Learning from great teachers

This post was originally published on LinkedIn on June 6, 2015.

Friday was my final day of that dreaded student teaching experience. While one part of me is extremely glad that the non-paid work portion of my life is over, most of me is saddened to leave behind a great place, great colleagues, and great students. My student teaching experience was not something awful to work through but, in fact, was part of the most impactful year of my life so far.

There are a lot of articles and blog posts out there about how to fix education, what’s wrong with education, and what’s right. “Feedback” is a buzzword in our profession and what my mentor teachers stressed most about feedback is that it should move learning forward. And, quite frankly, the feedback I am getting from most of the articles I read is not moving my learning forward but instead pushes me to not even try. Many articles out there are coming from burnt out or frustrated teachers or those leaving the profession. What I want to do is move learning forward for others and push back against the articles that keep telling all us newbies to give up.

I just mentioned having mentor teachers, not mentor teacher. No, I was not assigned to two different classrooms to experience different subjects or styles; I was assigned one mentor by my university, but ended up with about 15 or 16 mentors. I student taught for an entire school year, start to finish, in a New Tech Network school. While I planned and taught in class with one teacher, I worked with many teachers, each and every day. The people and the experience were truly the kinds that you read about in the idealistic research articles that discuss best practices and how to improve schools. My New Tech school was a theory into practice dream come true. What you need to know about New Tech and student teachers is that great teachers make great teachers.

The following list includes what I learned this year and will take with me into my first year of teaching. I believe these ideas are effective and are staples of great teaching.

1. Grades should reflect what students know.

This first point seems rather obvious. But is it? Think back: did your grade in English class reflect that you knew how to read and write critically or did it reflect whether you had the time each night to complete homework assignments? As someone who always did her homework, I can say without doubt that many of my class grades were A’s because I always found the time to complete the homework that was assigned and due the next day and because I cared about getting perfect marks. I didn’t have any little brothers or sisters to take care of nor did I have to work to help my family or myself. In our New Tech grade books, there are points for completing homework, don’t worry, but the bulk of grades come from the category “Knowledge and Thinking.” In a math or science class, this category comes mainly from in-class assessments while in a history or English class, this might include essays. Because Knowledge and Thinking is weighted at least 50% of students’ final grades, their grades reflect what they have been able to demonstrate they know about the content. Students also earn points for collaboration and oral and written communication (other ways of presenting what they know).

Moreover, all students should be allowed to revise or re-assess after receiving feedback (for us, it is within 2 weeks). This ensures that having time according to the teacher’s schedule is not what will determine the grade in a class. As adults, we know things come up. We reschedule meetings, doctor appointments, plans to remodel all the time. Completing school work should be the same, since it is the majority of a teenager’s life. The obvious argument many of you will want to make is that in college late work is not accepted and in real life a deadline is a deadline. First of all, it is not true that professors don’t take late work. But, yes, there are deadlines we all have to meet and many do not have second chances. So we teach students about work ethic in the category called “Agency.” The practice work (or homework) that we assign must be completed and turned in by the day of the assessment (or some other day of the teacher’s choosing) over those concepts. We check for completeness not accuracy, as that is what the assessment is for. We tell kids, “there is no late work – you either have work ethic or you don’t.” Teach them the importance of turning assignments in on time without harshly penalizing them. A student should still be able earn a C or B without ever turning in practice work. This means that their grades reflect what they know, not what they have time to do at home. If you now are worrying that students might view this practice as not seeing their work is valuable, you have a valid point, but they will get over it if you handle it right. The sports analogy is very appropriate here: you don’t get points on the scoreboard for the practice you do during the week, but you have to practice in order to be prepared for the game. And you can tell students the truth that you don’t think they should be forced to turn work in the day after they have learned a new concept. They will appreciate that. However you spin it, make it about them and how it helps them learn.

Finally, use standards based grading so that students, teachers, and parents see if students know a learning objective that comes out of the Common Core or other Ohio Learning Standards. In our grade book, parents and students do not see “Test #1 37/60” but rather they see “Assess Polynomial Operations ⅗,” which means the student knows 60% worth of the skill for polynomial operations. This ensures that students are aware of what skills and concepts they know and need to improve on.

