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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

Teachers Share Their Best Ideas on How to Be a Better Teacher

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 24, 2023 19 min read
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I’m not sure if K-12 educators will be able to find a better collection of professional-development articles than this eight-part series, finishing today, where teachers share their best advice to colleagues!

‘Building Relationships’

Author, teacher, consultant, Laura Robb has taught grades 4-8 for more than 40 years and continues to coach teachers in elementary and middle school. The author of more than 40 books on literacy, Robb writes blogs, creates podcasts with her son, Evan Robb, and speaks at national and state conferences:

The teaching life is a never-ending journey that asks teachers to grow and change in order to support the unique needs of each student. In this rapidly changing world, there are three things teachers can do to improve their craft so that their teaching responds to the diverse needs of students in their classes.

1. Building Trusting Relationships: Developing positive, trusting relationships with students, colleagues, and school leaders during each school year enables you to create and be part of a supportive community of student and adult learners. Once trusting bonds have been established between teacher and students, continue to nurture these relationships as students grow and change throughout the year, inspiring them to collaborate, work hard, and experience success and delight in learning. In a trusting community of learners, teachers tailor their instruction to students’ needs by refining and adjusting their craft as well as trying innovative teaching practices because students feel safe communicating their feelings and accepting and offering meaningful feedback.

2. Ongoing Learning: For you, the teacher, learning includes continual professional study and placing students, not curriculum, at the center. Professional study is the way to stay abreast of research through reading educational blogs, articles and books, observing other teachers’ classes, watching teaching demonstrations on YouTube.com, and listening to podcasts. Learning also includes discovering students’ interests and understanding their emotional well-being, academic progress, and attitudes toward learning. In addition, teachers can determine whether their instruction is effective from daily observations and interactions with students. Moreover, have conversations with colleagues about their teaching, students’ learning experiences, and raising questions about specific students, can provide useful feedback, clarify hunches, and inform instructional decisions and/or adjustments.

3. Taking Risks: Students grow and change throughout the school year, and for teachers to be able to respond to each student’s needs, it’s important to know a wide range of research-tested instructional practices. The more teachers engage in ongoing professional learning and have conversations about that learning with colleagues whose trust and support they have, the better equipped they’ll be to risk trying a new teaching practice as well as refining a present practice.

When teachers improve their craft through ongoing professional learning, by observing their students and other teachers, they can positively affect and impact the learning of all students.

theteachinglife

Grow a ‘PLN’

Ixchell Reyes is an ESOL instructor and teacher trainer. You can find her co-hosting the DIESOL podcast or running at the gym on her free time:

I would like to share two approaches a teacher can do to maximize growth in their craft:

  • Don’t shy away from risks; try new things and then shape them to suit your style. This is true of lesson planning, selecting teaching tools, changing up the classroom routine, goal setting to balance grading time, adding or removing components to a previously taught course, and pretty much anything related to your approach to teaching.

    Talk to colleagues you normally don’t hang out with; there is so much to learn from perspectives different than our own, especially beyond our usual clique. Remember that we graduate knowing the latest techniques, theories, and approaches, but by the time we’re three years into teaching, everything has changed! A good sign you likely need to risk a little bit or try something new is when you feel so comfortable that you can teach a concept in your sleep. Something I learned from the incredible Carol Salva is to not dismiss what new teachers bring to your organization— they see the world through fresh eyes! Look for ways to grow your learning network with people from diverse backgrounds.

  • Make an effort to grow a professional learning network. This doesn’t mean you have to pay expensive memberships and attend conferences to meet skilled teachers or leaders in the field. Twitter and Instagram are populated with many groups of teachers all over the globe who share their tips and resources. My own ideas have been immeasurably influenced by dozens of teachers sharing, questioning, commenting, and opening up discussions online for anyone to partake.

    Simply posing a question to a something you’re wondering about can generate crowd-sourced ideas, and surely, someone out there can also point you in the right direction for more research. Sometimes, we feel alone in our workplace, overwhelmed by the tasks we have to accomplish, but having an online PLN can expand your support system and provide you with the space you need to reflect as you refine your craft. My favorite lesson ideas and tools have all come from Twitter.

dontshy

‘Co-Teach’

Alycia Owen is an international educator, workshop presenter, and consultant with over 30 years in the classroom. She currently lives in New Mexico where she develops customized professional learning opportunities for schools in the U.S. and abroad:

Most teachers want what’s best for students, and we have that voice in our heads asking, How can I make this lesson better next time? To this end, we’re always on the hunt for good professional development opportunities.

Early in my career, my view of PD was fairly narrow, focused primarily on district-mandated training and the occasional teaching conference. While these had value, something was lacking. I would return from these events with new insights and motivation, but they didn’t offer the kind of lasting impact on my practice I had envisioned.

I also collaborated with principals as part of the teacher-evaluation process and read books, but this was disconnected from the work of my colleagues.

As I reflect, I see that the typical mechanisms for teacher improvement are valuable, but other avenues for continued development have been even more beneficial. Three activities have had the greatest impact on improving my craft: co-teaching, using social media to access a global professional learning community, and presenting to other educators.

