10 Shortcuts to Legendary Instruction

Maybe there is a faster way to turn novices into experts–to bypass the distance between two far away things like Mrs. Whatsit folds the universe in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. At the end of last semester, I watched videotape of new instructors teaching their first three lessons. For over 100 hours, I observed and noted strengths and weaknesses. From that experience, I distilled 10 practices used by expert teachers that might not be obvious to the instructors I was observing–unseasoned members of the teaching community.

These ideas are not meant to be comprehensive. There are enough books, articles, blogs, and podcasts on instruction to fill hundreds of thousands of dump trucks. I do, however, believe that there are practices which will help new teachers shorten the distance between yawn-worthy and legendary. Here they are:

1. Communicate Confidence.

Confidence, poise, and assertiveness are prerequisites to students’ trusting your leadership. This means that you will have to enthusiastically make curriculum and instruction decisions on the fly, even when the outcome is uncertain. Rightly or wrongly, groups of students will not tolerate hesitancy.

Insecure teachers get caught up in their own performances. We all start off this way. Unfortunately, personal insecurities focus your brain on you, which direct attention away from students. Here’s a trick: Find ways to laugh and delight at what the students are doing. This is very different than smiling at your own humor (which is fine—but doesn’t necessarily code for being comfortably in charge).

Seeking out ways to appreciate students helps with teacher-learner bonding. Contrast this with the instructor who is braced for the class to get out of hand. Find things that are adorable about kids—even the ones who challenge your authority. For example, watch how expert teachers send a misbehaving kid into the hall for a private talk. They still appreciate their own professional role (hey—I’m a teacher and I’m helping out!). They look for ways to signal to the challenging child that tomorrow will be a do-over. Their affect and language signals that they are too professional, too awesome, and too together to become uptight by a child’s tantrum.

Confident teachers manifest vibrant personalities that are bigger than the default teacher role. They find ways to share who they are, so that they aren’t just a school functionary. The more texture there is to your personality, the bigger your personal charisma. Bring on the swagger!

Here are some other techniques to help you communicate confidence:

  • Start class by standing close to the front row.
  • Speak loudly and modulate your voice.
  • Ask yourself, how would Oprah handle this?
  • Compliment students a lot! Doing that shows that you’re secure enough to focus on the learner.
  • Spend enough time rehearsing (out loud) an explanation of a tough concept. That’s what your morning commute is for.

How do you communicate insecurity?

  • By standing far away from the scary students.
  • By using too much self-deprecation. You can joke about your stutter, your hairline, and your 1983 Gremlin, just not every two minutes while blushing.
  • By not making your voice reach the back row.
  • By forgetting to modulate your voice and/or talking too quickly.
  • By talking to the PowerPoint, or chalkboard, or your notes.

Finally, consider this: In most classroom scenarios, pretending to be confident is just as effective as being confident.

2. Check for Understanding.

Most new teachers get caught up in covering the material and don’t check for understanding often enough. They just assume that if it’s said by the teacher, kids will understand. However, just because you can articulate the facts of something doesn’t mean that students can as well. Avoid asking, “Does anyone have any questions?” This does not work as formative assessment because students are socialized to stay silent when teachers use that prompt.

When you give long directions for an assignment or group activity, have one or two students paraphrase your instructions before sending them off to do work. Likewise, when you talk at length about a topic, ask specific questions to see if students actually understood what you were saying.

An easy way to do formative assessment is to ask students to answer 9 specific questions in the course of a 90-minute class. That means you will have…

  • 3 questions prepared for the first 3rd of the class
  • 3 question prepared for the next 3rd of the class
  • 3 questions prepared for the last 3rd of the class

If you do not prepare the prompts in advance, then it is unlikely that you will actually ask good questions. It’s really difficult to invent efficient formative assessment questions in the middle of a busy class. Some veteran teachers can do this, in part, because they’ve taught versions of the same lesson 40 times.

You needn’t memorize the questions. Write them down on the chalk/whiteboard or on chart paper before class starts.

3. Ask Effective Follow-Up Questions.

New teachers often do not ask enough follow-up questions. So they end up with an antiseptic and overly academic discussion style called recitation:

“Typical teacher-student discourse resembles a quiz show, with teachers asking a question, the student replying, and the teacher evaluating the student’s response. This is called initiation-response-evaluation, ‘I-R-E,’ or recitation.” (Source)

A good discussion can only occur if you are listening actively to answers and responding with a thoughtful comment or follow-up question. Mastering follow-up questions is a prerequisite of good teaching. However, effective follow-up questions are hard to develop on the fly, especially during a lively whole class discussion. If a conversation is happening too quickly, it is difficult to have the presence of mind to invent a good follow up question before the class has moved on.

How do you do that? Remember that you’re in charge of the tempo. Slow the conversation down.

