They say that no two teachers are alike. Each one has a teaching style that creates a unique classroom experience. Some prefer project-based learning, while others use interactive assessments to measure student growth. No matter whether young or old, urban or rural, Math or English, there are several traits that the best teachers have in common.
This list features the most practical things that all teachers can do to be successful in the classroom. It’s not meant to be exhaustive, but we’ve found that many veteran, award-winning teachers emphasize these habits.
1. Practice self-care. The experienced teacher takes “me time” that helps her prepare for the school day. You want to put your best foot forward on the very first day of class. Not having enough sleep, dealing with a coffee stain, and being hangry are all great ways to make your job more difficult. Start with your basic needs — remember the first level in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?
These don’t have to be complicated habits. Get in a routine of doing simple small actions that make you feel ready. Here are some of our suggestions along with a few from veteran English teacher Heather Wheat:
- Choose an outfit before bed.
- Prepare your lunch, coffee, etc. for the next day.
- Keep spare deodorant and clothes in your desk or car.
- Bring quick-to-make, easy-to-fix meals, when possible.
- Have a drawer full of snacks for yourself.
2. Model what you teach. Yes, you should show examples when students undertake an ambitious project, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Great teachers show their passion for their subject and don’t simply tell students what they should know. They are facilitators who learn with their students and dare to make mistakes.
Sydney Chaffee, the 2017 National Teacher of the Year, encourages teachers to be authentic, and we wholeheartedly agree. Being genuine and demonstrating why you care about your subject builds empathy. In an authentic learning environment, students are engaged with you and therefore ready to engage with the world around them.
3. Collaborate with others. You’re not alone in this! Another point that Sydney emphasizes is finding the time and space for collaboration. Experienced teachers work together, which not only makes each person’s job easier but it helps all of their students succeed. Look for ways to interact with your colleagues daily. If you feel isolated, ask your administration to consider ways to include more collaborative time.
For those feeling stuck in the yearly routine, try to get out of your subject’s “bubble” and work across disciplines. You’ll be surprised by how invigorating it can be to conduct a project with another teacher.
Also, technology has magnified the possibilities for teacher collaboration. There are plenty of platforms and websites to post your lesson plans and review ones that others have posted. Some like Wisewire even give you the chance to make some money! Who said those old worksheets weren’t worth a dime?
4. Customize your curriculum. Not all students are the same, and the lesson plan you used last year might not work for this year’s class. The best teachers learn how to be flexible and have options. They never stop striving for continuous improvement and remix what they have created before to make it better.
Ideally, your curriculum should be personalized for your students, but this can take a lot of time and effort. Jane Schmidt, winner of the 2014 Iowa Teacher of the Year award, suggests starting with basic questions, like these:
● How can I invite students to learn?
● What type of learning experience do I want to create?
● What will I need to enable my students to learn?
Once you have a vision for your curriculum, then it’s simply a matter of pulling together the best materials you have. Don’t always throw away what didn’t work! The process of evaluating what works can be difficult, but we’re here to help! Try reading our 8 Questions Teachers Should Ask When Evaluating EdTech blog post for practical tips when making the decision of what to use. Then, it’s time to prepare your syllabus….
5. Prepare. This tip seems obvious, right? But there are two classic types of teachers: those that over-prepare and those that wing it. The best teachers are somewhere in the middle. Knowing when to compromise and try something different from the lesson plan you spent all night designing is a difficult skill, but one that experienced teachers do all the time.
The best way to prepare is to know the content first and foremost. Your confidence, energy, and optimism will set you apart from Mr. What’s-His-Name. Part of modeling the behaviors of a learner is continuous self-improvement, whether that means professional development, taking a refresher courses, or attending sessions at a conference.
6. Reflect on experience. In June, many teachers can’t leave the classroom fast enough, but take a few moments to remember what worked and what didn’t. Use this time to curate and organize your library of lesson plans. Most importantly, organize your thoughts. Celebrate the positive, and seek ways to change the negative. Taking time for reflection will help you feel better prepared for the fall.
Overall, the best teachers recognize their own strengths and weaknesses. They investigate why certain lesson plans worked better than others, and they persist through difficult times. They are not afraid to ask questions, seek help, or change their approach. Like their students, they are open to learning new ways of thinking.
What are some of your ideas for improving your practice? Let us know in the comments!