(This is the fifth post in a eight-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, and Part Four 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.
Today, Sheila Wilson, K. Renae Pullen, Ruth Okoye, Ed. D., Chase Orton, and Shaeley Santiago add to the conversation.
Sheila Wilson is an educational leader with over three decades working as a classroom teacher, administrator, and adjunct professor. She is the owner and learning architect of AmplifyED Educational Consulting, providing support to doctoral students, educators, organizations, and families. Follow her on Twitter @wilson1sheila:
Teachers are responsible for shaping young minds. Teaching is the profession that teaches all other professions. The weight of these statements demonstrates the importance of the teacher’s job. With so many responsibilities: learning curriculum, teaching engaging lessons, handling discipline concerns, just to name a few. I have found two things that have been essential in improving my craft as a teacher.
First, become a relationship guru. Building and maintaining effective relationships is the cornerstone of success as a teacher. In fact, when teachers are intentional about building authentic relationships with students, not only does it foster in students a sense of belonging and connection to the school but also provides the foundation for improved student outcomes. When students feel seen, valued, respected, and loved in an inclusive environment, they will rise to the high expectations that you have set for them. In the classroom, practices to begin building relationships are:
- Learning about their families and culture
- Identifying their interests (ask their opinions)
- Respecting their perspectives (giving them voice)
- Asking them to determine their own goals
- Knowing them and their needs (academically, socially, behaviorally)
- Recognizing their achievements
These suggestions are great to get you started; however, the work of building relationships requires consistency. Prioritizing time in this area will yield great dividends. Teachers who have created these inclusive classroom communities have noted better family engagement and support, fewer discipline infractions, and improved overall attitudes about school. This is important because all of the aforementioned examples yield what we want most for our students, for them to feel like they can achieve anything … and they will!
Second, be flexible. As a teacher, you begin the year with the grandest of intentions. You come in and design a classroom conducive to student engagement. You attend the professional-development sessions, cruise Pinterest for great ideas, and galvanize a slew of teacher resources. You define a classroom-management plan and work diligently to design learning plans that provide for differentiation, small-group instruction, independent work, and other particulars deemed necessary by your school division and/or the needs of your students. However, it won’t be long before you realize that there will be days that the learning plan isn’t able to be followed or that the behavior plan simply doesn’t work.
Even though you’ve done your part in preparing, remember flexibility is key as a classroom teacher. Every day is a new day, and some days will go according to the plan, but when they don’t (that unexpected assembly or a specialist who is absent and doesn’t take your students), always maintain a mindset of flexibility. After all, it’s important for teachers to model for their students how to navigate change successfully. The ability to be flexible is important because rigidity can create stress and can likely impact your health, your passion for the work, and your relationships with colleagues. Over time, this stress can lead to job dissatisfaction and even teacher burnout.
It’s always a good practice to focus on the things you can control. For all the rest, as Bruce Lee said, “Be like water!” which means to become soft with life, be flexible to change, and be as resilient and multifaceted as water.
It’s a beautiful thing when a career and a passion come together! At the heart of every great educator is the appreciation for learning, especially when it involves improving our craft and what we do for students.
K. Renae Pullen is the elementary science curriculum instructional specialist for the Caddo Parish public schools in Shreveport, La., and was a member of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee for the consensus report, Science and Engineering in Preschool through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators:
Being a reflective practitioner is essential for educators’ professional growth and development. At the beginning of my career, I quickly discovered that I had much to learn about teaching and learning. Honing my craft has always been very important to me as a professional, and I’ve learned a great deal over the years. There are two important shifts that teachers can make that will have a significant impact on improving instruction and will help build trust and relationships in their classrooms.
1. Improve Student Conversations
As students process and make sense of their learning, they should be given opportunities to talk with each other and listen purposefully. Leveraging student talk was one change that elevated my craft and improved student outcomes. This change was a daunting task at first because I had to ask fewer questions and use less time for teacher talk and spend more time empowering my students to engage in richer discussions.
Many techniques help teachers facilitate productive talk so students can share their ideas and revise their thinking. I focused on using a strategy called Talk Moves. Talk Moves promote equitable participation in academic classroom conversations by giving teachers and students the tools they need to enter into and navigate discussions. Students can make their thinking public in meaningful ways because they are given the tools necessary to engage in respectful discourse. With Talk Moves, teachers and students have specific sentence stems that they can use to facilitate academic conversations. Some examples of types of Talk Moves include:
Adapted from The Inquiry Project’s Goals for Productive Discussions
2. Discover the Power of Formative Assessments
Teachers are often inundated with large-scale assessments that produce data about student achievement but often give teachers little information about students’ understandings of what they are currently learning in the classroom. For that reason, using these large-scale assessments to make decisions in the classroom can often be unproductive.
