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5 areas where teachers can support students in learning

Insights, a new SmartBrief Education Originals column, features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.

In today's column, Naphtali Hoff, former principal and president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting, addresses the surrounding school reopening and details where teachers should focus their attention as they begin the new year. 

For new teachers, the process of getting ready for the school year can draw mixed emotions. On the one hand, it is exciting to don your creativity cap and consider new ways to make school and learning exciting. At the same time, there can be some nervousness associated with your preparation, particularly when you’re not sure what the new year will even look like, as in whether it will include in-person instruction, remote learning or some blended variation.

Make no mistake, this is by far the most uncertain start to the school year that any of us have ever experienced. We don’t know what form school will take in a couple of months and we must figure out how to close academic gaps that were created by the pandemic; deal with issues of mindset (student and teacher); provide opportunities for social-emotional learning; and be prepared for the residual (if not current) effects of trauma and more. All while still managing our classrooms effectively and providing our students with engaging instruction that is differentiated to ensure that all learners’ needs are met.

As I see it, the following areas are the ones that are most critical for new (and even veteran) teachers to master if they are to hit the ground running during the first days of the school year and beyond:

  1. Mastering the delivery of both in-person and remote instruction strategies, 
  2. Creating engaging, differentiated lessons to reach all learning styles,
  3. Developing a systematic approach to assessment and to ensuring student accountability,
  4. Supporting your students’ social-emotional needs and development, while growing your mindset and confidence to succeed,
  5. Crafting a solid plan for the 1st 90 days, including relationship-building and a clear, consistent approach to classroom management

Delivering Hybrid Instruction

If the recent school reopening guidance issued by NYC is any indication, teachers nationwide will need to be prepared to deliver both in-person and remote instruction in the Fall. To master each form of delivery, teachers should be thinking about students’ UX, as in user-experience. 

What is it like to be on the receiving end of quality as well as poor in-person and virtual instruction? Not sure what the answer is? Ask students. They’ll be more than happy to tell you. 

With virtual learning in particular, study up on how it differs from in-person education and set norms and expectations for your students to follow when remote. This blog details many useful items for remote teachers to consider. Once you determine what needs to be done, practice, practice, and practice some more, and then ask for feedback, so that you are as close to unconsciously competent (Level 4) as possible on Day 1.

Differentiated Learning

It is more imperative than ever that teachers craft engaging, differentiated lessons for their classes. Student engagement means student interest, and it is a critical component for true comprehension and higher-order-thinking. Remote learning turned many lessons back to the frontal teaching model, a model that is not as conducive to learning. 

Teachers that were most effective figured out how to engage students at every turn. From the regular thumbs-up/thumbs down to dressing up, from vocabulary scavenger hunts to riddle solving, their students were immersed in active learning. Some classes even put on plays and other multifaceted, complex productions. 

Remember that nothing encourages misbehavior more than a class that fails to excite kids’ minds. Students are intrinsically curious; they constantly search for meaning and stimulation. Classes that are too one-dimensional, that fail to involve students sufficiently, are too challenging (we would all rather be viewed as bad than as academically weak), or are very much information heavy, leaving little room for discussion and consideration, will not satisfy students’ curiosities or needs for authentic intellectual stimulation.  

When we differentiate, we consider all of the learners in our classrooms. This can be done by planning for different learning styles -- beyond the typical visual-spatial- and auditory-oriented presentations -- as well as giving students increased control over what they learn, how they learn it, and how they demonstrate mastery of the content.

Assessment and Accountability

Of course, we can’t stop once we have created and delivered quality lessons. We must also develop a systematic approach to assessment and to ensuring student accountability. Good educators know that evidence gathering is a central component of their craft

Perhaps they don’t use the term “evidence” to describe what they search for, preferring instead “testing” or other assessment-related jargon. Regardless, we know that evidence is necessary to determine the answer to a most fundamental question: Did they learn what I taught?

There is, unfortunately, a gap (sometimes quite sizable) between teaching and learning. We cannot simply port information from our mouths and minds into our students’ brains. Instead, we must figure out the best way to organize and deliver content so that it supports complete transference, with deep processing and strong retention. 

As we do this, we have to consider such factors as student readiness, interest and learning style. We also need to think about variables that we cannot control, like students’ home life and social relationships. These factors sit on top of the primary task of content delivery and our need to assess what they have or have not learned.

Assessment is one of the most important components of education, but not just in the summative or even intermediate sense of the term. Teachers ought to be assessing on a regular basis -- what is commonly called formative assessment -- in order to ensure that the students are grasping the content and are able to demonstrate their mastery in some fashion. 

