Ways to Organize Your Classroom? Try Out These Tips
- Want Insight Into Schooling? Here’s Advice From Some Top Experts
I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.
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.