Adjunct Professor (former) at Teachers College

 Teacher Top 5s – the secrets for successful teaching

1. Content Knowledge:  Understanding the core concept of the subject-matter at a deep level is arguably the most essential secret for successful teaching.  Strong content knowledge is not necessarily always about process.  Rather, it is about the fundamentals themselves.  For instance, there are numerous curricula such as Everyday Math and TERC in elementary math.  Process is often stressed in these math programs, especially in terms of how to teach young people.  That said, an effective teacher does not always rely on process and depends more on his or her profound comprehension of math, understanding of the objective to be taught, and how to differentiate instruction for different types of learners.  The artist is a good analogy.  At the beginning, most artists are first classically trained.  Thereafter, they evolve and stylize their craft.  For teachers, this is also true.  They must first command a deep and acute knowledge of the material to be taught.  By doing so, they can adapt lessons to meet the needs of the class and individual learners.

2. Comfortable “Living in the Shadows”:  Teachers are in the classroom to facilitate student growth.  While there exists an inherent power structure in the room, teachers need not always be in the spotlight.   Teachers must learn to empower their students.  Effective educators recognize that they are not simply a repository of knowledge.  Students have something to share and it is the teacher’s responsibility to draw that out.  Often times this means letting a student struggle with the content, and yet watching your students struggle can be the most difficult aspect about teaching.  That said, struggle often means growth and teachers must be comfortable living in the shadows.  Teachers should gain strength from the success of others.  

3. Interested in Learning:  Teachers must be critical consumers of learning.  In today’s society, knowledge is constantly changing and the differing viewpoints are tremendous.  Keeping an open mind and vetting out what works and what does not can mean a huge difference.  At the same time, teachers need to recognize the power of multiple perspectives and be interested in what others have to say.  As an example, Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who helped guide and interpret for Lewis and Clark, should be remembered and perceived in what way?  What would Lewis and Clark say?  What would a native Shoshone person think?  

4. Treat Each Moment with Purpose:  When it is time to learn, it is imperative that teachers deliberately structure each day with thought and care.  Teachers need to be specific and facilitate student learning.  For instance, writing the agenda on the board is a good way to promote routine and gauge expectations.  Obvious things such as knowing all of your students’ names may appear trivial, but to the learner, it means you truly care about him or her.  Teachers should also make certain to set up their classroom environment to focus on learning.  This means creating a safe environment where children feel comfortable taking risks.  For high risk kids, this is especially true.  They need to know that the classroom is a nurturing place that accepts and celebrates everyone for their differences and contributions.  

5.  Communication/Conflict-Prevention and -Negotiation:  As a father to several young children, the phrase, “Use your words,” is important to open the lines of communication when kids are upset, desire something, or feel frustrated.  This saying has enormous applicability in the classroom too.  For teachers, they need to be specific, clear, and transparent when communicating, especially with students and parents.  As an art teacher in middle school, strong classroom management was essential in order to conduct a meaningful learning experience.  To get the class’s attention, a countdown would begin from “3-2-1.”  If the inappropriate behavior did not cease, a  previously communicated consequence would be implemented immediately.  In a very short period of time, students understood teacher expectations.  

In communicating with parents, the sharing of your educational philosophy and approach to working with students will be greatly appreciated.  That way, all parties are on board and the purpose is clear.  After all, strong parent-teacher partnerships are vital for student development.  

In summary, encourage your students to articulate what they are feeling.  Treat students like they are older, therefore, conflicts will be handled more like adults.  As for the teacher, be a great listener, make certain you practice paraphrasing student comments, and act as fair facilitator.

Patrick McCabe

Director (former) at New Roads Elementary School

 Teacher Top 5s – the secrets for successful teaching

1. Own  your “Own” Material and Classroom:  There is nothing like a prepared teacher who possesses a strong area of expertise in his or her subject-matter and is always ready to teach.  In many ways, this is the essence of teaching and the quintessential teacher is someone who all administrators desire to have on faculty.  Teachers need to stay current in their craft and knowledge.  Educators who practice the same routine and pattern over the years need to reassess what is truly effective to reach different types of learners.  Collaboration among teachers and collegiality are imperative to promote ongoing learning for all teachers.  

