Want to Become a Better Teacher? Put Your Students Before the Content (Opinion) – Education Week

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to [email protected] Read more from this blog.
(This is the fourth post in a eight-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)
The question of the week is:
What are one to three things you would tell your first-year teacher self, and why would it/they be important to tell?
In Part One, Ruth Okoye, Sheila Wilson, Cindy Garcia, and Ixchell Reyes kicked off this multipart series sharing reflections from veteran teachers.
Ruth, Sheila, Cindy, and Ixchell were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.
In Part Two, Meghann Seril, Anabel Gonzalez, Kelly Owens, and Joy Russell shared their thoughts.
Part Three was time for Neema Avashia and Jennifer Orr to make their contributions.
Today, Jennifer Casa-Todd, Ann Stiltner, Irina McGrath, Ph.D., Susie Katt, Latrenda Knighten, Georgina Rivera, and John SanGiovanni contribute their answers.
Jennifer Casa-Todd is currently a teacher-librarian, a former literacy consultant and English teacher, and the author of Social LEADia: Moving Students from Digital Citizenship to Digital Leadership. She uses technology and social media to learn and share learning, empower and celebrate others, and make a positive impact on others:

The first thing I would say is to remember to put students before content. I had subscribed to the idea that the integrity of my subject was the most important thing in the world. I rarely got to know kids, except if it connected to a book or story we were reading. I learned quickly how much more fulfilling my course could be when it was anchored on their interests and passions.
I began the first days of school with diagnostic assessments which helped me determine their skills but did very little to establish community and get to know my students. When I changed this practice, there was a definite shift in the culture of my classroom. One thing I shifted to was to have kids create a Bitmoji scene, asking them what makes them unique. Teachers created these for their students, but I thought it would be a cool way to help me get insight into their writing and their digital literacy skills, but I was also able to get to know my students, and they were able to get to know each other. I invite them to add their favorite things, a playlist of their favorite songs, how they learn, etc. … We would then share with one another.
The second most important lesson I learned is to be intentional about assessment: what you assign and evaluate. I remember bringing home piles of essays and assignments to grade, giving kids so much busywork and then feeling like I needed to evaluate it all. I was exhausted, so were the kids, and the assignments themselves ended up being worth so little.
The more I allowed for peer and self-assessment, the easier it was for me to evaluate the final product. Self-assessment allowed for students to set their own goals and reflect on their learning, while peer assessment helps students refine criticism skills and improve their work. The time I spend explicitly teaching and scaffolding how to self- and peer assess is definitely worth it in the end. I write more about peer feedback here.
Thirdly, I learned that the more involved your students are in the routines and practices of the classroom, the more effectively your classroom will run and the more you will enjoy teaching. For example, I used to kill myself trying to find a fun and challenging riddle of the day or quote of the day; when I shifted the practice to having students do this, the result was not only less work for me but more engaging for them. I also always made sure to have a tech expert helping me support other students in the classroom, while allowing a student who may not have been the most academic to shine and lead in the classroom.
Posting to social media? Why not have a public relations rotation in which students could consolidate the learning in the classroom by creating a social media post (which they would compose and you as the adult actually post); this helps kids learn about digital citizenship, tone, purpose, and audience without them actually being on social media themselves.
I would definitely tell my first-year teacher self that positive things happen when you relinquish control and give some to your students.

