How to Become a Better Teacher. Here’s What Teachers Have to Say
Aisha Christa Atkinson, M.S., is a high school educator with nearly 10 years of teaching, curriculum design, and instructional-leadership experience in secondary English/language arts and English as a second language. You can connect with Aisha on Instagram or Twitter at @TheLitSensei and by visiting her website:
When it comes to taking ownership of the development of one’s craft, there are two action steps that I recommend classroom educators consider taking.
1. Read Often and Apply with Intentionality
As the lead learner within your classroom community, growing expertise in your content-area and knowing how to address the diverse needs of your students are two areas that are always prime for growth. Readership for teacher growth can be as casual as reading many of the articles on platforms such as Education Week and scrolling through the Twitter feeds of virtual professional learning networks. It can also be as formal as reading peer-reviewed journal articles or books on pedagogical practices. The key is to start with what you are most passionate about changing and begin with a medium that is both easy and enjoyable for you to consume. When it comes down to selecting a text, consider speaking to the educators you admire most and pick their brains for reads that greatly impacted their instruction.
For teachers who do not identify as self-starting readers, I recommend finding other peer educators who are eager to grow and establishing a “book club” to help keep one another inspired to start and finish strong. With all of the advancements in communication technology, you can select educators with similar intentions from virtually anywhere.
Irrespective of your relationship with reading, I also suggest engaging in what I call a “slow read” process. For myself, slow reads are those books or lengthy articles that I intentionally commit to only reading a single chapter at a time in order to give myself the space to reflect, plan, and implement whatever it is I am hoping to grow within myself as an educator. The intention behind this method is to gather a few wins and build confidence in failing forward while trialing new strategies.
As a novice instructional coach, for instance, I practiced this during the 2021-22 school year with Karen Walrond’s The Lightmaker’s Manifesto: How to Work For Change Without Losing Your Joy. As I read through each chapter, I challenged myself to cycle through intentional self-reflection, planning, and implementation as I carefully applied something new to my coaching practices. With each cycle, I found myself not only growing within my role but in other meaningful parts of my personal life as well.
2. Join a Professional Learning Network
As an undergraduate student, my professors set me on the right path by encouraging me to join different associations and attend their conferences. Somewhere along the way, however, I neglected to maintain my journey along that path. Looking back on my career, one of my greatest regrets is not pursuing membership and involvement in a professional learning network, particularly during those years when my joy was compromised and my growth was not a priority.
Professional learning networks not only provide educators with a welcome reprieve from toxic work spaces but help to bridge connections between oneself and other educators as well as opportunities for improvement. It is within the other members that you will find kinship in those who share similar mindsets when it comes to investing in self-growth and the desire to establish long-lasting partnerships along the way. For myself, membership within the Texas Council for Teachers of English Language Arts (TCTELA) and the Houston Area Alliance of Black School Educators (HAABSE) not only introduced me to phenomenal educators and leaders within my state of residence but connected me to innovative and inclusive ways to educate youth across the band of K-12 instruction. As an educator ever growing in my capacity to lead and serve my community, I have been affirmed and influenced time and time again through the priceless mentorship opportunities I have received through organizations such as these.
Angela M. Ward, Ph.D., is an anti-racist educator with over 25 years of experience in education. She is focused on creating identity-safe schools and workplaces. Follow her @2WardEquity on Twitter & Instagram and visit her blog to subscribe to the 2Ward Equity newsletter:
When I think about teaching and improvement of our craft, these three things come to mind: Understand who you are, reflect on your educational philosophy, and study your pedagogical moves and curricular decisions.
Understand who you are. You are a unique individual. Your ways of thinking and being in the world are the byproduct of your upbringing and the lived experiences that brought you to your current reality as a teacher. Make the subconscious, conscious. Who you are impacts how you
Reflect on your educational philosophy. You should be able to articulate what you believe about education. In your opinion, what is the purpose of education? Your philosophy subconsciously drives every decision you make every day in the classroom. By articulating your philosophy, you hold yourself to a higher standard and make yourself accountable to your beliefs. As an anti-racist educator, I
invite you to reflect on your philosophy. Does it create space for a personal critique of how your bias, values, and beliefs show up in your work?
encourage you to pay attention to the interests, needs, and assets of your students. Does your philosophy of education offer space for each of your students to advance, grow, and contribute to their own learning?
request that you question if your philosophy of education and the curricular decisions you make
create space for students to look into mirrors that reflect back their culture, needs, and interests, and
gaze out windows of limitless possibilities for a successful life and career.
ask that you find a way to tap into multiple perspectives from adults who have a vested interest in your success with students. To study your craft is to understand how others think of your craft and the decisions you make. Find a study group of teachers who are also endeavoring to improve their craft.
Study your pedagogical moves and curricular decisions.
It is important in a field that expects professionalism, yet treats its biggest asset as if they are not professionals, to study your craft. As a classroom teacher and now as a teacher of teachers and educational leaders, I work at improving my craft by engaging in inquiry.
Each content (what/curriculum) decision we make and how (pedagogy) we deliver that content impacts the learners we are tasked with supporting.