Strong classroom management goes without saying.  There is “good noise” in a vibrant classroom.  Teachers really need to “own” their own classroom and make it a productive place for learning.  At the same time, educators need to realize that they are not simply responsible for “their” class.  They have to keep a bigger picture in mind and know that they are there for “all” students.  In a school, “Educational Entrepreneurism” should exist.  Teachers need to create their own culture in the classroom so that children can learn fully.  The variance in educational entrepreneurialism might be large, but owning one’s material and classroom is basically the same idea throughout for all effective teachers.

2. Be Organized yet Flexible:  Prior to entering the education sector, I was a senior executive at a variety of companies.  Given my background, I taught a Business 101 course at the upper school at New Roads School.  I remember planning for a class with a specific goal in mind in terms of what I wanted to teach and accomplish that day.  The class was reading one of Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad books.  On that day, a student asked a tangential question about Martha Stewart and the felony she committed in lying about a stock sale.  The brief query quickly turned into a lively ethics discussion.  At that point, I made the decision to throw out my pre-planned lesson and spend the remainder of class conversing about an even more important topic, business ethics.

The moral of the story is that teachers need to plan studiously for instruction, projects and assignments, and long term goals.  Front-end loading is a good way to accomplish this.  That said, teachers should anticipate issues and problems as well as remain flexible to meet the needs of the students.  In my Business 101 course, the intellectual curiosity of the business ethic topic was more important than simply going through a prepared lesson and/or established curriculum.

3. Be Authentic, Be Yourself:  It’s biologically impossible to be someone else!  For that reason, teachers need to have their own personality and style.  While good educators often pride themselves on knowing their students well, teachers must know themselves equally well, especially their own style and biases.  Do not try and be someone you are not, and stay true to yourself.  At New Roads School, all of the teachers have different backgrounds and qualities.  As an administrator, we sought to hire “Renaissance People,” teachers who were solid educators, but with colorful personalities and varied histories as opposed to (let’s say) double doctorates with no personality.  Humor tends to work with children and faculty.  However, it has to fit your persona and style.  

4. Open Yourself to Mentorship:  This strategy refers to John Wooden’s quote, “When I am through learning, I am through.”  To be an effective teacher, one never stops learning.  This can take the form of the mentee learning as well as the mentor.  Either way, both people must be open to learning from each other.  Educators must promote collegiality and share ideas in order to get better.  Professional development is a big part of this.  At New Roads School, “Common Imbibement” was established in an informal setting.  It meant that once per month, the entire staff would go off-campus in a social setting not only for libations, but also to share ideas.  Conversations were not about specific students or personal items.  Instead, it was about learning from others in attempt to break down the proprietary nature inherent in teaching.

5. What is in the best interests of the students?:  As an educator, one has a colossal responsibility in educating our youth to the best of our abilities.  Perhaps truly understanding, “What is in the best interests of your students?” is the most important aspect to teaching.  Those who employ flexibility, embrace lifelong learning, and recognize “good noise” are the educators who will genuinely affect and impact their students on a going-forward basis.

Anne Abrams

Harrison Central School District in Westchester County, NY (Elementary – Grades 2 and 5)

Teacher Top 5s – the secrets for successful teaching

1. Focus on Management:  The ultimate goal is to teach students to learn how to manage themselves and to exhibit self-control.  By doing so, the classroom will run well.  Through structure and routine, students will learn what is expected and what to do.  For instance, if morning meeting is performed every day with consistent execution and noteworthy purpose, students will know to gather in a circle first thing after they unpack.  As teachers, modeling is imperative to show students what they need to do.  It is a way to teach independence.  Encouragement and guided instruction are also important to let students know that they can do things on their own.  