Whether they use quick, simple checkings for understanding, such as choral response or head nodding, or something a bit more elaborate (like having students complete a one minute paper or a graphic organizer), teachers need to be collecting regular evidence of student learning before simply moving forward. And if the feedback demonstrates confusion, then a re-teaching (partial or full, to some or all students) is in order. 

Let’s be honest. For most teachers, assessment is the least enjoyable part of the job (faculty meetings and report cards notwithstanding). We would all rather be teaching, engaging and facilitating learning rather than go through the assessment process, particularly the grading component. 

But without frequent assessments, we cannot really know if we are achieving our goals and making an impact. This might mean moving forward despite not having all -- or most -- students on board.

The good news is that formative assessment is not labor intensive. Often it can be completed in seconds without any work on the teacher’s part. (“All right, class. If what I just said is correct, indicate that by making a ‘c’ with your hand. If it was incorrect, show that with an ‘i.’”) 

The key is being committed to soliciting ongoing feedback and then being willing to analyze it and use it correctly, even if that means adjusting your lesson and unit plans as a result.

Social-emotional Needs

Teachers must also support students’ social-emotional needs and development, while growing their mindset and confidence to succeed. Let’s focus on the latter, our mindsets and the role they play in our success.

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success, Stanford Professor Carol Dweck talks about people’s mindsets with regards to their ability to perform new tasks.  She describes people who stay squarely in their comfort zones and others that venture well beyond them. Dweck labeled these mindsets as “fixed” and “growth,” respectively.

A fixed mindset refers to the belief that skill and capacity are fundamentally attached to a person’s genetic composition. Either you “have it” and are good at it, or you’re not. This applies to everything from academics (“I’m not much of a math guy”) to business and social situations (“I don’t know marketing,”) as well as music, athletics and more. 

Those with growth mindsets, on the other hand, tend to believe that skills can be learned, at least to some degree of proficiency. They maintain that student success depends mainly on one’s willingness to learn, practice and pursue their goals. They continuously strive to learn new things and to develop new capabilities. 

Much of this is attributed to their great drive to succeed. But they also believe that they can stretch their inborn talents if they are willing to make the effort.

The First 90 Days

The last piece is to craft a solid plan for the first 90 days. It should include relationship-building and a clear, consistent approach to classroom management. 

Teachers know that there is more to the job than sharing content and enhancing student skills. They understand that reaching students means connecting with them and creating the right atmosphere for learning. Here are some ways you can do that.

  • Set the proper tone. Find ways to engage positively with students from the outset. Greet them as they enter the room with a “good morning” and a high-five. Smile! Let them know that you’re happy that they’re there. Convey the message that you expect a great day from them and anticipate their success.
  • Create a healthy learning environment. One of the most powerful educational quotes that I have ever read has nothing to do with teaching. The late author, former teacher and child psychologist Dr. Haim Ginott, once wrote about the central role that teachers play in making the classroom’s “weather”: “I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.”

The classroom atmosphere is directly affected by the approach and attitude of the almighty teacher. How we use that power can have a great impact on student  achievement and self-esteem. Use your authority judiciously and proactively to create a classroom atmosphere that promotes learning and excitement.

  • Praise early, praise often. If you wish to be able to demand from your students and offer criticism where appropriate, it is imperative for students to know that you are solely motivated by a strong desire to do what is in their best interests. As the leadership expert John C. Maxwell has famously said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

In his video “When the Chips are Down,” Richard Lavoie discusses the need for teachers to make regular “deposits” into student “accounts” before making any withdrawals. And while Lavoie is focused primarily on students with learning disabilities and low self-esteem, I submit that the principle of developing a deep sense of trust and security applies to all children.

  • Monitor their progress. Take time to talk privately with each student once the year begins. Find out about their successes as well as their challenges. Ask how you can be of assistance in making their year a success and let them know that you are always available to talk.
  • Let them know that they’re missed. If a student is absent for more than one day due to presumed illness, give them a call. This can be done privately, or with the class present (your students will love the opportunity to call their absent friends from within the classroom). Calling these students will let them know that they are missed (research says that it will also reduce student absenteeism), and that your classroom is simply not the same without them.

Of course, there are many other techniques that we could use and qualities that we could demonstrate that would help us connect better with our students. My suggestion is that you identify what you are already doing and build from existing strengths. The next step would be to think about something else that you could be doing to deepen the connection so that you can maximize your influence on the life of the young men and women that have been entrusted to you.

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. He is the author of Becoming the New Boss and several free e-books.

Naphtali and his colleague Etti Siegel will be co-hosting a Back to School Boot Camp to help new teachers and those who support them hit the ground running and enjoy a successful school year. Visit Naphtali online to learn more or register for this upcoming boot camp.

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