Five Tips to Encourage Positive Classroom Culture

New Teacher Survival Guide

Before I ever set foot in a classroom, I knew what kind of teacher I wanted to be. I created a composite in my head of all my favorite teachers. You know them, those teachers who were exactly the person you needed at exactly the moment you needed them. I wanted to be warm, funny, and to encourage creativity. I wanted to protect my students and to advocate for them. I wanted to make them write both silly and serious things and understand just how clever Shakespeare really was.

I never anticipated how difficult it would be to keep that ideal version of myself alive. There were activities I had to fight for, actions I had to justify, and ideas I had to let go. It was exhausting to maintain my ideal teacher persona. There were nights when I was packing up to head home at 9 p.m., furiously apologizing to the maintenance staff for not leaving sooner. It wasn’t until my second year that I realized all of those traits I’d envisioned weren’t about the type of teacher I wanted to be. Actually, those traits embodied the classroom culture I wanted to create for my students.

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#TchWellness: Three Components of Building Trusting Relationships

Getting Better Together

This entry is the fifth post in the series #TchWellness.

This year, as I continue to focus on issues that impact teacher wellness, I had the opportunity to interview an expert in how we build trusting relationships: Nan Russell, author of Trust Inc.: How to Create a Business Culture That Will Ignite Passion, Engagement, and Innovation. My goal for the interview was to better understand the concept of trust and then work to increase the development of trust in my professional relationships.

Why do I trust some people and not others? As I pondered this question, I initially thought the answer may be connected to likeability. Do I trust people whom I like more? Yet, thinking back to coaches who challenged me during my days as an athlete, I realized I often trusted the coaches who pushed me the most, even if this was at the expense of a more comfortable, lighthearted relationship. I knew it had to be more complex than likeability.

As I interviewed Nan, I asked how teachers could build trust in a world that focuses heavily on performance evaluations that so often work from a deficit model, focusing on what needs to be fixed in our instructional practices.

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#TchWellness: TRUST. Give it to Get it

Getting Better Together

This entry is the fourth post in the series #TchWellness.

As part of Teaching Channel’s #TchWellness series, I’m connecting with a series of authors who are helping me — and you — understand issues impacting teachers. Our first, Nan Russell, author of Trust, Inc.: How to Create a Business Culture That Will Ignite Passion, Engagement, and Innovation, recently sat down with me for an interview. Her work, not limited to education, explores how trust is developed and sustained.

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Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain

Podcast anewkindofPD

Editor’s Note: Interested in Culturally Responsive Teaching? Listen to our #anewkindofPD podcast episode featuring Zaretta Hammond. Subscribe here on iTunes or Stitcher for reminders of new podcast launches.

This school year, I have the privilege of working shoulder to shoulder with teachers who are rolling up their sleeves and asking hard questions about how they can better serve their under-performing students who are disproportionately English learners, poor students, and students of color. They are working to incorporate culturally responsive practices into their classrooms.

I believe culturally responsive teaching (CRT) is a powerful method for accelerating student learning. But truth be told, most educators are not really sure what it is or what it looks like. For some, it seems mysterious. A number of leaders discount it because it seems too “touchy feely” or only focused on raising students’ self-esteem, when they need to raise achievement levels. But CRT is so much more than that. It’s the reason why I wrote Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.

Two of the biggest challenges I see teachers struggle with when first embracing CRT, is understanding the role culture actually plays in instruction and how to operationalize culturally responsive practices. They worry that they have to learn 19 different cultures — everyone’s individual customs, holidays, foods, and language. This simply isn’t true. Here are four other big ideas about culturally responsive teaching to keep in mind: Read more

Big Ideas Need Big Spaces: Creating Room for Teacher Voice and Choice

Getting Better Together

The life of an instructional coach is a balancing act. On the one hand, you are still a teacher. You still plan lessons, they’re just called agendas. You still assess the effectiveness of your instruction, but now refer to the process as follow-up professional development sessions. On the other hand, you are a part of the instructional leadership team with the assistant principals and principal of the school. You have “crossed over” to the other side, to use teacher parlance.

