I began my teaching career with good intentions. I wanted to make a difference in my students’ lives. I vividly remember being a first-year teacher — writing lesson plans on weekends, having parent-teacher conferences before school even started, and being the last to leave the building every night. I worked hard, but my students’ test scores didn’t reflect my efforts. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t outstanding. I chocked it up to inexperience, though, and pressed on. The next year’s test scores were a little bit better, but they still didn’t meet my expectations. I sat on the kitchen floor and cried to my husband about how I wanted so badly for this student to pass, or that student to finally qualify for the gifted program, and how I didn’t know what else I could possibly do to help them, but something just wasn’t clicking. I knew I couldn’t continue teaching if I wasn’t making the impact I’d set out to make. I wouldn’t settle for “average.”
I was then moved from teaching fourth grade to fifth grade, which essentially allowed me to “loop” with some of the students I’d taught the previous year. I joked about how I’d gotten a “promotion” without the pay raise. I was excited about the transition because I saw it as an opportunity to help the children who were put in my charge to achieve the growth I’d always wanted them to achieve.
To do so, I knew I had to evaluate my teaching style. I asked myself: What was I doing that was working, and what was I doing that wasn’t? What could I do to make the most of my instructional time in an effort to maximize learning outcomes and, ultimately, achievement?
Here’s what I did:
I attended optional professional development opportunities, read education-related books (thank you, Ron Clark and Doug Lemov; if you haven’t already, check out “The Essential 55,” “The Excellent 11,” and “Teach Like a Champion”), and sought the advice of the teacher-rockstars I taught alongside. This allowed me step outside the figurative walls of my classroom and glean the best practices of those I considered to be experts in the field. We’ve all heard it before: teaching isn’t a Science; it’s an Art. That doesn’t mean there aren’t underlying similarities that separate teachers who consistently produce high-achieving students versus those who don’t. I adopted their strategies to create a game plan of my own.
- I communicated to my students that I had high expectations of them. It wasn’t enough for me to have high expectations of myself. I wanted my students to meet me halfway. I told them everything I expected of them as well as the positive and negative consequences their actions would result in. They knew they’d be rewarded for good behavior and punished for bad behavior. They also knew I didn’t expect any of them to be punished for bad behavior, because Teachers A, B, and C had already bragged on them for being one of the best classes in the entire school — and I was honored to teach such awesome students — and I couldn’t wait to see what the year had in store!
- I watched the clock. I really watched the clock. I didn’t want to waste a minute because a minute here and a minute there could easily add up to a missed lesson in its entirety. I was extremely intentional about using all the time I was given for what my schedule allowed for. Morning work was over at 8:45 a.m., so that’s when the day started. I did trivia in the hallways during bathroom breaks. I tutored struggling students while they waited for their buses to arrive each afternoon. I allowed for some flexibility if necessary, but still put a lot of effort into cutting down wasted time.
- I included more formative assessments into my lessons. I wanted to know what my students understood and misunderstood, and I wanted to know it well before they were tested. I love using sticky notes for this purpose! Oftentimes, after teaching a concept, I’d have everyone answer a question on a sticky note and give me a thumbs up when finished. Then, I’d check answers right then and there. I’d collect the sticky notes with correct answers, or tell those who answered incorrectly to “check that” and try again. Sometimes, incorrect answers required a simple fix without my assistance. Other times, I’d set aside the sticky notes of those who needed extra help to later form a group tutoring session using whiteboards and dry-erase markers during silent reading time.
- I utilized cold calling. Doing so encouraged my students to pay attention because they knew they could be asked to answer a question at any given moment. It also encouraged more participation by those who tend to be shy and quiet, or disinterested in engaging in a classroom environment.
- The Enrichment Group Project: I once read about a study in which students similar in achievement levels were randomly grouped and given different feedback from their teacher. One group was frequently praised, another was frequently criticized, and another wasn’t given any feedback at all. The students in the group that was frequently praised outperformed the students in the other groups by far. So, I decided to do an experiment of my own. I analyzed my students’ prior test scores and made a group of five or six “bubble kids.” They’d come really close to passing the previous year’s end-of-grade Mathematics test but fell just short. I enlisted the help of a retired teacher and filled her in on the plan. I wanted these kids to be tutored, but I didn’t want them to know they were being tutored. Instead, I told them I’d hand-picked them as a special group of individuals who weren’t in the school’s official enrichment program, but who I thought still needed to be challenged. They met as an “Enrichment Group” once per week for a semester. Four of those six students jumped from a ‘2’ to a ‘4’ (on a scale of 1-5) on their end-of-grade Mathematics test. Two students remained at a ‘2’ but still improved.
- The 40-Book Challenge: The best way to get better at reading is to read. Many people love reading, but some don’t. They just don’t. I needed to find a way to encourage my students who hated reading to read. Enter Donalyn Miller, the Book Whisperer. I introduced the challenge to my students by giving them a handout with the various genres of books they were required to read. I also gave them recording sheets in plastic sleeves to keep in their binders, as well as a letter to be signed by their parents with an overview of the challenge. I created a giant tri-fold poster with labels of the names of each of my students, next to which I’d add a sticker for every passing Accelerated Reader test they took. This not only allowed me to ensure they were actually reading, but reading at a Lexile level appropriate to their range of proximal development. They received prizes for every 10 tests they took and passed, and we had a big party to celebrate more than 1,000 books read. I reached out to the principal, the mayor, and even the quarterback of the Carolina Panthers to get book recommendations for my students. My teacher-neighbor reached out to Ron Clark the following year. He responded, too!
That year, my students grew an average of almost two grade levels. Their proficiency increased from approximately 50-percent passing to approximately 75-percent passing. Their growth in Reading: English/Language Arts was fourth highest in the district, their growth in Mathematics was third highest in the district, and their growth in Science was fourth highest in the district.
*As a side note, I don’t think teachers should judge their efficacy based solely on their students’ test scores, but I do think it’s important to aim for growth. Studies have shown that growth over time equates to better job prospects, which in turn leads to a better quality of life for the little people we’re entrusted to educate, which is a pretty awesome gift we’ve been enabled to give.
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