(This is the first post in a four-part series.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
In 300 words or less, what is the most important teaching advice that you have either received or given?
What teacher among us has not been the willing or unwilling recipient of boatloads of education advice?
Among that vast quantity are a lot of duds but also a few gems. In this series, educators will share the best pieces of teaching advice they have received (or have given) over the years.
Today’s guests are Chelonda Seroyer, Jenny Vo, PJ Caposey, Emily Golightly, Cindy Garcia, Mary K. Tedrow, Dr. Sawsan Jaber, and Aubrey Yeh. Chelonda, Jenny, PJ, and Emily were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.
The best advice I’ve ever read comes from Marvin Marshall, a writer on positive methods of classroom management.
Will what I am about to do or say bring me closer or will it push me away farther from the person with whom I am communicating?
Sometimes—not often, but sometimes—I can lose my temper a bit with a student. Each time that has happened since I read that line, I have been able to remember that wise piece of advice and shift gears. Obviously, it would have been better for me not to get upset in the first place, but, of course, I am only human …
It’s similar to the old community-organizing adage I often used during my 19 year community-organizing career—after you polarize, always depolarize.
Chelonnda Seroyer is a former high school English teacher who has worked with Drs. Harry and Rosemary Wong for over 14 years. Her DVD is featured in the 4th edition of The First Days of School and she is a contributing author to Dr. Wongs’ THE Classroom Management Book:
The most important teaching advice that I ever received ... is also the most important teaching advice I have ever given. Always overprepare and stay away from negativity. Those two pieces of advice have guided so many of my decisions as an educator. Overpreparing seamlessly contributed to my ability to manage my classroom and allowed me the emotional space and opportunity to build healthy relationships with my students.
Being overprepared meant that there was never a time when I did not have a plan during instructional time. That does not mean that my students were always silent doing pen and paper assignments. It means that whether they always knew WHAT they were doing and WHY they were doing it.
This level of classroom consistency consequently created a calm environment where students felt safe because they knew what was expected of them. These feelings of safety and belonging fostered healthy teacher/student relationships where the students could be vulnerable; and that vulnerability helped me better understand and accommodate their needs.
This leads to the second piece of advice, which is to stay away from negativity. If you follow the first piece of advice, the second piece will become very easy for you. Because when you are prepared, and in tune with your students, you will not allow the negativity of others to impact what you do. Many educators become negative when they feel that they are ineffective. Therefore, when you are organized, you become more effective and will naturally shy away from the negativity that may exist around you.
These are the keys to being a happy, less-stressed teacher. These are also the things that are within your sphere of influence. So, this is, hands down ... the most important teaching advice I have ever received AND passed along to others.
Jenny Vo earned her B.A. in English from Rice University and her M.Ed. in educational leadership from Lamar University. She has worked with English-learners during all of her 24 years in education and is currently an ESL ISST for the Katy ISD in Katy, Texas. She currently serves as the president-elect of TexTESOL IV and works to advocate for all ELs:
The most important teaching advice I have ever received and I now give is to “be flexible.” Flexibility is the quality of bending easily without breaking. In my 24 years of teaching, I’ve learned that successful and happy teachers are ones who are flexible—flexible in their thinking, in the way they teach, and in their response to situations.
As much as I enjoy being a teacher, I don’t think I could have lasted this long if I had not learned to be flexible. For, as much as you plan out your day and your lessons, there inevitably will be disruptions and distractions that will pop up. I always come to school prepared for the lessons I’m going to teach that day, but I’ve learned to go with the flow if there are any changes. I’ve had technology issues. I’ve had a student throw up in the middle of a lesson. A fire drill as I’m finally sitting down to eat lunch. The list goes on and on. It’s frustrating, but I’ve learned to adapt.
The pandemic we are experiencing at present is a perfect example of teachers being flexible. We’ve had to adapt to a new way of teaching—from working with students in the classroom to teaching virtually through the computer. We’ve had to learn to use different programs to record lessons that teach content effectively while also being engaging. We’ve had to come up with ways to motivate our students at a distance. In this situation, teachers who have a flexible mindset fared better than those that have not mastered this skill.
Being flexible is the best teaching advice I was given and is the advice I now give to new teachers.
‘The Best Version of Themselves’
Dr. PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, keynote speaker, consultant, and author of seven books who currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the award-winning Meridian CUSD 223 in Northwest Illi. You can find PJ on most social-media platforms as MCUSDSupe:
I am grateful that a key component of my job is often to give advice to teachers and more commonly to principals and superintendents working with teachers. What I have found is the “brilliant nuggets” where I combine practicality, research, and experience occasionally fall surprisingly flat. But one message I give always seems to hit home, and as a result, it is clearly the most impactful piece of advice I provide.
It is simple, yet profound.
See people for better than they currently are and always believe that they are doing the absolute best that they can.
This advice works for teachers working with kids, teachers working with other teachers, instructional leaders working with their staff, and quite frankly, it works with every human being who has the privilege of engaging with another human being.
I truly believe that when we have the mindset that people are giving us the very best version of themselves at the given moment, it changes how we behave. Couple that mindset with the belief that we can all get better, AND we have the unique and profound opportunity of trying to help others grow into a version of themselves that is better than their current iteration, is to me the essence of education and leadership. We are all unfinished, and in education and leadership, we have the privilege of being a small part of people’s continued growth.
