I’m a big fan of science notebooks for students. My students use notebooks to develop Cornell Notes from content material, record and analyze lab data, and create “interactive notebook” elements like foldables, flashcards, and puzzles.
I’m NOT a big fan of the lengthy process that ensues when attempting to assess student notebooks. What I find most frustrating is collecting notebooks to see what students are thinking. As a high school teacher with multiple sections of students, trying to carry home hundreds of notebooks isn’t only logistically difficult, it’s time-consuming and inefficient.
One of my favorite parts of being an educator is learning. It may sound strange, but I love learning new things and getting better at what I do. It recharges my batteries.
Every school year, I begin the year excited to apply something new that I’ve learned. I reflect critically about the things that were successful with my last cohort of students, and which areas left room for growth. I intentionally seek learning opportunities that will support my professional growth in the areas that present a challenge. This is how I model growth mindset.
Growth mindset has been the center of my Getting Better Together project with Teaching Channel. Over the past year, I wrote about my journey related to instilling a growth mindset in my students. This video playlist is a window into our work.
The climate, or culture, of a school is one of the most important factors in its success. In fact, you can almost feel the climate of a school within seconds of ringing the buzzer for entry. A culture of collaboration and excellence provides the climate for consistent success for students and increased job satisfaction for teachers. Working towards creating this generative environment is a worthy, yet difficult goal.
Whenever you invite humans into the process of any complex work, there’s the inevitability of error, miscalculation, or failure. What’s also possible in this space, and I think what makes this process so messy and beautiful, is the potential for teachers to change, grow, and create transformative teaching experiences.
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:
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.
I am wary of high stakes, anxiety-producing, number-heavy, hoop-jumping evaluation systems.
Imagine my delight and surprise to learn that as a new principal in Bellingham, I could use a collaborative, online video platform for all teacher evaluations. The platform would be private, efficient, and teacher-driven; both parties would be able to view, code, and upload videos. I jumped at the opportunity to use Teaching Channel Teams in lieu of scripting into a state-sponsored platform.
Here’s a startling statistic: 40% of high school students are chronically disengaged in school. There are enough reasons to go around, and I’d agree that many of them are outside of a teacher’s direct control. But some of them aren’t. As we pursue a set of skills, I have a great deal of control over how that happens in my classroom, so going into this school year I asked myself:
- How can student-interest and inquiry drive the learning?
- How can my teaching be more responsive to student needs?
- How do I help students realize their own agency and ability to effect change?
Out of these questions came my Getting Better Together project focused on pursuing personalized learning and customized instruction.
When I was in the classroom, I had the good fortune to have a team teacher. We were very similar in our personalities, and that sometimes caused tension, especially when we were first getting to know each other. The first few weeks of our five year relationship were very cordial. We were testing the waters and seeing how the other person operated in the classroom. We tried to figure out how to make our teaching styles and pedagogical beliefs work together, all while getting to know our new students and some of our colleagues. We joked later on that it was like all the adults were dressed for prom, done up in their best outfits and afraid to get dirty. Lucky for me, about a quarter way into the school year, the prom dresses “came off” and we quickly moved into giving each other critical feedback on practice and really tried to mesh our styles and beliefs, not just make them work.
One of my favorite education books is The Courage to Teach. In that text, Parker Palmer explores teaching as a daily exercise in vulnerability. As teachers, we expose ourselves, and often the content we love, to an at-times unforgiving world. Difficult students, dud lessons, doubting colleagues, short-sighted initiatives, all exacerbated by the challenges of our lives outside the classroom, can eventually harden a teacher. And that skepticism can make it a lot harder to take the risks necessary to get better.
So finding the courage to continue to care deeply, to continue to seek feedback, can be challenging. But I’ve found, as scary as it may be, that student feedback has been an important catalyst for reflecting on and improving my practice. Hearing directly from students also aligns with my own deepest motivations. More than test scores, or my desire to introduce students to great novels and great questions, I teach so that students feel someone believes in them and they feel empowered to learn, grow, and succeed. Measuring success on that mission requires hearing directly from students.
So much of teaching is living in tension: giving more support vs. letting a student productively struggle. Following your own judgement vs. following the curriculum. Praise for good work vs. pushing for better.
And one tension I think about often is giving students my best vs. having more to give to future students. Burnout is a real risk in this profession. We have to find ways to do the job well and in a way that let’s us make it a career. As a teacher of high school English students and a father of a toddler, I feel this tension acutely. Fortunately, I’ve found some strategies to help make feedback more time-effective, without sacrificing the support and direction students need for their growth.