Feb 19, 2012

Teaching is a Sport

The experience of student teaching is making me think and reflect on a whole lot of stuff...my brain is buzzing 24-7 with ideas (I have been teaching in an alternative h.s. program for 14 years, but am finishing up my degree in Special Education this semester!) As I share some of my thoughts with my husband, who is currently coaching our son's 5th/6th grade basketball team, I've noticed that he is taking on the role of one of those coaches in the movies. You know the ones: the motivator, the guy who gives the big speech at half time that motivates the team to go out there and give it their all!

warning--this video montage contains some crude language.

Last week I attended an in-service. A lot of teachers moan and groan about having to take the day away from grading papers or planning lessons, but confession time: I really enjoy in-service. I realize that part of the reason I like it is because I teach in an off-site alternative education classroom where I have an instructional aide, but no teaching colleagues; in-service is my chance to mingle with other teachers. But I also realized last week, that in-service is a lot like a pep talk from a coach. Teachers are gathered together to get a game plan together, to learn strategies in how to work as a team, and reflect on what works when we're all out in the field.

Here are some strategies that have been shared at many of the in-services I've attended that have been most helpful:

  • Greet each student by name EVERY DAY
  • Instead of criticizing one student who does something poorly, praise the many students who do something well (aka accentuating the positive)
  • Remember that not everyone has the same skills and abilities, so we need to differentiate instruction

That last one is a doozie that is featured at just about every conference, meeting, and in-service I've ever attended. The overall message is that one size doesn't fit all in teaching and learning. We need to offer a menu of options for students to choose from. We need to be flexible in how we grade student work. We need to realize that every kid comes to us with a different set of skills, background experiences, and life situations.

In sports, coaches make their teams practice skills. They run drills, they learn plays, the work on form. Games played against an opponent are where they put all their moves together, right? But what if what they practiced doesn't work? Do coaches sit on the side line and just let their team keep running the same ineffective plays over and over again? Not if they want to have a chance to win! They give the motivational half-time speech, change the plan, and start the second half fresh with a new set of plays.

In teaching, so many teachers have been running the same ineffective plays for years, not realizing that what they're doing isn't working. Many of us need to update our play books and incorporate some new moves. This doesn't mean that we're bad teachers...it means that we need to keep up with current practices and adapt our game. Just as an athlete needs to keep practicing, and a coach needs to keep adjusting the play book for each new opponent, so do teachers need to keep practicing and adapting. Our work is never done. We need to be constant students in the art teaching.

How do you keep your practice current?


Here are some links to sites featured at  in-service meetings that I found really helpful. These links lead to plays I've added to my play book over the 14 years I've been a student in the art of teaching:

Pat Wolfe's Mind Matters : Did you know that the brain is "wired" to learn in specific ways? Pat blew me away at an inservice 6 years ago with her brain-based research on how to make instruction more effective by teaching in a way that allows the human brain to learn.

Todd Whitaker's What Great Teachers Do Differently helped me remember that we are working with individual kids who like to be acknowledged and recognized as individual people. He also reminded me that it feels better to be recognized for something positive than to watch someone else be chastised for something negative.

John Medina's Brain Rules taught me last week about simple, effective strategies I can use in class to help my students learn more effectively if I just keep in mind what science tells us is true about the human brain.

Whether you are a teacher or not, you need to stay current in your practice, right? What are some resources you use in your work to update your "play book"?


  1. I am living and breathing this stuff right now too - both as a professor and as a parent. As for my own teaching, I am like you, I make sure that I go to one conference a year that focuses on the teaching of psychology at the college. The APA meeting is surprisingly helpful in this regard, but there are small local ones where I get to meet my fellow psych professors from NJ, since we're pretty isolated too.

    As a parent, I've been reading like crazy about the likelihood that differentiation can actually work in a typical classroom. My son is 2-3 years ahead of the curriculum in every subject except for writing, and he's probably on grade for that subject. The teacher is willing to differentiate in math because the materials are given to her by the textbook company. However, she will only go up one grade. He's working on 4th and 5th grade math (and he's a second grader) with a tutor because I refuse to have his love of learning math killed, and that's what I was starting to see in kindergarten. Now the teacher is starting to see behavioral problems with my son because he's bored out of his mind. Her solution was that he should come up with differentiation ideas. He's a shy 8 year old, who doesn't want to stick out from his peers. He just won't do this. I feel like she is trying her best to differentiate, but that so much of the education regarding differentiation for our teachers is how to help kids on the left side of the normal curve. My son is really struggling in school because he's bored, and I don't get a sense that any one thinks that's a problem because he's going to score well on the state mandated second grade math and language tests. His education isn't nearly as important as his test scores and as a parent that frustrates me to no end. Sorry. rant over.

  2. And this is why you are awesome at what you do!  Every post of yours that I read that has to do with teaching; I can feel your love and passion for the profession.  It comes across loud and clear.  Thank you for everything you do!

  3. Congrats on finishing your degree Jen :)

  4. Thanks so much, Glenn! It has been a long haul, but the end is in sight :-)

  5. Lonna, it can work but you have to have a very flexible teacher who realizes that not everything comes from a grade-level textbook. I have a few suggestions. First, check this site http://www.education.uiowa.edu/html/belinblank/ Iowa has the Belin Blank Center for Gifted Education. They know a lot and might be able to offer suggestions (but call them if you can...I didn't have much luck via email when I needed help with a student on the Autism spectrum who was very gifted.) 

    In this day and age with the Internet, it is hard to believe that teachers are not more willing to at least try a blended learning environment--online curriculum and teacher support. Why can't she get curriculum from 4th or 5th grade? I can understand your frustration, because most schools don't allow students into Extended Learning Programs until after they've taken their first round of standardized tests in 3rd grade. D probably won't officially be offered extra stuff until after his scores come in next year...

    In my SpEd classes we talk about "Exceptionality" instead of just "Disability." Students who are gifted learners need an Individualized Education Plan just as much as students who have disabilities. If I were you, I would demand a meeting to discuss getting an IEP for your son. Some states require schools to provide IEPs for gifted & talented children. I just did a quick search and found this http://www.special-ed-law.com/gifted_and_talented.htm for your state. The good part about an IEP is that it will follow your son through school until college, and it requires team meetings--that include parents-- in order to set learning goals, measure progress, and to plan modification of the curriculum. The first step is to request an evaluation. If they don't do that, you can have him evaluated, and then share the results with the school. You have to push it and advocate for an IEP so that you have a legal reason to take action if the curriculum isn't modified to meet his needs. 

    I'm glad you got the chance to rant. I wish things were easily fixed...but there is no easy fix. And when teachers meet an exceptional student, they are often so far out of their comfort zones that they don't know what to do. That Belin Blank Center offers courses for teachers and has a lot of ideas for differentiating. If you can get some information for the teacher, maybe she'll try it out. I've never met a teacher who said, "NO" when a parent or kid has clearly asked for help.


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