Sonya Barnes July 4, 2019
“They get it! They actually get it! And they are starting to jump in and work and talk about their ideas and I haven’t even told them to! Woohoo!”
“Awe, man, these kids are NOT connecting. What is going on?!”
If you’ve been a teacher for more than five minutes, you have most likely experienced both ends of the spectrum, and everything in between. Sometimes we are on our game when we plan and prepare, and sometimes we are not. Sometimes are kids walk in ready to learn, and sometimes they do not. We have a life that can distract us from our primary job, and the same can happen to them. When we face challenges in our personal life, it can affect how we do our jobs—its unavoidable. But, if we make the effort to reflect on our practices, we won’t continue to make those mistakes the same way or as often. Let me share with you some of the things I have learned to do over the years.
Making Notes on My Lesson Plans I keep my lesson plans handy on my daily clipboard while I am teaching. I don’t normally script my plans, I bullet point them to make it easier to follow, but I may script a catch phrase or some key element that I need to be consistent when I teach this thing to several different classes. Or I may script it to apply to a specific class to connect to an experience or conversation previously had in that class. Since they are right there on my podium, I use them to make notes in the spaces I leave myself. I note concerns about a student’s focus or attendance, how the class received something, if I had to clarify or reteach or redirect, or if a student rephrased something or asked a great question I want to be sure to include in the future when I teach this lesson—even if it is next period. I make edits and revisions on the plans and hang on to them. At the top I log the standards and dates, so this helps me find them. If time allows, I usually go back and edit the electronic copy of my lesson plan since I look them up and reuse them as a template when I can. But, to be brutally honest, I rarely have time for that.
True Collaborative Planning If you are not coteaching or collaborating at some point in your school year, ask yourself why, especially in secondary learning. In elementary, with only one or two different teachers for their core subjects, kids learn things in thematic units that apply all the skills they learn into one main objective. When they get to secondary classes, something happens and this stops. In my school district, we use learning maps that are written in district offices by experienced educators that have refined their craft. But all too often in the classroom, we see that we may talk about weather in science at a totally different time that we read poetry about seasons. Or that we are reading about historical figures at a totally different time period being covered in social studies. This is something to talk to your administration or district coaches/liaisons about changing, if possible. This may be something you can have flexibility with—most schools are primarily worried that you cover all the standards, although you may have to keep them aligned with standards based on benchmark assessments that come up. But you may be able to do something as an end of quarter project to bring it all together.
Using Student Feedback Another thing I love to use to reflect on my teaching is surveys for my kids. It is a great way to ask directly about what they liked and didn’t like and get raw feedback. I have done this several ways from open discussion, to questions built into an assessment I gave at the end of the unit, or even a quick survey monkey survey linked into our online classroom. I have done this at the end of each unit, and I have also done this at the end of the year. There doesn’t seem to be a right way to do it, and I feel the only wrong way to do it is to not ask them at all.
Peer Observations Brace yourselves, this next point may really push some of you beyond your comfort zone. I do my best to get by and observe other teachers in practice for a few minutes whenever possible, and I have an open door for my own classroom for any teachers that want to come and observe me. This has nothing to do with whether a teacher is perfect, but it has everything to do with diversifying our practices. I was a non-education major when I came into the field and, other than my student experience, I had no idea what teaching should look like. I relied on observing teachers to learn this skill. If your principal gives a shout out to a teacher for something their kids got caught doing well, ask that teacher to tell you about it and see if you can come and observe it in progress. If you are struggling with an area, talk to others and find a confidant that can come and watch you for part of a class to tell you what they see for a few minutes. Most of us get observations that contribute to our evaluations, so getting feedback from someone that we choose with no consequences to worry about can go a long way.
Reflecting on Scripted Programs with Leadership I also like to schedule time to discuss scripted programs our school follows for the subject areas I teach with my administration, after meeting with the department. We talk about what we like, what works, what we have the flexibility to adjust and what feedback needs sent “up the chain” to change things that may not be working well. This is where data becomes quite helpful, especially if trying to change practices. Most of us have heard the expression “Insanity is doing the same thing over again but expecting different results” and can relate to it. But how many of us keep teaching things the same way from a scripted curriculum because it is easier, even if we can see there is no measurable learning going on? Hopefully that number is lower than I expect. Many teachers don’t want to risk their jobs giving negative feedback about something, but don’t realize that, if it isn’t getting the expected results, they need to know it, especially if your job is on the line and student performance is tied to that. They think they can’t afford the risk, but, really, they can’t afford not to take the risk, and nor can the students trying to learn in a non-conducive learning environment.
Keeping the Flow in our Workspace Finally, I like to look at the workflow in my classroom. While I am big on procedures, routines and structure for movement and repetitive practices, I don’t like a rigid climate that will stifle creativity. This makes for a challenge when I get students that are used to being told every little what and how to do something or had classes with little to no structure before for a variety of reasons. One of the major things I look at is how many disruptions happened in my class for non-academic things. Bathroom breaks, water, seating, forgotten materials, discipline—these all happen, but do NOT have to disrupt learning. I am also not big on having to change gears several times a day due to varying levels of classes that shift from period to period. So, planning my day in a way that creates seamless transitions, free movement with responsibility or things I can prepare for in advance helps me spend more time at the door chatting with my kids than frantically resetting everything in my classroom or having to answer every little question.
Reflecting on what you teach and how you teach is essential for us to continue to grow and learn ourselves. The world is constantly changing around us, especially in terms of the skills our students need to have for the world that awaits them. You can’t change it all and if you reflect on everything, you may feel overwhelmed. If teaching or reflecting is new for you, start by choosing one subject or one area to reflect on and begin there. And don’t be afraid to get together with friends and fellow teachers to talk things over. You may be surprised at the solutions they have, or that just having a sounding board can help you brainstorm. When you see the benefits of it, it could become a natural practice in your teaching repertoire.
Check out my video on YouTube for specific examples from my classroom on these ideas and subscribe to stay in the loop on other ideas and events.