Keeping this in mind will always provide a direction and a motivation for any teacher, and as a result, it is the most important piece of advice I can possibly provide to anyone lucky enough to be a part of the world’s greatest profession.
‘Do What You Know Is Best for Kids’
Emily Golightly has taught for the past 16 years in N.C., serving as a classroom teacher in grades K-3, a reading specialist, an ESL teacher, and most recently, a media coordinator of a K-5 library. She is also a member of the North Carolina English Learner Advisory Council:
Teaching has changed so much since I began in 2004. However, some of the best advice I ever received was to go in your room, close the door, and do what you know is best for kids.
I have seen what feels like a million fads come and go, all in the name of research, fidelity (the “F word”!), and increasing student achievement. These can all be good things, but ultimately, you know your students and what they need. Sometimes, what they need is a fun activity that helps them connect with one another and feel less isolated. Sometimes what they need is to go outside and learn in the sunshine, because they have been cooped up all day and are stressed.
If you always have the intention of doing what is best for kids, regardless of the fads that come and go, you will be doing just fine.
One more piece of advice? Stay out of the gossip mill. If someone will talk to you about someone else, that means they’ll talk about you to someone else, too. Don’t get sucked into that negativity ... our job is too big and too important, and the kids need you. Rise above all that and keep it professional! Anything else is just wasted energy.
‘Maintain High Standards’
Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 15 years and is currently a districtwide specialist for P-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics. She is active on Twitter at @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:
The most important advice I was given and have shared with others is maintain high standards for ALL students because ALL students deserve a high-quality education. This is something that I always keep in mind especially because I work with Title I campuses and a district with a high percentage of low-socioeconomic students.
A high-quality education is not going to come from repeated practice in packets and worksheets. The lessons that are planned need to be rigorous and engaging while providing scaffolds that allow students to learn at a high level.
All students deserve the opportunity to be challenged and take part in a productive struggle that helps them take ownership of their learning and build their confidence. In order for this to take place, teachers need to have deep content knowledge and be ready to implement a variety of instructional strategies that will support student learning.
‘What Benefits the Student?’
Mary K. Tedrow, an award-winning high school English teacher, now serves as the director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project and teaches at Shenandoah and Johns Hopkins Universities. Her book Write, Think, Learn: Tapping the Power of Daily Student Writing Across the Content Area is available through Routledge:
The most important advice I was ever given came in the form of a question.
In my early teaching years, I struggled over a grade for a student which would doom the student’s opportunity to succeed. Though I can’t remember the details, the grade question was being determined by the everybody-on-the-same-page grading rules. In seeking advice, my department chair asked me, “What would be the best course of action for this student?” Not only did that make my decision crystal clear (the student would in no way benefit if I placed the rules above my concern for the student), but I appreciated the wisdom of the question.
It shaped my behavior toward all of my students from that point forward and is still the guiding principle in all issues which arise both in and out of the classroom: What benefits the student?
‘Capture Multiple Perspectives’
Dr. Sawsan Jaber, a global educator of 20 years in the U.S. and abroad, has a passion for facilitating critical conversations about equity. She is an OVA board director and the founder of Education Unfiltered Consulting. Follow @SJEducate:
The best lessons I have learned on my journey as an educator have emerged from my experiences as a learner. As a member of a marginalized group, it was not until I approached my graduate studies that I was able to pinpoint reasons why I always felt I never actually “fit” in any of my educational contexts, not even at the university level. It was in graduate school that I realized that my peers and my professors didn’t really understand me as a covered Palestinian Muslim female beyond the stereotypical me presented in mainstream media and had approached me with that lens. The feeling that I was having was that of an outsider, that of “the other.” I didn’t know that is how I was feeling until I learned the terminology as an aspiring educational leader, an opportunity that many students will never have, causing them to go through life without the ability to name feelings of discomfort and suffocation and understand their origin.
This leads to my advice and my mantra as an educator: Immerse yourselves in the “otherness” that comprises the demographics in your school context. You cannot serve students you don’t understand equitably and with fidelity. Implicit biases are a real thing. We are immersed in media that will feed those biases making them more real than ever. As great as technology is, it has enhanced this process. It’s your job as an educator to make yourself vulnerable and put on the hat of the learner. Go beyond asking your students questions; students don’t want to stand out for being different. Capture multiple perspectives for any one group. Do not fall into the trap of assuming that one experience represents that of a whole group even if it is the experience of a member of that group.
Take Care of Ourselves
Aubrey Yeh is a coordinator of language arts & humanities, overseeing art, music, theater, dance, PE, health, world languages, social studies, and language arts for K-12 students in the Boulder Valley school district in Boulder, Colo. You can connect with her on Twitter (@ms_a_yeh) or on her website (www.msayeh.com):
A principal once told me that teachers are wired and trained to take care of everyone else first and themselves last. We have to actively fight that trend to preserve longevity in the profession. This hit home the most when we had an act of violence occur at our school. Her words assuaged my guilt in asking for what I needed in the days after the event.
Thanks to Chelonda, Jenny, PJ, Emily, Cindy, Mary, Sawsan, and Aubrey for their contributions!
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