Ann Stiltner is a high school special education teacher in Connecticut. She writes the blog from Room A212 (annstiltner.com/blog). Follow her on Twitter @fromrooma212:
When I obtained my teacher certification 20 years ago, I loved being a student and learning. I couldn’t wait to share that passion with my students. I was young, idealistic, hard-working, and eager to be the best teacher possible. But I was overwhelmed. I felt I needed to incorporate the best teaching practices into my instruction each day and I didn’t know how to do that. It was hard when all the “shoulds” I needed in my lessons seemed in conflict with each other. For example, I needed to give students choice to give them a sense of agency in the classroom, but I shouldn’t give too much choice otherwise I would be seen as a pushover and my students would think they were in control of the class. Here is the advice I would have given myself back then:
I made so many mistakes when I started out teaching. Now, I understand that was OK. It is part of the process of figuring out how to be a teacher. Teaching is not like solving a math problem. You cannot plug in the variables and get out exactly what you expected. Teaching is too fluid, multifaceted, and complex. It takes trial and error in the classroom to figure it all out. Time for reflection, introspection, honesty, and humility is critical to this process.
In the beginning, I tried to copy other teachers I admired by being a strict disciplinarian, but that did not work. Teaching that way did not feed my soul or seem authentic. I began to incorporate who I was into my teaching style, and that made a huge difference to my sense of competency. You don’t have to use every strategy in every lesson. A few best practices regularly implemented lead to effective instruction. Good strategies work because they are high impact. Teachers cannot ruin learning for their students with one bad lesson. There is no such thing as perfection in this job because there is no end point. Your skills are—and should be—constantly expanding and developing.
The negative reactions of parents, students, and colleagues to my choices in the classroom earlier in my career felt personal and extremely upsetting. They would cause me to question myself, triggering my self-doubt and insecurities. But, in time, these situations were not so upsetting. I acquired the experience and outlook necessary to put these events in perspective and gained the confidence to know that I can work through it.
It would be important for my brand-new teacher self to hear this so I would not have spent the first years of my teaching career constantly anxious and filled with self-doubt. I would have been able to enjoy the process. And it would have saved me from many sleepless nights filled with worry and dread.

Irina McGrath, Ph.D., is an assistant principal at Newcomer Academy in the Jefferson County public schools in Louisville, Ky. She is a co-creator of the ELL2.0 Google site and enjoys creating and sharing resources to support English-learners and teachers of ELs. Irina is also a co-director of the Louisville Writing Project (LWP) and a University of Louisville and Indiana University Southeast adjunct professor:

Looking back on my career as an educator, there are several things I wish I knew when I first started teaching in a large and diverse urban district. As a new teacher, I channeled fundamental lessons from my college courses—such as the importance of relationships in the classroom, building a community that encourages risk taking and supports creativity, setting reasonable expectations for student academic success, and stimulating student engagement—however, as I quickly realized, there was much more to learn in the role than what was taught in college.
For instance, I did not know the extent to which emotions affect everything that happens in school. Throughout the day, students experience emotions toward each other and their teachers; toward topics discussed in class and classroom activities that involve writing and reading, listening, and speaking. For example, students who experienced limited success with writing and do not view themselves as writers, might feel anxious about the upcoming essay and set themselves for a less successful experience compared with students who enjoy writing. Topics discussed in class can also evoke strong emotions in students—from excitement and indifference to boredom and frustration—based on their level of interest and subsequent desire to engage with the subject.
As teachers, we must skillfully navigate our students’ emotions and channel them in ways that support their academic and social growth. One way to successfully do that is by getting to know your students via a simple activity called Classroom Scrapbook. In this activity, each student is given one page to decorate with photos, stickers, and drawings that help describe who they are and what their history is in a visual manner. They can also create collages or stand-alone drawings as the visual component of the project. Next, they craft a letter to their teacher that continues that narrative with a deeper discussion on things they wish their teachers knew about them like their dreams, challenges they face, happy or sad memories.
Another thing I learned as a teacher is that students struggle with retaining information because the human brain is “wired to forget.” Over the years, I discovered strategies to help students remember, and one of them is to present information multiple times using multiple formats such as videos, podcasts, practice tests, and more. Another one stems from the fact that students love listening to stories, and, as a result, it has been found that teaching materials as if you are telling a story and engaging emotions can lead to better retention and recall. Additionally, teaching students specific strategies such as reading aloud, creating flashcards or mnemonics, and reviewing before bedtime can help with memory and recall.
As an experienced educator, it is remarkable to see how much I have learned in addition to my basic teacher education in college years ago. The examples I have provided are only a small insight into the growth I have experienced in the 20 years I have spent in education as a teacher, instructional coach, and an administrator, and I expect that I will continue to discover new and effective ways I can impact my students and help them achieve their dreams.