2. Spend time planning, not grading.

One of the top items I hear and read from teachers is complaining about how much time they spend grading. When people wrongly accuse teachers of only working 7 hours a day, 9 months a year, teachers tend to cite how much time they spend grading. I am going to be very blunt with those teachers: Stop. Grading. So. Much. There is no law that says you must grade a certain number of assignments or hours per week, so if you don’t like it, stop it. Grades should reflect what students know, not what they have time to do (see point #1). Nor should grades reflect how much time you have to grade. I and my mentor teacher averaged about 60 hours a week working, and I think many others would say 60 as well. However, we spent it planning and figuring out interventions for students who were not successful, as reflected in their grades.

Grading every assignment for accuracy each night is not going to tell you more about what students know. You could grade one or grade ten assignments and you will get the same information. When we grade we give the process its due: 4 sections of algebra 1 assessments take a total of 8 hours to grade. This 8 hours comprises writing feedback on students’ steps and displayed thinking, and later assigning a score. If you give assessments every 1.5 to 3 weeks, about 4 times per quarter you can give a weekend of grading to your students. The rest of the time during your month you can research activities or methods for teaching content. Use your formative assessments to change or inform instruction for the next day. Spend time generally analyzing what you see in class rather than punitively analyzing a student’s sloppy handwriting every night.

In my Algebra 2 class, I was able to put this theory to the test. The course was outside of the New Tech Network and most of these sophomores and juniors were used to handing in assignments multiple times per week (forgetting about them), getting a 10 or 15 point grade on it, and it being handed back later with the score on it. I asked for feedback as part of my graduate course and many students said they wished that they handed in homework more so they knew what they were doing wrong (a fair point). So we changed from collecting practice work only for completion on the day of the test to collecting it every Monday (still giving them a few days to work through each assignment) and me giving feedback on a few problems in the set for each student. After a quarter of this, I agreed to stop the more frequent grading because students’ quarter grades went down! They completed practice work at a lower rate and had lower percentages in the grade book. Students who do homework will do it and those who don’t do homework won’t, and it is harder to change that mentality for older students. It is pointless to continue to penalize students for the same thing every week or day. It doesn’t make students start doing homework when they see a list of 0’s in your grade book; they have seen that list before. But if you are able to clearly draw a connection between a student’s practice work completion and their grade on assessments, they might understand the point of practice. If students get an A on an assessment without practicing, leave them alone. If students fail assessments without practicing, you have a conversation with them about how practicing will likely make them more successful.

3. Collaboration is the key to good teaching.

Here is another obvious point but it is one that is superficially mentioned and not widely practiced. Fifteen mentors sounds like a lot to balance and really overwhelming, but it was not. While I consider those fifteen people mentors, I also consider them friends, and they considered and treated me as a colleague. They treated me with respect and as someone who has a valid opinion to offer, not as “someone who has a lot to learn,” which is how a lot of student teachers and even new teachers are treated.

New Tech teachers believe that everyone brings something to the table and a good team listens to each member. We assume good intentions and believe the whole is greater than the sum of our parts. At the same time, though, a good team holds each other accountable; it is not all fluffy, beautiful working together in harmony. Collaboration is hard work and sometimes hard conversations have to be had. Each week the ninth grade team would meet to discuss new projects, our shared students, data, and everything in between. When I rolled out my first project that I created alone, 10 teachers sat around me and acted as “critical friends,” sharing what they liked and wondered about my project, pushing me to make it better and more effective. Having a place to try out and plan new ideas before going into the classroom helped me be able to take risks and teach with rigor (oh, how we love that word, too).

Working at New Tech has gotten me in the habit of always asking for feedback from others even when I know an idea I have is good. There are always ways to make it better. My mentor teacher told me recently that she really believes good teaching comes from the ability to talk, to have a conversation about a lesson or concept, and my ability to do so is why I will make a great teacher. I wondered “don’t we all do that?” After talking with a friend who is in her first year of teaching, I realized the answer is no. While she did this a lot as a student teacher, many of us do, once on her own, the conversations stopped. I wonder if the end to those conversations also leads to the end of creativity and innovation in teachers. I wonder if that’s where the burnout begins. So if nothing else, young teachers, find someone with whom you can talk out your ideas and continue working with those people long after you become a veteran.

Additionally, collaboration in New Tech looks like teachers using the same methods and holding students to the same standards across classes. We don’t just meet and say one thing and go back to our classrooms and do another. At the start of the year a grade level team can decide on certain ideas they want to promote, the entire school can focus on a culture or community building project, and departments can decide to focus on a key practice of their content area (think: choosing one of the 8 standards for mathematical practice to improve on). For example, the ninth grade team focused on different mind sets of a good student, and my mentor and I promoted taking responsibility for one’s own learning. We used that phrase and others like it with students frequently in class and in conversation with students for the entire first semester. Students researched growth mindset in one of their other classes and they work in groups every day in at least one class, if not all five. Students also take many co-taught courses, whether it is the Impact of Science on World History (where they have combined content) or English and Math with special ed teachers (or that student teacher they never knew was a student teacher!), students see teachers working together. Schools have a tendency to want to push students to work together because that is what industry leaders are telling us is a critical skill, but students won’t work together well unless they have a clear model.

