I began teaching in 2000, but this year will be the first one in which I will have the privilege of coaching my colleagues. In preparing for my new role, I’ve been reflecting on some of the most useful teaching feedback I have received over the years.
Here are five pieces of advice that changed the game for me:
1. Track your ratio. We know that students respond better when they hear more positive feedback than negative. But when teaching starts to feel overwhelming day to day, and it’s easy to get sucked into a spiral of negativity. When someone tells you to “stay positive” when you’re at your worst, how likely is that phrase to turn things around?
I benefitted more from the feedback “keep your ratio up.” Tracking my ratio of encouraging to negative comments on a clipboard was a measurable way to help me inch a struggling class towards a more positive culture. The higher my ratio, the more eager students were to do even better. Even on a terrible teaching day, keeping a high ratio—3:1 or more—helped us end class as a team, ready to start the next day fresh.
2. You are the parents’ biggest ally—not the other way around. I’ve always enjoyed talking with parents, but it wasn’t until I had my first child that this piece of advice made sense. No matter how much we care for our students or how many hours we spend with them each day, it’s the parents who hold the greatest power in their lives. They rely on me as a teacher to be an extension of that primary relationship. Even if I worry that a student’s parents are not doing everything they can to help that child, it’s my job to help them rather than the other way around. A compassionate and early “how can I help?” will go much farther than “here’s what I’d like.”
3. “Why”, then “how”, then “what”. At some point every teacher will encounter two problems: students who are disinvested, and on the flip side, students who are so eager to begin that they don’t wait for directions. This technique solves both problems at once.
It goes like this: first, make sure students know WHY the activity you’re about to do is meaningful. Next, use an adverb to explain HOW students will do their first step. Only then should you tell them WHAT they should actually do. This can sound like, “If you use a base instead of an acid, you won’t get a chemical reaction! So when I say “go”, each of you will silently point to the ingredient you think is an acid.” This technique creates a scaffold so that the largest possible number of students are invested and doing the right thing; it also puts you in the driver’s seat, allowing you to proactively set behavior expectations instead of reacting to avoidable misbehaviors.
4. Watch and wait. You’ve given clear directions and released students to independence; right away, a student is doing something wrong. It’s tempting to pause that student immediately, or even pause the class to go over what happened. Instead, take a breath and simply continue watching. For one thing, giving that student the benefit of the doubt—or letting them see you watching—may allow the student to correct their own behavior, which is always the better choice. In addition, a wider view of the entire class’s behavior is helpful: are most students doing exactly what you stated, or are there patterns of mistakes? This will let you see which directions you may have rushed through, or precisely why students may be confused.
Letting things get just a little out of hand can be a powerful tool for helping the group self-reflect: it’s much easier for students to answer the questions “What went well?” and “What can we do better?” when there is actually something they can do better. Of course, the exception to this advice is when students are being unsafe; in that case, stop and address the misbehavior as quickly as possible.
5. Sixty-six times form a habit. When I first started teaching, I knew I might have to repeat myself on occasion. What I did not realize was just how much repetition my students would need. Staggeringly, 66 repetitions are what it takes the average adult to internalize a moderately challenging new habit. You may be familiar with “21” as the magic number of necessary practices. This is a common rule of thumb, but in 2009, researchers from University College London found that when it comes to a truly new habit of behavior (like doing long division, following the lunch line procedure, or using the Peace Pillar independently), most people need at least three times that many exposures. This can be daunting to a new teacher, but I’ve found that it gave me the patience I needed to keep practicing each new skill with my students until they really got it.
None of this advice is simple. Some of it is incredibly broad, and some is so specific that it seems ridiculous at first. But each one of these pieces of feedback has made me much better at what I do, and I look forward to helping new teachers master these ideas—especially if it takes 66 tries.
Karen Shapiro cannot remember a time in her life when she was not, in some capacity, teaching. She currently serves as the technology instructor at Hiawatha Leadership Academy-Morris Park in South Minneapolis, and has taught every grade from kindergarten to 7th in California, New York, and Minnesota. She spends most of her time thinking about digital literacy, collaboration with families, racial justice, and organizational health within schools.
The MinnCAN blogging fellowship allows Minnesota students, teachers, administrators and parents to share their thoughts on key education issues. MinnCAN supports fellows seeking to advance the conversation around public education, though fellows’ views and opinions are solely their own.