Classroom formative assessments are powerful tools for teachers. Teachers can use formative assessments to monitor student learning and inform instruction. These low-stakes assessments provide teachers with information about students’ preconceptions. Teachers can use the data from these assessments to plan strategically, leverage students’ knowledge and experiences, and provide meaningful and specific academic feedback. Some examples of formative assessments include simple checks for understanding, student self-assessments, learning probes, exit tickets, and creating conceptual maps.
The biggest error I made when I started using formative assessments was that I gave plenty of assessments, but I didn’t use the information I gleaned to enhance my instruction or provide feedback. Too often, I hyperfocused on whether students got the answer correct or not.
It wasn’t until I began to analyze my students’ assessments that I realized they had a lot of knowledge and lived experiences that were valuable to our classroom. They may not have known the precise answers, but they had a lot of context and experiences that I needed to know, honor, and leverage to support learning. This caused me to think more critically about when and why I used a formative assessment and what I did with the information I collected. This shift significantly improved my formative-assessment approach and afforded me the opportunity to improve my lessons and student support.
Encouraging student talk in the classroom and improving formative-assessment approaches are two high-impact changes teachers can make to improve their craft and make powerful changes in their classroom. It’s definitely a professional learning journey worth taking.
‘Build a PLN’
Ruth Okoye, Ed. D., is a 30-year veteran educator. She has taught in private and public school settings and is passionate about literacy, educational technology, and ed-tech coaching. Ruth currently serves as the K-12 director at a nonprofit organization:
Improving one’s craft is a very individualized endeavor. In general, an educator needs to find new ideas, vet them, try them, and then reflect on the outcome. While there are many ways that this could be accomplished, I’ll outline the process that works best for me.
First, build a PLN. A well-tended personal learning network will bring new ideas your way. Include educators in different areas of the country who have varied interests and a variety of expertise. Include one or more professional organizations to ensure that you also get research-based information. Remember that you should add to and prune your PLN as you grow and change.
Next, build a brain trust. Running ideas you get from your PLN by others you trust will help you sift through what you’ve heard. They don’t all have to be educators, just people who are invested in your success. Choose those you can trust to give you an honest take on ideas that you are working on. Ideally, your brain trust will help you see if the ideas can work in your situation and then help you work out the details.
Once you have tried out your idea, take time to reflect. The learning cycle is not complete until you have determined what worked and what did not. Determine why things went well or didn’t and consider if you should try them again. What might you change the next time you try it? Reflection can be as simple as jotting down notes as you complete the lesson or taking photos of student work to share with your PLN. There are many ways to reflect; keep trying different methods until you find what works for you.
A ‘Not-Knowing’ Mindset
Chase Orton’s career path has been guided by his passion for creating productive and inspired classrooms that are engaging and humanizing for both students and their teachers. He is the author of The Imperfect and Unfinished Math Teacher: A Journey to Reclaim Our Professional Growth published by Corwin:
It was my second year of teaching high school mathematics when I reached out to my colleague Wendy for some advice. I had the growing pains of a beginner teacher and was feeling a bit discouraged about how some of my classes were going. I wanted to get better, but I didn’t know how. I was stuck. Wendy gave me some of the best guidance I’ve ever received:
Becoming a better teacher is about living a life of “not knowing” and continually having the courage to be imperfect. If you want to improve but you don’t know how, ask your students. They will tell you what you need to know. If you’re feeling stuck, observe other classrooms. You will see what you need to see to get yourself unstuck.
And that’s my advice to you. If you want to become a better teacher:
- Embody a “not knowing” mindset.
- Regularly ask your students for feedback.
- Observe other classrooms as much as you can.
Embodying a “not knowing” mindset requires us to have the courage to admit we are imperfect. We are imperfect teachers not because we are incapable or incompetent. We are imperfect because there is simply so much we don’t know—we can’t know—when it comes to the complexity of our work and meeting the myriad needs of our students. We have only our intuition and instincts to do our best with the information and tools we have at the time. And we must perform our work while navigating a professional schedule that doesn’t give us the time we need to pause and reflect on our learning so we can calibrate and collaborate together on ways we can improve.
Given the stresses and demands put on us, it can be easy to get “stuck” as a teacher. As we try to survive our chaotic days, we can find ourselves clinging to the story: My actions are productive. My beliefs are accurate. My students have what they need. I’m doing everything I can. And over the weeks, months, and years of telling ourselves this story, we can find ourselves worse than just stuck—we can feel discouraged, defeated, and even burnt out and finished.
And this is why we must exercise the courage to continually embody a “not knowing” mindset and ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions, such as:
- What’s really going on here?
- What might I not know yet?
- Is what I believe as true as I think it is?
- Whose perspective am I missing?
- What might I be wrong about?
