Remember in the Disney classic, Snow White, when the Queen asks the magic mirror on the wall, “who is the fairest one of all?” Well, lucky for us, teaching isn’t a beauty contest, and there isn’t a creepy voice from a mirror telling us whether we are any good. But based on my interactions with thousands of educators, just like you, I know that your magic mirror might ask, “MIRROR, MIRROR on the wall, Am I making a difference AT ALL?”
Not just making ANY difference, but a “WOW” impact. To get there, I will say that you can consider your guessing game of “Am I making a difference?” OVER! That’s right. Keep reading to discover the answer key you’ve been looking for to evaluate the impact you truly are making.
This month’s issue is the first in a series focusing on the impact you are having on your student’s learning. Thanks to the tremendous efforts of educational researchers we now have huge bodies of data that can point us to the traits of educators that are making a significant impact on student learning.
Knowing your impact not only guides your decision-making to improve student learning, it can also be a morale booster for you. Nobody likes working THAT hard, and not know whether it is working or worthwhile. It feels good to know that what you are doing is important, beneficial, and creating results.
The question that has been guiding some of this research is: Are there traits (inquiry, engagement, relationships, etc.) that exceptional teachers have in common? The emerging answer is: YES!
The research tells us that reflective teachers do better. One of the most important influencers of student achievement is how teachers think about their role as an educator and about learning. Here are three questions to consider as you look in the mirror and reflect on your own effectiveness. Now, there is more to being an EXCEPTIONAL teacher than just these traits. BUT there IS plenty to work on with JUST these first three questions. For now, let’s look in our evidence-framed mirror and focus on these academic framing tools you can use immediately.
Be honest with yourself, for that is the only way you can improve your craft.
1. Am I a learner who focuses on student learning and the academic language students need? (Students often ask, “Do I belong in this academic culture?”)
Dr. Camille Farrington discovered that students who struggle at school are FIRST struggling with a bigger barrier that is impeding their academic performance – feeling like they belong. Before they want to buckle down and do the work required to learn, students first want to answer the question, “Do I belong here, in THIS academic culture?” Unless students can say, “Yes” to that question, they will put out little effort, and as a result, teachers will call them unmotivated. If they feel like the culture you are providing only will work for white, middle class kids, they pull back. The sad part is that they really DO want to care about learning and really do want to work hard. How do we know this? The schools with students that can answer this question with a “Yes” consistently perform higher than those who cannot say, “Yes.” (Farrington, et al. 2012).
A focus on student learning (rather than teacher’s teaching) puts the student and their learning in the center of focus for teacher planning. Teachers who have this focus help students: feel like they belong, see how their efforts with directly improve their ability levels, and believe that success is possible for them (Farrington, et al, 2012). They motivate students to be learners (Cheon, & Reeve, 2015), and provide positive feedback to build confidence (Jenkins, Floress, & Reinke, 2015). All of these habits improve student learning and are common traits of exceptional teachers.
Want to get better?
- Make it a tradition to spend 5 minutes every Friday to teach your students something about how their brain works. It will help them be a better learner in the future, and as a bonus they will be more willing to participate in brain-friendly strategies you are exploring with them.
- Work to increase your students’ self-efficacy, or confidence in his/her skills. You can do this by consistently giving feedback on their success. It can be as simple as a thumbs-up, high-five, silent nod of the head as you watch them tackle an assignment. Balance your corrective feedback with positive comments, especially when writing comments on their assignments.
- Attending a workshop this summer that focuses on the science of learning.
2. Am I a collaborator with peers and students about the impact and progress I may have? (vs. “Can I do this all by myself?”)
Teachers (and school leaders) who collaborate together not only improve student learning, they also increase their own efficacy, or beliefs in their own competencies (Goddard, Goddard, Kim, & Miller, 2015). When collaborating well together, a team of teachers’ collective efficacy can be even greater than their individual efficacies (Gully, Incalcaterra, Joshi, & Beaubien, 2002). So even if you believe you are skilled on your own, it still pays to collaborate!
Want to get better?
- Spend your time in the teacher’s lounge sharing your lesson plan and asking for suggestions, instead of … well, you know.
- Ask the best teacher at your school if you can visit their classroom and watch them teach. Later, ask them questions about what you saw. Seek to understand their habits, mindset, and strategies.
- After teaching a difficult topic, have the students work with you to create a mnemonic that will help them remember the critical content.
3. Am I a change agent? (vs. “Did I give the content?”)
Never underestimate the power of influence you have in a students’ life. What you do (or don’t do) matters … A LOT. Students’ learning is enhanced when teacher recognize their responsibility to motivate students and believe in not just the learning potential, but the overall LIFE potential of all students (Haimovitz & Dweck, 2017; Eells, 2011; Farrington, 2013). Seeing yourself as a change agent is all about having a DESIRE to make a difference and believing you CAN.
Want to get better?
- Listen to your internal (and external) dialogue around why students aren’t achieving. If you catch yourself blaming someone or something, dig deep and search for something you have ownership for that you can change.
- If your first motivation strategy doesn’t work, resist the urge to conclude, “This kid just doesn’t want to/can’t learn this.” Keep trying. Find another motivational tool. It may take 10 more mistakes! Never give up on a student. And never give up on yourself.
How on earth can you become more amazing by just asking some Qs? The short answer is that ALL paths to getting better start from within. So, let’s begin: Which of the self-assessment questions above do you answer with a resounding “YES”, and which do you see as an area of growth? Exceptional educators are continuously asking Qs about themselves (for reflection) and of their students (to learn more). In other words, never waste time trying to impress others with how much you KNOW. What impresses others is how much you CARE! Ask the Qs that help you learn more. That takes humility and a hunger to grow. Is that you?