Susie Katt is the K-2 mathematics coordinator in Lincoln, Neb. Latrenda Knighten is the elementary math-curriculum content trainer in Baton Rouge, La. Georgina Rivera currently serves as a school administrator for the Bristol public schools in Connecticut . John SanGiovanni works as a mathematics coordinator in Howard County, Md., leading curriculum development, digital mathematics education, assessment, and professional learning:
As we look back at our first year of teaching, we realize it might not have been our students who did most of the learning!

After years of reflection, mistake making, and talking with peers and students, we identified three important pieces of advice.
#1 Know and love your students and families
The first piece of advice seems so simple. Know your students. Love your students. With standards to teach, meetings to attend, and assignments to grade, getting to know (we mean really know) your students can get lost. To avoid this, begin the school year by getting to know your students’ identities and also sharing yours. One simple way to do this is to have students write “ I am …” statements on sentence strips where they include their culture, hobbies, and any roles they may have. When each student shares their “I am”’ statement, you get to know about your students, and they learn about one another. When you share your own statement, your students also get to know about you and see how everyone in the classroom is connected. Revisiting activities like this to continue to learn about your students throughout the school year is when students truly feel loved!
As first-year teachers, you may feel intimidated or unsure of how to best connect with families. We know we did! When you take the time to ask families about their children, they feel loved! One way to get to know your families is to survey them by asking questions about family traditions, values, and important characteristics about their child. Family surveys help us connect with families and learn about the students in our classrooms. The act of reaching out is an important act of love for each and every student and their family!
#2 Find joy in your work every day
Let your students know you love what you do! Show the passion for teaching and learning that first encouraged you to become a teacher. Sure, there’s pressure to get students to perform, but learning doesn’t come from dread and obligation. It comes from excitement and laughter. Your excitement and passion will make the difference in the outcome of your daily lessons. As a result of your excitement for learning, your students will also get excited about their learning! Focusing on your love for teaching will help to fill your days with student learning and joy!
There may be days you find yourself thinking about the lesson that didn’t go well or the parent meeting that could have gone better. Don’t dwell on these things, as they can wear you down. Rather, look for the little things that bring joy to your day. It may be as simple as cherishing a student’s smile when they solve a two-step problem or watching them tackle a multiplication problem using a new representation taught just the day before. Take time at the end of each day to reflect on the accomplishments of your students and remind yourself that you had a hand in helping them be successful!

#3 Commit to getting good at one thing at a time
“Teaching is my superpower” is a popular phrase; however, as a new teacher, it’s important to remember to leave the superhero tactics behind. Great teachers know getting good at everything in the first year is an impossible task, so they focus on getting better at one new teaching practice at a time. They are committed to improvement and are OK when things don’t work out! Yet they are never satisfied until they achieve their goal and never try to learn all there is to learn at once. Our final piece of advice is commit to getting good by working on one practice at a time.
The best way to begin is to narrow your focus and identify which teaching practices work well and which need adjusting for your students. For example, every math lesson begins with a well-planned opening, time for students to grapple with rigorous tasks, and a closing. Focus on learning how to incorporate resources and strategies which include these components: Allow your students to think, talk about math, and make sense of math concepts on their own. To get better, engage in regular reflections (individually and with your students) and use your findings to make intentional and informed changes. Focusing on one teaching practice at a time and getting really good will help both you and your students feel successful at the end of that first year!

Thanks to Jennifer, Ann, Irina, Susie, Latrenda, Georgina, and John for contributing their thoughts!
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.
You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.
Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all EdWeek articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.
I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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