In the elementary grades, it is not unusual for students to ask: “How do I do this?” or “Where is this?” or “I need your help.”  In reply, I often respond by stating, “How can you be a problem solver?”  That re-directed query helps children think through issues to arrive at their own solutions.  Another tactic is: “Ask three before me.”  A child should engage at least three other students about a question he or she may have, before asking the teacher.  All of these strategies are directed to teaching children how to become independent so that they can manage themselves, learn to problem solve, and construct their own learning.  In many ways, this replicates the “real world,” and students need to learn these skills in order to be successful.

2. Relate Lessons to Students’ Lives:  This is similar to making connections.  The first step is to know students well.  Then, when planning lessons, they have to connect with students’ lives.  Students are more invested in learning when they feel like their learning is purposeful and interesting.  For instance, when teaching a concept in math, an explanation should always be shared to explain why and how it is important for students.  Perhaps, it is addition.  Knowing how to add is crucial when going to the store to buy candy.  Then again, it might be division.  This comes in handy when trying to divide students into teams during recess.  It may also be fractions.  How do you share something fairly among siblings?

The other aspect of lesson-making is ascertaining the ability range of students and knowing how much scaffolding is needed.  This relates directly to Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development which is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help.

3. Build a Sense of Community:  The type of environment that students walk into everyday dictates how much they are going to learn.  A successful classroom is one in which students care about others.  Students should feel a sense of trust with their classmates, allowing them to feel safe taking risks.  Without risk-taking, learning is truncated and students never leave their comfort zone.  For the first few weeks of school, building community is enormously important.  Get to know one another and build trust, extending from student to teacher, teacher to student, and student to student.  

Morning meeting is a good way to develop community.  Students greet each other, share information, join in an activity, and interact with a morning message.  The intent is to learn, celebrate, and encourage each other.  Another strategy is carving out time at the end of the week to discuss problems or issues.  Throughout the week, anonymous student concerns can be submitted in a box.  These submissions serve as topics for discussion.  Both techniques are intended to create a safe and nurturing place to learn that is not simply focused on academics, but social-emotional growth as well.  

4. Practice Self-Reflection:  It is important to strive to be a better teacher so that continuous improvement exists.  Self-reflection is a meaningful way to make sure that happens.  How did a lesson work?  How could it have been better?  Did I reach my students?  Each night, teachers should ask themselves, “How did the day go?”  If something does not feel right, then make a note to address the issue.  Good teachers take action and are not complacent.  Since many lessons are Smart Board-based, a re-evaluation of a specific lesson is easily accomplished.  In many ways, an informal “Response to Intervention” should be taking place mentally.  That way, solutions can be created to improve student comprehension.  

Teaching students to self-reflect is just as important as teacher self-reflection.  Students grow as learners when they routinely self-reflect.  This is especially true in writing, but also applies to other subjects.  For writing, in particular, the “Two Stars and A Wish” approach is an effective, self-reflection teaching strategy.  After an assignment, students are asked to provide two things that they did well, and one wish they have for the future.  Students also circle back to goals they have set at the beginning of each academic period.  The teacher and students track their progress to see how they are faring.  

5. Be Okay Not Knowing Everything:  Students need to see that teachers are lifelong learners.  It is important for them to see that teachers do not have all the answers, and that answers can be found together.  For example, a student may pose a difficult geography question.  If one does not know the answer, it is okay to admit it.  In fact, capitalize on the opportunity to make it a teachable moment.  Demonstrate how to find the answer to the query in a collaborative manner.  Come up with questions on how to do research.  Identify resources on where to look.  Take the time to show students that teachers constantly learn too.  

Whether one is new to teaching or a seasoned veteran, lifelong learning is a mindset.  All teachers can learn from others.  Remain open to multiple perspectives, new strategies, and different ways of doing things.  The website, Pinterest, is an amazing tool for sharing things of common interest, even education, among friends and the Pinterest community. 

