5 Traits of Excellent Classrooms

A wonderful byproduct of my work is seeing excellent teachers creating classrooms that support, challenge and inspire children.

The high-quality classrooms they create have a few common threads, regardless of subject or grade level. Here’s how I can tell I’m observing a top-notch classroom:

Students carry the intellectual load

Students who are interested in learning are a sure sign of a successful classroomWhen I’m watching classroom instruction, I find myself amazed that teachers think I’m there to watch them. While there is some justification for thinking that, I’m far more interested in watching the children learn.

I can always tell I’m sitting in a great classroom if the students are doing the intellectual heavy lifting. That is, they’re reading and analyzing complex and age-appropriate texts, working out lengthy and challenging problems, and conferring with classmates in building shared knowledge. I’m not interested in a class that looks like a dog-and-pony-show where the teacher focuses on showing me what they can do while the children are docile and quiet.

Discipline isn’t an issue

I’ve worked in challenging schools and have seen kids go from being a learning obstacle in one classroom to being a participating member in a different classroom the very next period. The difference wasn’t the subject matter or the location of the classroom, but rather the strategies used by the teacher.

To participate and succeed, students need high expectations and well-organized classrooms that get them interested in learning. Discipline falls apart if students feel their coursework is unnecessary or that their teachers are not interested in them. Teachers in the best classrooms know that showing enthusiasm for both the subject matter and the student can change student conduct for the better.

Teachers do not emphasize drills and practice

The best classrooms don’t trade away student engagement and interest just to focus on the completion of a worksheet or a set number of problems. Yes, we always need to practice and practice again, but only long enough to confirm that our students understand the work. Once that’s out of the way, we can move on to something that has greater engagement or more interest.

We have only a finite amount of student attention to work with. We shouldn’t squander it just to complete an unnecessary worksheet. Far too many classrooms treat practice as the be all and end all. Great classes are judicious in the use of practice and get on to more engaging learning as soon as possible.

Transitions do not waste time

This may seem minor, but many teachers trade away valuable learning time during transitions, including from period to period when the children enter and exit the room. Great teachers remedy this by writing a “Do Now” notice on the board and meeting the children at the door to tell them they need to get working right away.

Other time-wasters include offering unclear directions for student work or having to answer the same question over and over again. Precise planning of class activities can help teachers claw back some of that lost time.

Teachers watch and learn from colleagues

Good classroom practice can be infectious if you see strong instruction in other classrooms. Then it’s just a matter of taking what has impressed you and bringing it back to your classroom.

Great teaching that seems effortless can intimidate beginners, but any teacher can tweak their practice to match the performance of their peers. Nobody becomes a great teacher overnight, but those who work steadily toward creating a great class can make amazing progress even within a single school year.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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