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This straddling of two perspectives can help you craft initiatives for great teaching that work for both teachers and the instructional leadership team. The beauty of this duality is that it allows teachers and leaders to work together to determine what the initiatives will be. The improvement of teaching is best realized when teachers are involved in the conversation, rather than summoned to the table. Here are four ways I’ve worked with teachers and administrators to create room for teacher voice and collaboration:

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Supporting Great Teaching: A Tangible Vision of Excellence

Getting Better Together
My first example of love was from my parents, which is probably true for most people. Their care and attention to my moral, spiritual, and physical development provided the template for what I hope to achieve with Laila and Joshua, my two children. In the space between the example that I saw and the habits I hope to repeat, learning took place. This relationship is essential to creating an infrastructure that allows great teaching to flow.

You must set a vision of excellence that is visible, practical, and impactful. For many, this vision requires an intentional shift. Throughout my work at Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School, it has become clear that there are three high-leverage actions that begin to facilitate this change: establishing common language and expectations, building a standards-based foundation, and maintaining a tight feedback loop. Here are some dos and don’ts to consider when engaging with each action:

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Supporting Great Teaching: Overcoming Obstacles

Getting Better Together

You cannot have great teaching without great teachers. Any education reform that seek to separate one from the other by means of technological advancements, all-in-one assessment systems, or overloading effective teachers, will have long-term, massive consequences. Although we can engage students with devices, tablets, and modules, they make real connections to human beings. To teachers. The human dynamic in teaching is vital, and the connection between students and teachers is a powerful and important bond.

However, in establishing systems to support great teaching and great teachers, the human element may cause the most difficulty. Teachers are humans first, which means they have emotions, pressures, and realities that can’t be hidden away, even from a dynamic principal (or instructional coach) who’s implementing a new initiative. One of the lessons I’ve learned as an instructional coach is that you have to be able to work effectively with a range of personalities and experiences in order to create a system that supports and unleashes great teaching. This is tough! Through my work as a teacher, I’ve seen three obstacles that can slow or stop the creation of this system: empathy, followup, and assessment. These obstacles will serve as running themes throughout my getting better together journey this year.

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Supporting Great Teaching: Creating Systems for Development

Getting Better Together

Great teaching is special. There might be comprehensive rubrics to measure it and best-selling books to define it; but there is something intangible yet deeply felt when you see the eyes of students in the middle of a powerful lesson, delivered by a powerful teacher.

Students’ eyes are on the teacher, on the work, and looking to each other. Students quickly and intentionally discuss and debate the learning of the day. At the conclusion of such a lesson, the bell seems like a surprise and an interruption all at once. This type of environment is special to witness and shouldn’t be a unique experience. We want all students to experience this, every day. This year, through my work as an instructional coach, I am more convinced than ever that the best teachers grow out of rich and empowering systems.

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Teaching With Grace, Learning With Dignity

We’ve all been there — a momentary, frustrated reaction to a student that’s more curt, less kind, and more gruff than it ought to be. Its roots are embedded somewhere in our lack of sleep, or a floundering lesson, or unforgiving piles of paperwork. And it’s a reaction immediately regretted, but unable to be undone.

We’re flawed human beings. So are our students. The work is challenging for everyone, so these moments happen.

I’ve learned how that moment can irreversibly color a student’s experience in our classrooms, like food coloring staining a glass of water. For children — too often bearing burdens of anxiety, a challenging home life, or the common self-doubts of adolescence — the last thing they need is for a teacher to be an adversary in their learning. Yet, I still occasionally make these mistakes. But I’ve also made the choice to be intentional in limiting and countering them. I’ve made the choice to focus on teaching with grace, so that students can learn with dignity.

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A Coach’s Toolkit: Three Ways to Build Trust

A wise person once told me that if you lose a teacher’s trust, it’s nearly impossible to regain it. Without trust, an instructional coach has very little influence over the professional growth of a teacher, and ultimately, student achievement. The majority of coaches, including myself, do not possess the “power of the pen,” meaning that our advice is not enforced by consequences (like being written up or getting dinged on evaluations). When a coach works with a teacher, and the teacher accepts feedback and recommendations, it’s because they want to improve their practice.

Instructional coaching is one of those positions within a system of schools that is complex — not complex in terms of being difficult, but complex because of the nature of the relationships that exist between coaches and teachers. There is a balancing act between providing relevant and honest feedback and supporting the school’s bottom line. How does trust fit into this act?

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