I have just finished my first semester as an Assistant Principal. Let me tell you, when they say things will change..they aren’t a’kiddin! So many new adventures have come my way in just the past few months, both expected and unexpected. I must say, though, that one of the most joyous parts of my job is when I am able to visit classrooms and observe great teaching and learning! My new school is full of talented educators. If I have said, “Wow, what an awesome teacher” once, I have said it a thousand times. No matter how long one has taught (I taught for 15 years) when you visit someone else’s room it is inspiring and eye-opening. Yet despite all the differences in style and approach, there are some nuances…some intangibles that consistently appear in those high-performing classrooms. So today I wanted to record and share 7 things from the greatest classroom’s I’ve seen.
Love of Learning.
The teacher is truly a lifelong learner. Often times, he or she is trying out something new, implementing a new strategy, or sitting next to students and learning right alongside them. There is an excitement about learning. The focus is not on grades, or timelines, or a state test. It is simply a joy of learning and that joy is directly passed on to the students. Whether it is a math lesson or a trip to the outdoor garden, the teacher is enthusiastically leading students to be inquisitive, to wonder, to develop a love of learning for learning’s sake.
While the teacher does remain the instructional designer, students are frequently able to choose how to best tackle an assignment, how to demonstrate their learning, which tool to use as they investigate and problem solve, and allowed the freedom to make the work their own. Students help establish the expectations, give feedback to each other and the teacher, and their own unique perspectives are sought out and highlighted. Even though they are working on the same standard, their work and their learning doesn’t look the same. This is not true 100 percent of the time, but it is true most of the time.
Students in these classrooms are not hesitant to share their thinking. They will respond to questions such as, “What do you think” and “Why do you think that” because they are not responding to True/False type of questions. They are learning through experiences and through each other, often through ongoing conversations, so mistakes are not something to be avoided. For the most part, students don’t sit quietly for fear of getting it wrong. They will take a chance and if they make a mistake, well that’s just part of it. Their teachers model this same level of risk-taking when it comes to their own learning and teaching, not being afraid to say to their students, “Ok guys, this is something new for me, let me know how this lesson goes”. They will go out on a limb with a new idea in faculty meetings and team planning sessions and throw their ideas out there for discussion. Often times, these lead directly to a new approach.
A look through a reading journal, or a student’s blog, or even quietly eavesdropping on a conversation uncovers students who are reflective about their learning. They think about what they have learned and how that relates to something else they have learned. They try to make connections and they see how their work is changing and improving as time goes on. Both teachers and students readily, and frequently, reflect on the day/week/year and are always seeking ways to continually grow. These teachers are also willing to examine things that might not be going so well school-wide. They stay focused on our vision and if something isn’t working they have a suggestion for how to get things back on track or an idea for a different approach.
Because individuality is honored, you will find in these classrooms some very creative students. They are willing to take the risks that come along with outside-the-box thinking and designing and create some remarkable artifacts that demonstrate their own learning. Their teachers take a similar, creative approach to their lessons. You can tell that this is not a lesson that existed in their repertoire a year or two, or ten, ago. They are always thinking of fresh approaches to learning and this seems to permeate the room and the kids latch on to that. Their teachers are not really any more creative than you or I, they simply seek to make each learning experience remarkable. They most often begin with the end in mind and then map out the lesson so that it fits these students, this class, rather than relying on something they have used for years just because it works for them. Their own passion for learning leads them to find new and unique ways to develop their craft.
The greatest classrooms I’ve seen include students who are self-aware and regulate their own learning. If they need to work in a different spot, they move. If the glue they are using isn’t working, they know where the supplies are and have the freedom to use those as they need. There is a level of trust here. They have tools, such as planners or other organizers, which allow them to manage their time and assignments. They use rubrics and exemplars in such a way that they are aware of the expectations and can self-evaluate. Rather than trying to control everything, their teachers spend a good part of the first semester setting up classroom rituals and routines so that he/she can focus on individual and small group instruction without constant interruptions. The expectations are high and they are not a secret to the students. Most of the time, the student can tell you how they are doing on an assignment based on the guidelines in the rubric, which they have read and interpreted throughout the process. In the words of Maria Montessori, “The children are now working as if I didn’t exist”.
Teachers in these classrooms affirm students. Not just as learners, but as individuals. Students know that they are valuable and that their contributions to the classroom (and the world) are important. They are an integral part of the classroom community, which the teacher establishes through things like lesson closings, classroom jobs, and collaborative conversations throughout the day. To echo one of the theme’s at my school this year, “They Matter”. Kindness is seen in their interactions with one another. I will use the words of one student in one of these classrooms because he put it best, “I have a lot of friends in here. Basically everyone”.
These are just a few of the things I think are important to create and deliver purposeful, life-changing experiences for students as we take them through the content and standards of our particular field. What about you? What are some of the things you see when you visit classrooms that work? I would love to read what you might add to the list!