Co-Teach

Whether you’re co-teaching in an official capacity or teaming with a colleague for a specific lesson, there’s no doubt we learn a great deal when we teach alongside a peer. It’s even better when we co-plan and co-reflect with that person.

While having a colleague in the room can feel intimidating, there’s no better way to observe teaching practices unfold in real time and to witness their impact on students. Co-teaching and other collaborative partnerships have informed almost every area of my practice: classroom management, lesson planning, assessment, student engagement, differentiation, and more.

Co-teaching is daily, job-embedded PD.

A Global PLC via Social Media

I routinely encourage colleagues to join Twitter for its potential to inform our practice, but I’m often met with skepticism due to some of the unsavory aspects of social media. While it’s true that Twitter and other social media platforms can amplify voices we may not wish to hear, it’s also true that we are in control of who we follow and who follows us.

Through Twitter, I’ve connected with a global network of committed educators. My first experience using Twitter to improve my practice began with #MLLChat_BkClub (formerly #ELLChat_BkClub). I was attending a WIDA Symposium, and Tan Huynh mentioned that he, along with Katie Toppel, had recently co-founded the book club to help teachers serve multilingual learners. He invited me and other colleagues to join.

I’m so glad I did! Through this platform, I’ve collaborated with colleagues around the world and discussed more than 25 books (so far!). In most cases, our book studies have included connecting with the authors themselves, providing even richer opportunities for learning.

Take a chance on Twitter. You might be pleasantly surprised!

Become a Presenter

Whether presenting for teachers in your department or developing a workshop for a larger organization, working with colleagues in this way is a valuable and rewarding way to improve our practice.

Teachers who feel comfortable talking to students may be apprehensive about presenting to peers. This usually centers around two concerns: 1) I have nothing to offer, and 2) I don’t want to be judged by colleagues.

We all have something to offer. Every time we collaborate as a department or contribute our thoughts at a staff meeting, we’re offering our skills and expertise to others. Why not broaden your audience and impact more people? In the process, we clarify our thoughts, access current research, and connect with other educators. Win-win-win!

As for the fear that others will judge us, this may be unfounded. In my experience, colleagues are amazingly supportive.

Have I received constructive criticism? Yes. Did anyone in an audience ever appear to be less than enthusiastic about an activity I was leading? Sure! But these moments just made me better at what I do.

These ideas have one thing in common: connection! By connecting with peers, we create opportunities for shared learning and growth that empower us to do our best for the students and communities we serve.

becomeapresenter

‘Purpose, Priorities, and Patterns’

Jen Schwanke, currently serving as a deputy superintendent in Ohio, dives into a discussion about purpose, priorities, and patterns in great detail in her most recent book, The Teacher’s Principal, published in summer of 2022 by ASCD. Learn more about Jen at her website, jenschwanke.com:

There are three things a teacher can do to improve their craft. They aren’t actions as much as they are mindsets. They involve purpose, priorities, and patterns, and teachers can remain at the top of their game simply by being aware of each of them.

A teacher’s purpose is the reason they chose teaching. Teachers with positive purpose remain rooted in an inherent and unwavering goal—to plan, develop, and facilitate a positive learning experience for students. They are driven by the satisfaction and power that comes with watching their students grow as learners.

A teacher’s priorities may change over time. A teaching career is long and requires a steady professional commitment—yet, all the while, a teacher’s life unfolds in ways both wonderful and challenging. There is marriage, children, new homes, new pets, illness, death, divorce, celebration, and heartbreak. As all these things happen, teachers may, at times, have more to give to their students and colleagues; other times, they may have less to give. Regardless, if they recognize the ebb and flow of priorities, and if their purpose is deeply rooted, their students will always feel they are the most important part of the teacher’s day.

A teacher’s patterns are their daily habits—the things that they do to structure their day. Patterns explain how teachers engage in professional development; how they include parents in their child’s learning process; how they plan instruction and analyze data; and how they address disruptions to their day. Patterns, like any routine, can become stale and negative, but if a teacher keeps an eye on the risk of negative habits, they can adjust their patterns and evolve their routines in healthy and effective ways.

Of course, it helps when school leaders understand and accept the wide spectrum of purpose, priorities, and patterns held by teachers. When principals hire teachers with a positive purpose, accept the fluidity of priorities, and support positive patterns through reasonable expectations and feedback, it creates a school culture of understanding and shared excellence. Similarly, a teacher can take ownership of their own craft by being aware of these three components. It helps them push forward in honoring their original purpose, keep their priorities in balance with their personal and familial needs, and remember the importance of positive patterns. All of this ensures teaching becomes what it should be—not a job but a calling.

therearethreethings

Know Your Students

Dale Ripley, Ph.D., has taught for over 40 years at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels, primarily in high-needs schools. His latest book, The Tactical Teacher: Proven Strategies to Positively Influence Student Learning & Classroom Behavior, shows teachers 58 different ways to improve the negative classroom behaviors of even their most challenging students in order to increase student learning:

If a teacher is going to be exceptionally successful in working with students, s/he must understand the fundamental nature of human beings. Because, after all, it is human beings—in the form of students—with whom we are working. And what do I mean by “fundamental nature?”

