Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Ways to Grow as a Teacher in a Secondary Classroom

In my classroom, I’m always looking for ways to improve. To grow as a teacher, I reflect on my lessons and consider what went well, what could have been better, and different methods to try in the future. In addition to self-reflection, I welcome feedback from others—administrators, mentors, other teachers, and my students. I’ve even participated in Great Teachers, Great Feedback, which is a virtual coaching service.

I’ve been observed countless times during my teaching career. My first year teaching I was observed by my mentor multiple times each month and my program director several times a year. A couple of years later when I was a part of Teach for America I had advisors in and out of my room on a regular basis in addition to visits from the principal and vice principals. While I’ve never enjoyed being observed (who does, right?), I looked forward to hearing their thoughts and ideas. Whether the feedback was good or bad, I wanted to hear all about it. I grew into a strong teacher quickly because I was so eager to learn from others. I’ve always been naturally reflective, but the comments from administrators, advisors, mentors, and fellow teachers showed me where to place my concentration.

No matter how often you’re observed and receive feedback, you won’t grow as a teacher unless you are willing to listen to advice and try out new ideas. Don’t shut down when an observer shares a criticism.  Ask questions about turning things around instead.  True, not all of the advice you’ll receive will be helpful. For example, one of my observers always told me to rank my students from highest performers to lowest performers and create an elaborate seating chart based off of that ranking system. It was such a time consuming process with seven classes of around 30 students each. However, I tried it anyway. For several weeks, I used this new seating chart system.  When no benefits of the new seating chart showed themselves I went back to my old arrangements. Out of all of the advice I received and tried over the years, this was the only one that stands out as impractical. While the idea didn’t work out, it did get me thinking about other options for seating charts and table arrangements. Not every idea will be beneficial, but most of them are worth considering. I’ve discovered a lot of wonderful teaching methods this way.    

Self-reflection and routine observations aren’t the only things that shaped me into the teacher I am today.  Some of the best feedback came from the people who were in my classroom every day: my students. Simply watching your students can tell you so much about the efficacy of your lessons and teaching methods.  I think most teachers can tell when their students are bored. There are many hard to miss signs there—slouching, open mouths, excessive doodling, drooling, sleeping, acting out... You can tell when your students are engaged, eager to learn, and excited. A quick assessment can tell you how much each student understood the content. There are many informal ways to learn from your students.

Besides observing students’ behavior and assessing their work, you can do something as simple as asking questions. Ask your students how you’re doing. Ask what they liked and didn’t like about a lesson. Ask them what was clear and what was confusing. Ask them what helps and what doesn’t. Many students will be hesitant to answer, especially at first. Not many teachers ask their students’ opinions on lessons and teaching practices. If you can get them talking, you might be surprised at their insight.

Several times a year I have my students give me a more formal assessment. Most students are more candid about their thoughts when they don’t have to express themselves in front of a classroom full of students and their teacher. To give the formal assessment, I have my students grade me at the end of each quarter. Basically, whenever my students get report cards I get one too.  Or, in particularly challenging classes, I have students complete a formal assessment ASAP to help identify the problem and get students back on track to learning as much as they can in the short amount of time they have in my class. 

When my students “Grade the Teacher” they fill out the answers to questions on a piece of paper. It’s fairly quick: between five to ten minutes. You can ask questions about whatever you think would be useful like classroom management, lesson pacing, types of homework, how students feel in your class, clearness of expectations, ect.  I often change up the questions each quarter. I always include a portion about what letter grade I deserve and why. I usually include a question about what unit they learned the most from and why. If you’re considering letting your students grade you like this, I recommend you read through the advice below.

  • Explain to the students that you are giving them the feedback form because you want to know how to improve your teaching. Encourage details and examples because those will give you a better idea of how to improve.
  • Tell students to focus on your teaching, the lessons, and the classroom environment. Not your clothing choices or appearance or other irrelevant things! When students first started grading me, I got comments about how I’m stylish and have beautiful eyes.  Flattering, yes. A little creepy, also yes.  Helpful, no.
  • Clarify that students should be completely honest but not hurtful. Giving examples of what is and isn’t acceptable is helpful. Example: Mr. Dude sometimes seems mad and yells and it makes students feel uncomfortable. Nonexample: Mr. Dude is a mean teacher and everyone hates him.   
  • If you want, you can have students complete their evaluations anonymously. This might help them be more comfortable being honest. Personally, I like to have students put their names on the evaluations so I can follow up with them if I have any questions or need clarification.
  • Consider having a question about the student’s level of effort in class. I’ve found this helps the students consider their role in how class goes on a daily basis, and this causes them to be more fair and reasonable in their evaluation of me.
  • This part is hard: Try not to take criticisms personally. Not every student will give you glowing reviews. That’s ok! Remember, you gave them this evaluation to improve and their ideas can often help you with that goal.
  • You can use the Grade the Teacher feedback form I created with your students. I use some version of this with my students every quarter.  It’s in English and Spanish so all the voices in my classroom are heard.

If you’re serious about improving as a teacher you should reflect on your lessons, invite people into your classroom to observe you, try new teaching methods, and get feedback from your students.

Click on the picture below to learn more about the feedback form I use with my students. 

 Grade the Teacher: teacher evaluation tool