As you design classroom-learning experiences, it’s important to understand your audience. Classroom teachers see students often enough to gain an understanding of who they are, what they are interested in, and what it takes to get them to their zone of proximal development. Yes, this takes time, effort; and trust me, it’s worth it! Equipped with knowledge of your students’ needs, you can engage in a Plan, Do, Study, Act cycle of inquiry.
Plan based on your philosophy of education the actions you will take to stay true to your beliefs about the purpose of education
Do put in place a few ideas that you will test out as you work toward improving your craft. Schedule time with a group of teachers to share learning, ask questions, and hold each other accountable to professional growth and improvement.
Study the feedback you are provided by your colleagues. Study the anecdotal and direct feedback you receive from your students. You can learn a lot about your craft by simply questioning if the intent for your lesson was received and if most of the students were successful. The biggest test of your improvement is whether or not the student who has the most difficulty with a concept is able to grasp and/or reach their zone of proximal development. If you reach the neediest student, chances are you have reached them all.
This past June, I wrapped up my 14th year of teaching, and seventh year in 3rd grade. No two years of teaching have been the same. There’s always something to adjust, to change, to improve. Here are some things I recommend teachers can do to improve their craft.
Keep learning. There are so many ways to keep up with new programs, strategies, and best practices. I’ve attended classes on Chinese calligraphy, CGI math instruction, and mindfulness practice. I am a member of several online groups and chats to dialogue with others about math and equity work. While I enjoy attending professional development and learning about different resources and programs, it can feel overwhelming to plan how to incorporate new learning into my current curriculum and instruction. A favorite question that’s been posed in recent PD is “What is one action or step you will commit to taking?” I love this question because it focuses me on one next step. To make your learning meaningful and actionable, commit to trying out one new idea. If possible, set up an accountability process, like sharing your plan with a teaching partner. Set a time frame for implementing that step. I have also reached out to PD facilitators with follow-up questions once I’ve actually tried new things in my classroom. I also share what I’m learning about with my students so they know that learning is a lifelong process. I want my students to feel encouraged to continue learning about things that interest them.
Observe others and have others observe you. One of the ways I’ve grown most is through feedback from others. I’ll be honest and admit I still get nervous about having other adults in my classroom, but I find the feedback and support meaningful. In one observation, I asked another teacher to specifically watch my transitions between activities. She noticed that students were taking lots of time to put materials away and she noticed a significant lag in the process. We talked about streamlining materials management and setting a timer for the process. I also realized that I was trying to give additional instructions while students were cleaning up, so I made sure to give all instructions and do a check for understanding before students started moving. These strategies continue to help me utilize the time I have with my students efficiently.
Getting to see other teachers in their classrooms is a great joy. I mentor new teachers through our district’s induction program, and I love getting to see them in their element with their students. It builds rapport between staff members and helps us have more constructive conversations in weekly staff meetings. I learn so much just by looking at the walls and the way the classroom is laid out.
Reflection is important. A meaningful professional development I’ve done is national-board certification. Through this process, I’ve reflected on my questioning technique, how I include parents and community in my classroom, how I differentiate for diverse populations of students, and how I am continuing to meet my own professional-development needs. Sometimes, it feels like this work is never done, but it is important to stop and think about how much we’ve grown as teachers, just like we guide our students to think about what they’ve learned and what new strategies they’ve developed. Taking a moment to acknowledge our growth and consider areas for improvement helps us sustain ourselves for the long haul.
Reflect individually and talk openly with others in safe and supportive community spaces. Take rest and breaks when needed and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Teaching, especially during these past few years, has not been easy. But consider all the ways you have learned and grown and take that forward with you into the next school year.
Altagracia H. Delgado, also known as Grace, has been in the education field for 27 years. In those years, she has worked as a bilingual teacher, literacy coach, and school and central-office administrator. Grace is currently the executive director of multilingual services for Aldine ISD, in the Houston area:
In all of my years of coaching teachers, there are a few things that I have always recommended as ways to improve the teaching craft.
First of all, building relationships. I know that there has been an increased awareness during the pandemic of the benefits of SEL, but this goes beyond what we now teach as socio-emotional learning. When I talk about building relationships, I mean being authentic about your interest in your students. We all know that we do better when we are working with people that show true interest in us; this feeling is the same for our students. Students work best and learn better when they are with teachers who truly are interested in them—who they are, where they come from, what their interests are, how they are doing. These connections can be lifesaving for students and can truly change their academic course.
Secondly, continue learning. It doesn’t mean you have to go back to school, but know that our craft is ever evolving and can always improve. Educational research continues to grow, and we currently know more about practices and brain development that can support students’ learning. If we continue our education through college work, professional development, book club, or just independent reading, this new learning can help us improve our practices.
Lastly, try things out. This one belongs hand in hand with the last point. When reading or learning a new skill or strategy, go ahead and try it out. We don’t need to “save it for the following year.” I actually strongly recommend trying a new activity or strategy with current students, since teachers know them already. A teacher that does this can actually figure out any tweaking needed when the new year starts and a new set of students arrive. If we have built those strong relationships with students, they can even help us in the practice of new learning by giving us feedback regarding such activity or strategy so that we can improve upon it.
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.
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