I wish someone had shared this with me 23 years ago.
I am an alternatively-certified educator with experience in teaching 3rd, 4th, and 6th grade in Texas. Having no qualifications for teaching except for a bachelor of arts, I was quickly shoved through a month-long alternative certification course. Also given four visits and a few more snippets of learning over the next year, the state of Texas deemed me qualified to stand before a group of 9- and 10-year-olds armed with nothing more than some dusty teacher editions and a lesson planner book.
I tried my best, but the road was long and bumpy.
Since those first heady days, I've learned a few things. Some came from subsequent education, others from various positions in campus and central administration. No matter where I am in my educational journey, however, I'll always look back and wonder.
What would my teaching have been like if someone had taken me aside and shared with me some basic principles of instruction?
How much bigger would my impact have been if someone handed me a cheat sheet for what it takes to deliver great lessons?
Teaching is complex. I would argue it's asymptotic - no matter how long you run down the path, there is no finish line of perfection. No, the joy is in the adventure of pouring into the lives of children every day.
Yet this doesn't mean there aren't some shortcuts that can get us closer to where we need to be for our students. In reflecting on what I wish I would have known those 23 years ago, several things come to mind. While this list is not exhaustive, I believe all teachers would benefit from examining these actions in more detail. To organize them, I've divided them into three stages of impactful teaching - before, during, and after the lesson.
Before the Lesson
-Great lessons emerge from careful planning and investigation.
Before getting in front of students and teaching, educators should come to grips with several key components of any lesson plan or curriculum they are asked to deliver. A careful investigation should answer some of the following questions.
What are students learning?
Why do students need to learn this?
How will lesson effectiveness be measured?
How does this lesson align with the larger scope and sequence?
What concepts/skills in this lesson will be needed for later lessons or assessments?
Until teachers know what their lesson is purporting to teach and how it fits into the bigger picture, they run the risk of presenting isolated, disconnected nuggets of information and leaving it to the students to piece them together.
-Great lessons flow from rehearsals before delivery.
Actors would never get on stage without many, many rehearsals. Athletes practice constantly in order to prepare for game day. A host of professions include practice and rehearsal as a key component of their craft and teaching would greatly benefit from this example. While time does not exist to run through every part of every lesson, professional educators find ways to rehearse key moments from upcoming lessons, either with colleagues or on their own. Rehearsal leads to a more confident delivery and highlights gaps in instruction before they're exposed in front of students.
During the Lesson
-Great lessons center on student discourse.
Students are going to talk in class whether you want them to or not. Instead of trying to dam a powerful current of water and watching your plans crumble, it's much more efficient to channel the conversation into productive rivers of discussion. Classroom discourse creates a more supportive and open learning environment, helps students process information verbally, and strengthens relationships.
-Great lessons integrate productive struggle.
Learning is a lot like weightlifting. If you're trying to build muscle mass, you have a narrow band of weights that you need to employ to meet your goal. If they're too light, you might build tone through repetition but won't add much muscle. If the weights are too heavy, though, you'll be unable to do much with them except struggle. Similarly, students need to expend effort that fits in their narrow window of learning - not too hard but not too easy.
After the Lesson
-Great lessons conclude with analysis of work samples.
This element of impactful teaching flows from the work of investigation before the lesson. Great lessons incorporate a method to measure effectiveness in the form of student work samples, usually a formative assessment such as an exit ticket. Just because the bell rings doesn't mean the work is over. Instead, professional educators categorize their student work samples from the lesson into levels of proficiency and use that data to remediate and adjust upcoming lessons.
-Great lessons spark reflection and improvement.
Before packing up for the day, teachers should take a moment to reflect on the lesson and identify at least one area for improvement. Areas to consider are:
Grouping of students
Difficulty of tasks
Delivery of content
Levels of questions
Remember, teaching is asymptotic. You can never quite reach perfection but that doesn't mean you should stop trying to get there with every single lesson.
If you'd like to learn more, stick around. Each of these six elements of impactful teaching will be fleshed out in future blog posts and linked above.
If you know of a teacher that would benefit from these six principles, please share this post with them.
For those that can't wait, you can check out some of the books I've already written on teaching (below).