Leading through Teaching

My Best Teaching:

Four Principles I Learned as a Teacher and Administrator

Me and my students on the last day of school.

The iPod was hooked up. With my hoodie on, I stood for a moment, silent. Each heartbeat vibrated my entire body. There was no turning back. With a breath that summoned all of my courage, I pressed play. The rest is history.

I love teaching. It is my first, most enduring passion. While I’m the Assistant Head of School now, charged with leading school culture, nothing compares to the excitement of unveiling the objectives, the thrill of students activating prior knowledge, the sweet victory of comprehension on exit tickets. Teaching is my lifeblood.

There are a few core principles that have guided me as a teacher and now as an administrator. They come from my time learning as an Indianapolis Teaching Fellow, being a teacher in the classroom, and supporting teachers as an administrator. As we take this much-needed break to decompress and reflect, I ask us to consider and apply these principles in the new year so that all of our students (and especially our Black and Brown scholars) achieve at the highest levels.

Core Principle 1: Rigor & Vigor

So much research shows that a high-rigor environment lifts all boats--particularly so for Black and Brown scholars. Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion offers a practical roadmap for how to establish this in classrooms; I consider it malpractice to ignore its guidance. Everyone should re-read the sections Begin with the End and Double Plan.

Less talked about is lesson vigor. My favorite lesson as a French teacher was teaching the imperfect subjunctive of irregular verbs (how do you not get excited just hearing it!). Students must see and feel that we’re enthusiastic about our lessons. And, as importantly, we must deliver the lessons with energy and sincerity. Lesson vibrancy is just as important as lesson rigor. I’ll say that one more time for those in the back--Lesson vibrancy is just as important as lesson rigor.

This can come in a variety of forms. A bit of the Teach Like a Champion technique Vegas is always a good start. Moving towards celebrating student output as they shoulder more of the cognitive lift is the sweet spot though. As educators, we can’t stand professional developments that drone on, no matter the subject. Neither will students, and they will have the honesty to tell you to your face.

Core Principle 2: So What?

Which ruler united the Franks in the early 700s by centralizing power through military conquests? As a French teacher, I admit the answer itself isn’t very important. And even if you knew it was Charles Martel, you might ask “So what?”

And you’d be right to.

Google can provide us with dates, figures, and locations. We are charged with explaining the how and why--the so what? When thinking through units, connect lessons to larger themes and ideas with essential questions.

Essential questions do two things: They ask students to reflect upon the timeless nature of our content and push students to make connections with other contents. My favorite for our unit that includes Charles Martel is: How are societies transformed by invasion? We focus on how he influenced pre-French society and why his influence was important to the development of Gallic society instead of the minutiae of when and where he fought. It makes for a more interesting class and sets up cross-curricular connections to history and English class. This resource is useful when thinking about how to craft them.

Core Principle 3: Listening

If you haven’t picked up Zaretta Hammond’s book Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain, you must. It’s mandatory reading. Her central idea: Our brains are wired to cultivate and maintain relationships. Cultural patterns influence this wiring. This can cause friction when trying to cultivate relationships across cultures, particularly as we go about that task with students.

An important takeaway from the book is that trust begins with listening. “Listening communicates a sense of respect for and an interest in the student’s contributions,” Hammond writes. And since so much communication is non-verbal, “listening doesn’t just mean hearing the words but listening to the emotional quality of the conversation,” says Hammond. Listening is an act of generating trust--an important component in relationship building. Her chart on “trust generators” (found here) is instructive as we think about our relationship with students.

Core Principle 4: One Voice

This last principle is geared towards my administrator friends.

One of the best ways for everyone in a building to feel valued, trusted, and supported is to speak with One Voice.

A culture of One Voice means that everyone is communicating the same ideas, values, and expectations about what it means to be a student (teacher, administrator, staff) in the building.

When we speak with One Voice about our identity as a Wildcat or Knight or Argonaut, we can expect a few things:

  • Clarity in expectations. If everyone communicates the expectation that all students must be awake, alert, and engaged in class, this is no longer a burden for any one teacher (or administrator) to shoulder. The new teacher isn’t faced with “choosing battles” and the veteran teacher isn’t left disillusioned about any new initiative. It is what is expected in all spaces at all times by all teachers and administrators.
  • Mindset Shift: From a School to a Family. What does it mean to be an Argonaut? This is the recurring essential question we ask our students. When we all share and speak about the same vision and mission, we develop a shared identity. The outgrowth is school customs and traditions that mirror more a family unit than a traditional school. Our brains are wired to be a part of a community. When we are clear-eyed about who we are, our community becomes a family. When this happens, students will assume ownership, facilitating a space of belonging.
  • Confidence. When we know we can rely upon each other to communicate shared values, we can speak about our culture with confidence. We will not be undercut by another teacher or administrator. This is liberating. It means that less time can be spent fighting turf wars and more time diving into the richness of our content.

I believe in these principles deeply; they shaped my own journey as a student. I was forced to take French as a part of my middle school’s language program. I initially struggled. My French teachers, who are all now legends in my mind, did all of the above: They built relationships around my interests, they shaped lessons in ways that met and extended my understanding, and they created a space where I could be myself and felt known and loved. This is why, while I’m currently the Assistant Head of School, the professional title I am most proud of is French Teacher.

It is an extraordinary privilege to be an educator. When we bring these principles to the classrooms and buildings we lead, we have the power to make a real difference in the lives of the students we teach.


References

Blackburn, B. R. (2017, July). Rigor and Assessment in the Classroom. Retrieved January 26, 2019, from https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/tepsa.site-ym.com/resource/collection/5B4325B4-14A6-4B13-8CE9-5E8F6827E164/july2017.pdf.

Burris, C. C., Wiley, E., Welner, K., & Murphy, J. (2008, March). Accountability, Rigor, and Detracking: Achievement Effects of Embracing a Challenging Curriculum As a Universal Good for All Students. Retrieved January 26, 2019, from https://nepc.colorado.edu/sites/default/files/burriswileywelner_accountability_rigor_and_detracking.pdf.

Hammond, Z., & Jackson, Y. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a SAGE Company.

Increasing Rigor Throughout the Lesson: Data Driven Classroom Best Practices. (n.d.). Retrieved January 26, 2019, from https://tntp.org/assets/tools/NSA-USI Increasing Rigor Throughout the Lesson-Data-Driven Classroom Best Practices TSLT_0311.pdf.

Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Marzano, R. J., & Toth, M. D. (2019, November 11). Teaching for Rigor: A Call for a Critical Instructional Shift. Retrieved January 2019, from https://www.learningsciences.com/.

McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2013). Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding. Retrieved January 26, 2019, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/109004.aspx.