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For Administrators Updated November 8, 2017

Practical Tips for Improving Your Teaching Practice

By Brian Gatens December 18, 2014

When I look back on the more than 1,000 formal/informal observations I’ve conducted during my career, I always return to three key areas that all teachers — and especially those newer to the profession — should focus on if they want to continue to offer their students the best classroom experience.

Let’s delve into each of these in greater detail:

Improving teaching practice

You have a “teaching practice” — not a “teaching perfection.” This little play on words emphasizes the central point that practice implies continuously working to get better. Like any worthwhile activity, teaching centers on a core set of skills supporting the overall work, and the best teachers work on improving those skills bit by bit, day by day.

What can you do to improve your skills?

Watch your colleagues

We recently surveyed our staff on what they need most to grow professionally. Right near the top of the list was the desire to spend time in their colleagues’ classrooms.

There is something to be said for simply sitting and watching respected and dedicated co-workers practice their craft. Speak to your administration about putting a schedule together to spend time around the building or school district. Teaching can become an isolating profession if we allow it to be, and getting into other people’s classrooms breaks down those walls and helps teachers grow in the process.

Be sure to follow up with specific questions and, perhaps, advice for your host. Ask them why they did certain things, how they work with challenging students and why they chose to teach what they did when they did. You’ll take away valuable information and offer them a chance to be introspective.

Use technology to see others in action

The explosion of connection in our culture due to technology has been nothing short of amazing. With a few quick search terms and some time on the computer, a teacher can find examples of good practice and the research that supports it. Not only will you be able to take away specific tips for improving your skills — organizing student work, maximizing the effectiveness of homework, etc. — but you’ll also be able to make connections with colleagues who otherwise would be unavailable to you. I strongly suggest that you foster those connections and rely upon them for advice.

Listen to those who see you every day

One of the ironies of how we evaluate teacher performance is that we don’t offer to listen to those who see it the most — the students. Offering your students the opportunity to share their thoughts about your practice and its effectiveness requires a high level of trust in them, and a lot of comfort in your ability to receive the feedback. Yet this feedback may be the most valuable as it enables you to get unvarnished thoughts and suggestions, and affirms the students’ role in the classroom.

One strategy I used as a classroom teacher was to leave an open-ended question at the end of a test where students could comment on how well I helped them learn the material. I encouraged them to look at their preparation (how much they studied, time they dedicated to the work and what strategies they used) but also share how well I explained the material and how I could have done that better. Yes, this required a leap of faith on my part, but I never regretted the advice I received.

Look around your classroom

You need a balance between relying on tried-and-true classroom practices and guarding against growing stale. A helpful tip that I received early in my career was to invite trusted colleagues into the classroom and ask for them to offer their thoughts on the presentation/setup of the room. Does it look like it did five or 10 years ago? Are the same decorations going on the wall (or not all)? Is it boring?

Based on their advice, consider switching things up or making a fresh trip to the teacher store. As little as it may seem on its face, switching up the presentation of the room sends a strong visual message to your students about your attitude toward them and the subject matter.

Building collegiality to become a better teacher

On its face, teaching looks like an individual profession. A teacher, usually the sole adult in the classroom, has the responsibility to work with a group of children on a certain subject over the course of a year. Digging deeper, however, reveals that successful teachers are far from alone in their profession, but instead have built strong relationships with colleagues over time.

Here’s a look at how you can build collegiality in your teaching life:

Strengthen connections

Teachers need to work with like-minded colleagues to improve their teaching skillsYou’ll often hear primary-grade teachers advising their students that “the best way to get a friend is to be a friend.” This adage also applies to teachers and their colleagues.

The weight of our work — lesson planning, student behavior management, meeting school and state expectations, working effectively with parents, etc. — adds up over time, which makes it essential to have a nearby support system of colleagues.

Don’t hesitate to walk down the hall and welcome a new teacher. I assure you that a friendly greeting comes as a great relief to someone just starting. For your more veteran colleagues, offer to help them whenever you can. This can consist of sharing resources, helping with classroom setup and giving advice. Developing these connections before a crisis erupts is essential.

Focus on student experiences

Don’t limit yourself to building relationships with colleagues who share a similar grade level or subject matter. Rather, find colleagues who like to focus on activities that are best for the children. This can include schoolwide learning projects, social service activities or special functions and assemblies.

One of the most gratifying parts of my job is attending a large group activity where colleagues go above and beyond to bring learning to the children. I’ve also found that out-of-the-classroom experiences — assemblies, special guests and so on — really set the cultural tone for the buildings.