4. Standards don’t matter.

OK this headline is a little misleading, but I caught your attention. Standards matter; I already outlined that standards-based grading is superior to other grading models. But they don’t matter as much as politicians and the general public currently believe. Standards help with continuity from school to school (that is, ensuring that students in poorer urban schools have access to the same content as wealthy suburban schools) and have a progression built into them (linear functions before quadratic functions). It also makes our job as teachers very clear. We do need some clarity about what to teach and when. If someone else has done the research and put together a map of how math should be taught, we should probably use that instead of trying to make it up on our own. But whether we are using the Ohio Academic Content Standards (what we had just a few years ago before CCSS was adopted and implemented) or the Common Core State Standards, we are going to do our best to teach students our content. When you put your objective on the board, “I can graph a quadratic function,” students don’t know or care if that really ties in to CCSS or some other set of standards. And teachers don’t need perfectly worded standards in order to teach well. Good teaching is good teaching.

Speaking of standards, if you are a civilian reading this, please know that standards are not the same thing as assessments. That is, the Common Core is not the same thing as PARCC. If you disliked PARCC testing (I am positive we hated it more than you think you hate it), don’t blame the standards. We lost 11 days of instruction with our first period class due to PARCC testing, but we continued to teach them as many standards as we could, because that is our job. We continued teaching our Algebra 1 students Algebra 1 (which by the way hasn’t changed that much since we switched standards). Rant over.

5. Students rule!

This is the most important of them all. Working with kids is the greatest and working with other adults who care about kids is even better. Students are awesome and if you don’t like working with kids then go do some other job! Don’t feel obligated to stay, because it is better for students to be taught in a larger class by someone who really cares than have a bunch of tiny classes (yes, I am arguing with those who insist smaller class sizes are the fix to achievement gaps) taught by people who really don’t want to be there. I have always known this about students but what I learned this year is that this better be at the forefront of your planning and teaching, otherwise you won’t succeed and neither will they. Don’t let all the other things, the PARCC testing, the grading, the late nights planning, the administration not understanding, get in the way of teaching students. When we talk to parents, we need to discuss steps students can take to improve rather than all the things they don’t do (my parents heard a lot about how my brother didn’t do homework, didn’t stop talking in class, didn’t care, didn’t apply himself). When we make decisions about how to act and how to teach, it has to be about what will be best for students, not what is convenient for teachers.

I learned this year that getting to know students does not look like what some of my theory classes have tried to teach us. Getting to know students does not look like finding out their favorite book, movie, music or TV show. It does not look like making math problems include skateboarding or baseball all the time. Getting to know students looks like listening when a kid pulls you in the hall to say her grandpa died and she is scared to go to the funeral home because she has never seen a dead person.  It looks like leaving students alone when they are having a bad day, if that’s what they want, or talking to them or finding someone for them to talk to, if that’s what they need. It looks like patiently and happily working with students at the end of that two-week retest deadline even though you’ve been telling them every day to come and they kept blowing you off. It does look like finding out if they have a plan for their future, and not being disappointed in them if they don’t. It looks like going off task if a student asks a question you didn’t plan for. It looks like laughing and having fun in class and letting students know that not everything we are trying to teach them is going to be used in real life. It looks like explaining what you do when you grade and teach so they understand where you are coming from — i.e. being honest with students. Getting to know kids means them getting to know you.

This year was one of great growth and happiness. In some instances, I got to practice ideas I have always known to be true. In some others I learned an entirely new way of thinking. My hope is that this could be the experience for all young teachers. While I believe if I had student taught somewhere else, I would still become a good teacher, I know that this year has made me exponentially better. We know that the reason for learning and passing on information is so that the next generation can be better, live better and longer lives. So teachers, if you want to make education better, you need to pay it forward. I had a lot of great teachers in high school, but only one student teacher. If you are a great teacher and wish there were more great teachers, you need to train them! These five things I have learned are embedded in my thinking forever, but they are not learned or practiced by so many others out there. I also came to know this year is that we can’t wait for administrators or politicians to make it happen. Only teachers make it happen in the end, so we need to just get down to it.

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Learning from great teachers