- Are my actions as productive as I think they are?
Some of the answers to these questions are found in your students. Regularly ask your students for feedback—they will tell you how you can become a better teacher. Wonderful things happen when we ask students for their feedback. We elevate their voice and center their experience in the classroom. We foster their sense of agency and share the authority for learning with them. And most importantly, we position ourselves as learners alongside them.
Here are some questions I used for my high school math students. Consider modifying them for your students.
- How is math class going for you?
- How can I be a better teacher for you?
- Do you feel like you can be successful in this class?
- What does it mean to be “good at math”? Are you good at math?
- Do you feel like you belong in math class?
Observe other classrooms as much as you can. Neither the artful technique nor the technical art of teaching can be captured in the pages of a book or in a PD workshop. Teaching is cultural—it’s something we learn best through each other. The journey to becoming a better teacher goes through your colleague’s classroom door. When we sit in other classrooms, we are free from the cognitive demands of teaching our lesson and able to just observe. We begin to open up to all the data we are experiencing and begin to see things that we can’t see in our own classrooms. I know that you’re busy, but it’s the most efficient way to accelerate your growth and embody a “not knowing” mindset.
I know there is no recipe we can all just simply follow. But I do know that journey to becoming better teachers starts with the courage to be imperfect.
As a former secondary EL teacher, instructional coach, and now EL coordinator in Iowa, Shaeley Santiago is passionate about advocating for English-learners and partnering with teachers to improve student outcomes:
The top ways teachers can improve their craft are reflecting on their practice, seeking feedback, and continuing to learn. Teaching is a complex process impacted by many variables. Even expert teachers in new contexts or teaching new material may struggle to provide the best learning experience for each and every one of their students. However, a reflective teacher who is self-aware, proactive in monitoring their impact on student learning, and open to new ideas will inevitably experience growth.
Reflecting on your practice will likely include setting professional goals. You may also work with an instructional coach, administrator, mentor, PLC, or other colleagues to help you collect data and analyze ideas for how to increase student achievement. They can also help provide accountability and encouragement throughout the process. One of the best ways to promote reflection is watching a recording of yourself teaching. Knight’s (2014) Focus on Teaching explains in detail the power of video for enhancing teaching and provides tools for data collection.
Data are an important input for reflection. Besides quantitative data such as student grades or scores on standardized assessments, qualitative data such as student and family feedback are rich sources. Who better to ask how you can improve than the students you serve? While they may not know all the theories behind your pedagogical approach or the names of the strategies utilized in your lessons, they do know how you make them feel and whether or not those strategies are working well for them. Being willing to ask for their opinions and then incorporating their feedback into your teaching encourages a greater partnership with students and empowers them to take ownership of their learning.
Closely aligned with self-reflection and incorporating feedback is learning or professional development. This can take many forms from reading books, taking classes, participating in webinars, conferences, or other online learning environments to working with an instructional coach and/or colleagues in a PLC. Toppel, Huynh, and Salva (2021) theorize that factors around choice, continuity, community, connectedness, and cost encourage us to learn. Regardless of how much we already know, there is always something else to learn as an educator. The desire to continue improving is the key. Reading this article is proof that you have that desire. Now I encourage you to reflect on what you have learned and take the first step to put it into practice.
Knight, Jim. Focus on Teaching: Using Video for High-Impact Instruction. Corwin, 2014.
Toppel, Kathryn Elizabeth, et al. DIY PD: A Guide to Self-Directed Learning for Educators of Multilingual Learners. Seidlitz Education, 2021.
Thanks to Sheila, Renae, Ruth, Chase, and Shaeley for contributing their thoughts!
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at firstname.lastname@example.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.
- It Was Another Busy School Year. What Resonated for You?
- How to Best Address Race and Racism in the Classroom
- Schools Just Let Out, But What Are the Best Ways to Begin the Coming Year?
- Classroom Management Starts With Student Engagement
- Teacher Takeaways From the Pandemic: What’s Worked? What Hasn’t?
- The School Year Has Ended. What Are Some Lessons to Close Out Next Year?
- Student Motivation and Social-Emotional Learning Present Challenges. Here’s How to Help
- How to Challenge Normative Gender Culture to Support All Students
- What Students Like (and Don’t Like) About School
- Technology Is the Tool, Not the Teacher
- How to Make Parent Engagement Meaningful
- Teaching Social Studies Isn’t for the Faint of Heart
- Differentiated Instruction Doesn’t Need to Be a Heavy Lift
- How to Help Students Embrace Reading. Educators Weigh In
- 10 Strategies for Reaching English-Learners
- 10 Ways to Include Teachers in Important Policy Decisions
- 10 Teacher-Proofed Strategies for Improving Math Instruction
- 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
- 10 Ways to Build a Healthier Classroom
- 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.