  • Say…“Mason, that’s a provocative point that I want to let percolate in my brain a minute before I respond.”
  • Say…“Sharretta, let me think about that for a minute…”
  • Say… “Hold on a minute before we move away from Mark’s astute comments.”
  • Say… “Logan, tell us more about that so we are sure to understand your point.”
  • Or slowly paraphrase what was said: “I want to make sure everyone caught Dave’s idea. He is arguing for…” Unless Dave is hyper-articulate, slow and careful in his answer, his words will be missed by a lot of students unless you paraphrase them.

All of those techniques help the rest of the students track the conversation and allow critical thinking to deepen. Even better, teach students the Socratic seminar model to get them interacting more effectively with each other.

4. Organize! Organize! Organize!

Tell students up front what the day’s activities will look like. An easy way to do this is with a PowerPoint slide or with the class agenda written on the whiteboard or bulletin board. In addition to putting it in writing, discuss the agenda and tell the class what you are looking forward to most. This builds anticipation–which heightens engagement.

Plan ahead how you will “package” information. For example, give new concepts and skills a memorable title or slogan, like “Mike’s 3 Mighty Rules of Editing.” This aids retention. Rhyming also helps students remember information, according to Daniel Pink. To come up with the phrase, “For learning to be swift, wrap it like a gift” in under 30 seconds, I used Rhyme Zone to figure out what word I could rhyme with “gift” that would make my point.

Many kids report to their guardians that they didn’t learn anything in school that day. That’s because teachers haven’t packaged the lesson and labeled it. Every class should feature either you or the students articulating what they learned.

A big part of curriculum organization are transitions: make them super-obvious. “We’ve spent the last 15 minutes learning how to _____; now for the remaining 10 minutes of class, we’ll be _______.

Another tool to organize the content for students so that it will be internalized is an advanced organizer, which are “statements, activities, or graphic organizers that help the learner anticipate and organize new information.”

Teach a new skill or concept with cinchy material first. Then tell students what they learned and have them tackle more difficult material.

Finally, carefully organize the content in your head before you step into class. If you can’t explain the concept or skill simply, then you don’t fully understand it.

5. Tell them Why.

Every time that you start a lesson, assign an exercise, or give homework, make sure you tell students the purpose. Explaining the purpose of something wakes up the amygdala (where the brain processes emotions) and engages students. Don’t let class go awry, tell them why. (Yup, I used Rhyme Zone again. You’re on to me.)

6. Slip in Skill-Building in Context.

If you have students write a two paragraph reflection on what they read, that’s a great opportunity to slip in some knowledge about using similes or metaphors that will make those two paragraphs even more impactful. You get bonus points for writing these terms on the board to aid student recall.

7. Advertise Care.

You got into teaching because you care about kids, but they might not perceive that. Remember to look at students with kind eyes. Smile at them. If you get really awesome at this, a high percentage of kids will believe that you secretly like them best. To convey care…

  • Use student names.
  • Be the first to pick up Bob’s pencil when it falls off his desk.
  • Tell the class, “My favorite part of class today was when Jose _______.”

8. Embrace Confusion.

Rookie instructors tend to leap to the conclusion that kids are confused because of sucky teaching. Don’t panic and supply the class with an immediate solution. After all, learning new things is hard sometimes. Instead, label these moments “productive struggle.” Provide just enough scaffolding so that students don’t give up or get lost. Make a resolution, no quick solutions.

9. Get Help.

If you get stuck or confused about how to teach something, don’t agonize for hours. Write down the specific question you need answered. Then write the question more clearly and economically. Often an answer will pop into your head as you clarify the issue. If you still can’t answer your own question, ask a colleague, email an education professor, ping an education blogger, or ask a chat group on Twitter or Voxer if they have any ideas. You have a lot of people around you who want to help. Just make the question clear.

Warning: Some colleagues will undermine you behind your back. “Can you believe she didn’t know how to ____?” This is an ugly side of human nature. Be discerning about who you ask for support.

10. Use a Mantra.

You have to have a guiding vision—something that will help students see the coherence in what you are teaching every day of the week. It is useful if that guiding vision aligns with your personal mission in life. I have mantras that have developed over the decades. Here they are in order:

  • Model aggressive curiosity.
  • Be a truth teller—especially to power.
  • Be helpful.
  • I read the Zig Ziglar mantra every morning and night for three months (It compelled me shave and wear shiny wingtips to work everyday).

My latest mantra is my screen saver, and for my money is the greatest secret to being effective at anything. Be supremely focused and supremely relaxed at the same time. That’s an unbeatable combination. I only wish it rhymed.


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If you like this post, you might like my teaching memoir,  Dinkytown Braves

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Todd Finley

Edutopia Blogger and Asst. Editor || ECU Ed Professor || Founder of Todd's Brain at www.todd-finley.com || Books: Dinkytown Braves and Rethinking Classroom Design.

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