Build positive relationships

An organization’s success depends upon the quality of the relationships of its people. When co-workers realize that their colleagues are caring, supportive and focused on doing the right thing, then great things can follow.

This places an important focus on mindset and attitude. Rather than getting pulled into the petty politics and sour attitudes of disillusioned colleagues, try focusing on the positive aspects of your school. Be the positive member of the staff, regardless of the challenges, and you’ll find that like-minded colleagues will be drawn to you.

Break bread together

I once read of a study that showed that people bond all the more closer when they have a shared social experience. The experiment brought members of two hostile factions together and had them sit and share a meal consisting of delicacies from both cultures. Another group sat at the same table and simply spoke to each other but with no food.

The results showed that the exchange of food and informal conversation over the meal helped break down barriers and bond the group. Bring that same attitude toward your colleagues. Invite them to lunch or order in from time to time. Talk about things other than your work and let human nature do its work: Your bonds will be all the stronger for it.

Remember, colleagues are mirrors

Ultimately, we surround ourselves with mirrors of ourselves. We unconsciously seek out those who are like us, and over time, we become more like each other.

Human beings are social beings. Our tendency to adopt other people’s attitudes and beliefs is unavoidable; it’s rooted in our primal need to survive. A group is far less likely to cast us out if we’re like them. That’s why it’s so essential to surround yourself with positive, caring and hard-working colleagues. They’ll become your best supporters as you continue to grow in your practice.

Digging deeper into content knowledge

In the popular imagination, we used to have an educational landscape where teachers just naturally knew what to teach and when to teach it. Content sprang miraculously from their minds, got written down in old pen-based plan books and magically became a part of every child’s classroom experience. Content flowed effortlessly from the teacher to the student and all was well in the classroom.

Of course it was never like that way back when, and it’s certainly not like that now.

Teachers need in-depth understanding of the content of their subjectsExcellent teachers have always needed to stay current on their content as it evolved over the years. In today’s demanding educational landscape, more and more children around the world now have access to a quality education. That, in turn, requires our students to compete not just against the child from the next town, but also the next country, which makes it all the more essential that classroom teachers constantly build their understanding of the subject matter content of their classrooms.

So how do you build this knowledge?

Join a national organization

American teachers benefit greatly from local, state and national organizations that focus on specific subjects, current research and content-delivery methods. Here’s a quick list of groups to research further:

  • Math — National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
  • English — National Council of Teachers of English
  • Elementary grades — National Association for the Education of Young Children
  • Science — National Science Teachers Association

And this is just a starter list. A simple online search will turn up organizations for every subject. Groups also focus on gifted children, school administration and child advocacy. Ask your supervisor if your district holds an institutional membership to these groups; if so, you may be able to get on their mailing lists. Take advantage of their publications, online resources and opportunities to connect with colleagues.

Sit with same-subject colleagues

Research shows again and again that the most efficient way to improve content knowledge is to sit and work with district-level colleagues who have the same responsibilities. Work with your school’s curriculum coordinator to find time for you to collaborate with your colleagues.

Use these opportunities to discuss best practices in the classroom, deepening content knowledge and sharing effective learning strategies. Teaching, which should be more of a social profession, sometimes isolates teachers. A concerted effort on your part will help break down the alone time.

Learn more than the curriculum requires

A deep understanding of your district-supplied curriculum is not enough to meet your class’s content needs. Yes, the curriculum is necessary, but it’s really just a baseline for what to do inside the classroom over the course of the year.

Going above and beyond the curriculum is a habit of the best teachers. Be sure to read broadly about your subject and try to consistently look for ways to bring new information to your practice.

Look for out-of-the-classroom applications

Ok, pet peeve time: I loathe applying the phrase “the real world” to our non-school life. The subtle (OK, not so subtle) tone of that expression is that school has a minimal connection to the lives of students when they are not in school.

This disconnect undermines our work. The best way to push back against this misperception is to continually look for examples of how your content applies to life outside of the classroom. The more examples you can point to, the more you can draw your students into the importance of your class.

Never forget that you teach children, not content

If it were all about knowing the content, then the world’s best mathematicians would be the world’s best math teachers, but we know that isn’t the case. The sweet spot of teaching combines your understanding of the content, your ability to work effectively with colleagues and your knowledge of how children learn best.

To think that any one of these things can take the place of another is a mistake. Good teaching is about balance, and there’s no way around that.

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