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Teacher Voice

New to Teaching? These 4 Tips Will Improve Your Classroom

I’m still less than a year into my new role as a teacher coach specializing in supporting first-year teachers, but here are four things that have stood out as major levers for novice teachers to improve their practice. 1. Break the Plane and Get Moving! What could be duller than staring at a person who doesn’t move? Perhaps it’s the way classrooms look on television or at the movies, with teachers posted up by the chalkboard, lecturing to students, but so many first-year teachers operate as if they are physically leashed to the front of the room. They need to get moving. It’s called circulation, and it can revolutionize a teacher’s practice. Teachers need to think about their classroom layout, and plan effective and efficient paths that take them to all corners of the room as quickly as possible. Students needs to feel their teacher’s proximity, and know that within a second a teacher can be there to help or redirect. Teachers need to see the work their students are doing so they can pick up the trends that can inform their next teaching move. Are students forgetting to the carry the 1 in a math problem? Are students confusing simile for metaphor? Are they even on the right page? The only way to know, to really know, is to see it with your own eyes. In an ironic twist of fate, the growing use of the doc-cam, the 21st-century equivalent of the overhead projector, can actually make a teacher more old-fashioned in that they have now become attached to the machine. So what is a teacher to do? Find that student who is an amazing notetaker. We almost all have one. Have them do their work under the doc cam. This can free up teacher movements, while at the same time highlighting a student exemplar throughout the class period. Bottom line, the sage on the stage has left the building. 2. Stop Repeating Student Answers and Get Kids Listening to One Another! I did it for years, and once it was pointed out to me, I realized that it made no sense. We ask students a question. They give an answer. We repeat it. Why? So other students can hear it, perhaps. But if we do that, what is the logical unintended consequence? It’s obvious. If students know that I will repeat what their classmates say, what incentive is there for them to listen to one another? Instead of repeating our students’ answers, we can bounce them around the room so other students can build upon them. For instance, if Rasheen gives an answer, I can turn to Michael and say, “What do you think about that, Michael?” After Michael responds, I can turn to Shydeena and ask, “Agree or disagree and why?” The best classes were when I was less a teacher and more of a facilitator. I was there to guide students towards knowledge, not necessarily impart it to them. And among the best ways for that to happen was for students to listen to one another. And how do we make that happen? In part, by not repeating what our students say. That way, they’ll have to listen. 3. Eliminate Distributing Handouts by Using Caddies Instead! Minutes in the classroom are arguably a teacher’s most precious commodity; there’s never enough of them, and we never get them back. And so many of those minutes are wasted handing out papers. Passing out papers can grind a class’ momentum to a halt and open up a myriad of opportunities for students to get off task and mess around. Then, even more minutes are wasted trying to get the lesson back on track. It’s enough to drive teachers crazy. But there’s a solution. Put a caddy on every table or desk. Get to school 15 minutes early (earlier, I should say) and put all the handouts students needs for class in them before the first bell rings. I taught five sections of high school english every day for almost 10 years. These caddies allowed me to have enough copies of four different handouts for every student I taught every day without handing out a single piece of paper. Game changed. 4. Teach to the Skill, Not the Test! This is not the place to discuss the pros and cons of testing, but one thing I’ve noticed about teacher mindsets about tests is that they believe teaching to the test and actually teaching students are mutually exclusive. They’re not. Or rather, they don’t have to be. Every student I ever taught sat for at least four standardized tests a year, not including the SATs and ACTs my juniors and seniors took. [pullquote position="left"]My first few years, I taught my class with the test in mind and the students did poorly. I had to find a new way to teach my students, one that engaged them and prepared them. So, with the support of coaches, assistant principals, and colleagues, I began to look at tests differently. It wasn’t what the question said that was important; it was the skill that students needed to master that mattered. Think of it this way. Let’s say an upcoming assessment required my students to be able to identify the main idea of a text, identify an author’s use of figurative language, and chart a character’s development. If I was teaching to the test, I would look at the question stems and teach students how to decode the stem, eliminate wrong choices, and make educated guesses. These aren’t bad skills, but they’re not skills the test was actually assessing, nor were they skills I felt in my English teacher’s heart were what mattered. So I looked at our text. I looked at the pages we were going to attack that day. What skill did those pages lend themselves to? If the passages were dense and difficult to follow, then they were perfect for building comprehension skills. If they were poetic masterpieces, then we focused on figurative language. If they dove deep into a character’s internal struggle, we followed it to decode the character’s development. And guess what happened. Student scores improved, oftentimes dramatically. And they learned to love to read to boot. When we teach to the test, students do worse. When we discard the test, we don’t know how they do. But when we use the test to tell us what skills we need, and then use the text to build those skill, student learning can soar.

Summer Is Coming

To all the novice teachers out there, I salute you. My first years of teaching were some of the most difficult of my life. But you’re doing it. Keep it up. June is coming.
Zachary Wright 
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...

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