I am talking about all the inherited and instinctual traits and biases we all have as a result of millions of years of evolution. Put simply, we (yes, that means both teachers and students) may listen to classical music, enjoy fine food, music and art, but we walk into school each day with the same hunter-gatherer instincts that helped our ancestors survive on the savannah hundreds of thousands of years ago. This basic fact goes unnoticed in most classrooms, yet it drives many of our behaviors, attitudes, emotions, and reactions. If you are going to be truly effective in working with students, you must delve deeply into how our hunter-gatherer past still drives many classroom behaviors today.

Another aspect of understanding basic human nature involves knowing your students’ basic needs. While this can be a bit more obvious, sadly, many teachers tend to neglect or forget about these types of basic behavioral drivers. For example, humans are social creatures; we need to belong and fit into certain groups. Your students want this as well, and the need to fit in, to be a member of some group in the school, is a key driver of many of their behaviors.

Additionally, the need for some form of agency, for a modicum of control over what happens to them, is also an important behavioral driver for students. Expert teachers give students an appropriate degree of control over what happens to them in a classroom and how the classroom runs.

Secondly, an effective teacher is acutely aware of the subculture of the students they teach. For example, if you are teaching grade 7 students, you need to intentionally visit the subculture of grade 7 students to discover what TV shows they watch, what music they listen to, what video games they play, what books they might be into. Expert teachers then use this knowledge in their teaching to show their students metaphors and analogies that help them master content.

For example, if you are attempting to get the concept of feminism across to middle school students, I wouldn’t advise having them read the works of Germaine Greer. Instead, consider the things that your students are currently interested in. If a significant number of your students watch “The Simpsons,” you could show them YouTube clips and examples from the series where Lisa Simpson celebrates the virtues of feminism. Now, they will likely get it!

Lastly, if you want your students to be engaged with the subject matter you are teaching, you must show them how it relates to them, to their lives, now! It is of little to no use to tell a 16-year-old student that what you are teaching them today will be very helpful to them 10 years down the road. This may be true, but it is also useless. Most students live “in the now,” and they want information and things that are of use to them in the present.

One example of this is when I was teaching ideologies in my high school social studies class. We were discussing socialism, and most of the students agreed with the fundamental principle that those who have excess wealth should share it with those who need more. When I passed back their assessments on ideologies, I had calculated the class average and deducted marks from every student who achieved higher than the class average and gave these marks to every student who achieved lower than the class average. In other words, I took marks from those who had more than they needed and gave them to those who has less. It was an instant transformation! Students who “agreed in principle with socialism” suddenly didn’t like it so much in practice. And we were off on another very passionate and very relevant discussion—about socialism in the present and how it related to my students at that very moment.

ifyouwantyourstudents

‘Be Thankful’

Vivian Micolta Simmons was born in Colombia and has been in the United States for seven years. She has been a teacher for 14 years and is currently working as a ESL/DLI lead teacher for the Iredell-Statesville schools in North Carolina:

1. Always be a team player: Work with your team members, brainstorm, share ideas, and collaborate with them. Be an active member in your PLC. Don’t be afraid to show initiative or share your ideas.

2. Be consistent, be organized, have expectations, and be thankful for all your experiences in the classroom, even the negative ones. You will learn tons from these experiences and you keep shaping your practice as an educator. Something to remember is to set up your organizational system from the beginning. An organized classroom will give a sense of focus and direction to you, as an adult, and to your students in class. Staying organized helps you manage your day, stay on task, and model organizational skills for your students.

One thing that does wonders for me is to keep a desk calendar. I will check it everyday and be ready for upcoming meetings and deadlines. I have also used the good old paper and pencil to make a to-do list for myself. However, if you are more geared toward technology and don’t use Google calendar much, an app called Todoist will remind you of appointments and deadlines every day. I use the free version, and it has helped me stay on track and never miss any deadlines.

beateamplayer

This is the final post in a eight-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, Part Four here, Part Five here, Part Six here, and Part Seven 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.

In Part Four, Jennifer Orr, Jennifer Casa-Todd, Ann Stiltner, and Rebecca Alber shared their thoughts.

In Part Five, Sheila Wilson, K. Renae Pullen, Ruth Okoye, Ed. D., Chase Orton, and Shaeley Santiago added to the conversation.

In Part Six, Lauren Merkley, Cindy Garcia, Cheryl Abla, M.Ed., Kathy S. Dyer, and Nawal Qarooni to contributed their commentaries.

In Part Seven, Valentina Gonzalez, Michelle Makus Shory, Tara Bogozan, Dan Feigelson, and Ashley Kearney offered their ideas.

Today, Laura Robb, Ixchell Reyes, Alycia Owen, Jen Schwanke, Dale Ripley, and Vivian Micolta Simmons wrap up this series.

Thanks to Laura, Ixhell, Alycia, Jen, Dale, and Vivian 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.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all EdWeek articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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.

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