Mary Jo Ann Crow

Illinois State Teacher of the Year (2001) (Science – Grades 7 to 8)

Teacher Top 5s – the secrets for successful teaching

1. Love the Kids:  Children know if a teacher likes them or not.  They have an incredible ability to sense things.  There is no pretense with children.  If students believe that you do not care about them, then the battle to educate is lost.  In fact, it does not even matter if students have an overwhelming interest in the subject-matter.  If the teacher-student bond is broken, then the joy of learning is lost.  On the other hand, if unconditional love exists, students will work their hardest.  The moral of the story is that if you do not love kids in the first place, then teaching is not the right profession.  Stay out, because more harm than good will result.  


2. Set High Expectations:  Students will meet your expectations.  Therefore, it is important to set them high.  If expectations are set low, students will live down to them.  Be explicit and tell students what you expect them to learn.  Except for certain situations, students have always met or surpassed the expectations that I have set for them.  The bottom line is that teachers have to believe in their students.  Encouragement is helpful and being accessible, before, during, and after school, is imperative.  Work with students as much and as long as they need.  

A case in point is science fair projects.  While students pick the project of their choice, parents would oftentimes want to assist their child.  In one specific case, the parent was also a science educator.  She became heavily involved, dictating how the project should be done.  The student then approached me and discussed his unhappiness of his parent’s involvement.  As the teacher of the student, it was crucial to ask the parent to take a step back and allow her child to perform his own science fair project.  Children need to know that adults believe in them.  While the child may struggle, growth and learning appear.  The saying, “The best wines come from stressed grapes,” is not only in winemaking, but also education.  


3. Listen to Your Students:  All students need to feel that their teacher is fully vested and engaged in each one of them.  It allows students to approach their teacher openly and honestly to talk about issues or problems that may be bothering them.  A good way of building trust is by being a good listener and devoting one’s full attention to whomever wants to talk.  Teachers can lend a compassionate ear or act as a sounding board.  Oftentimes, children just want an adult to talk to without casting judgment or criticism.  Whatever it may be, teachers have a unique position that allows them to be a student advocate and a positive influence.

As an example, I remember speaking with a student who had academic, social, and behavioral problems.  As the conversation ensued and the student was opening up, a classmate came up and interrupted.  I held up my hand and motioned that I needed several minutes.  At the end of the student-teacher conversation, the student was enormously thankful for giving him my full attention and avoiding disruptions.


4. Know, Respect, and Love the Subject(s) You Teach:  As a teacher, if you do not know something, then you better learn it pretty quickly.  There are numerous resources for which to gain competency such as workshops, seeking help from other teachers, attending professional development, and even going back to school.  In addition, make sure you like the subject you teach.  Otherwise, it is not productive for the students or the teacher.  Students can also be turned off very quickly.  Students know when their teacher is passionate about the subject he or she teaches.  I have heard students say to their parents, “Mrs. Crow just lights up when she teaches science.”  That is a good thing, because enthusiasm is contagious.  The reality is that not all teaching and learning is fun.  However, if you enjoy the subject-matter and love children, then honing one’s craft to educate the next generation should be quite satisfying.

As a science teacher, we had a delightful time discovering things.  For example, I remember having students safely jump off tables to see if there was any remote chance of feeling gravity-free.  Outdoor science education is also meaningful.  Hands-on activities are a must as opposed to learning purely from texts.  


5. Don’t Ever Be Afraid to Ask for Help:  Teachers need to get into a habit in asking for help.  Whether it is rebounding ideas or trying something new, collaboration is essential and elevates the entire learning process.  As an example, the rainforest was a main topic of study in science.  While the subject-matter could have been taught within solely the confines of science class, I wanted to pursue a fully-integrated approach, including social studies, language arts, and other subjects.  Initially, I was hesitant to approach other teachers.  However, I went door-to-door and explained my goal and intentions.  In the end, it all worked out beautifully.  Social studies explored the history and development of rainforests.  English class read stories and wrote essays.  Art class helped design and decorate the hallways, resembling a rainforest.  Other subjects also participated in their own way.  Students gained a broad appreciation of multiple perspectives based on one topic of study.  In all, the depth of student comprehension was profound.

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