(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)
The new question of the week is:
What was the most meaningful critique you have received about your teaching – how was it communicated and how has it affected your practice?
In part one, Ann Hlabangana-Clay, Ashley Kearney, Keisha Rembert, and Mary K. Tedrow shared their experiences.
Today, Rebecca Alber, Kathryn Welby,, Stephanie Dewing, and Kelly Owens write their responses.
Rebecca Alber teaches in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a high school English teacher, literacy coach, and consulting editor at Edutopia:
My first year teaching high school English, I was assigned a mentor teacher. She’d been teaching high school social studies for nearly 20 years, and was incredibly wise and also very straightforward. After her initial observation in my classroom, she said the following to me, “Explain less and show more.”
The valuable takeaway that day from those simple few words was this: demonstrating to students what they should do or providing actual examples, instead of just giving them directions, can magnify the learning in the classroom.
When I wanted students to create something, let’s say, an emotive narrative about a poignant life moment, I’d share an example—either a piece of writing or at sometimes, several excerpts. I’ve found that mentor text examples from their peers can have the greatest impact, so I’d collect golden opening paragraphs or whole essays from each year to use with new classes.
What I have also learned is that mentor texts don’t need to demonstrate exemplary grammar. In fact, if they have flaws, it can provide opportunities for the class to critique how the piece of good writing could be even better. Also, for the writers in the room who are struggling or reluctant, it demonstrates how perfection is irrelevant. I tell them “writing is not ever done, it’s just abandoned.”
I remember when I gave my 11th grade English students detailed written instructions and a rubric for Socratic Seminar (a platform for whole-group discussion), which I then explained and explained and explained some more. How did it go? It didn’t. Students were reticent to speak, and they seemed confused and disinterested. After sharing this experience with a colleague, they directed me to a few video examples of Socratic Seminars online. We watched those together as a class and debriefed. They got it. As a result, our classroom Seminar discussions became deeper and participation grew.
I have also learned that when “showing not telling” students, you do not have to use exact examples of your expectations for their work, as long as the elements echo the aspiring task or assignment. Usually, that can be enough to trigger their understanding of the assignment and motivate them to do it..
I’m forever thankful to that mentor teacher and her insightful advice. She’s retired now, but her words changed my practice and the learning opportunities for many of my high school English students from that day forward.
Setting the ‘Temperament of the Class’
Kathryn Welby, Ed.D., is an associate professor of practice and the director of K-12 Teacher Preparation Programs in the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College. Before preparing future educators, Kathryn devoted years to instruction as an elementary and special education teacher in Massachusetts. She is the author of Remote Learning Strategies for Students with IEPs (Routledge, 2021):
The most meaningful critique I have received about my teaching was communicated during a meeting following a scheduled observation during my first-year teaching. I was a 1st grade teacher. My principal observed me, and his unforgettable advice was that energy, tone of voice, and volume dictate the behavior and energy of the class. In other words, how I carry myself and speak while delivering a lesson can impact how students react, respond, and receive the lesson.
Students mirror the teacher’s dispositions and feed off the teacher’s energy.
I will explain and share my story.
This critique was shared with me because I was teaching a lesson with excitement. I was speaking loudly and quickly as I rapidly walked around the front of the class. In turn, my students were excited and probably too excited—yelling answers and jumping around while having electrifying side conversations. If I remember correctly, a few students “accidentally” fell off their chairs during the observation. Overall, I would describe the class as chaotic, and the observed lesson were less than perfect. It was a first-year teaching nightmare.
Post-Observation Meeting and Critique Explanation
Preparing for my post-observation meeting was nerve-wracking. I knew the lesson did not go well, but I could not figure out why. Why was the class so chaotic?
As it turned out, I was to blame. It was definitely my fault.
During my post-observation meeting, my principal told me the class was loud, crazy, and acting out with excitement because my lesson delivery was rapid, disordered, and loud. He explained that as the leader of the class, I set the tone for the class. And if I delivered the lesson by speaking in a very excited, loud, chaotic way, my students would respond in a very excited, loud, chaotic way. If I was quickly moving around the class, my students would want to move around, too. Students were following my lead.
If I could deliver the lesson calmly, speak very slowly, and use a lower voice volume, he explained, my students would respond the same way.
At the time, I thought his advice was impractical. I had never read it in a teaching text or manual, nor could I recall a theory that supported his suggestion. Then, I tried it! It worked and immediately changed my teaching style forever.
Over the years, I learned to set the temperament of the class and the lesson through my words and tone. If my goal is a quiet calm class, I present as relaxed and speak softly and slowly. If I want enthusiastic “buy in,” I deliver the lesson with energy, speak more excitedly with a louder voice. Students tend to follow my lead. This technique still works regardless of the students’ age. It’s just as successful with 6-year-olds as with 20-year-olds .
I am forever thankful that the observed lesson did not go well because the memorable and meaningful advice that I received improved my teaching dramatically. Even today, I evaluate my energy and verbal delivery as part of my internal post-teaching self-reflection process.
Small changes in our delivery can have a significant impact. Sometimes the mistakes we make as teachers can lead to the most important lessons and offer considerable growth opportunities.
‘We Need to Be Okay With the Messiness’
Stephanie Dewing, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. She has been a Spanish and English as a second language/English language development teacher and teacher educator for nearly 25 years:
It was my first year teaching high school Spanish. Like many new teachers, I was standing in the front of the class next to the overhead projector. This was the late 90s, mind you, so there wasn’t much technology in those days. It was the day of my first official observation. I was ready! Or, so I thought.
I had my carefully planned lesson in hand, ready to impart my knowledge to my students. Our lesson just got started and then, unexpectedly, there was a fire alarm. I almost panicked—not because of the fire alarm, but because my lesson plan would be altered, and I would have to be ready for plan B, while I was being observed! The fire alarm turned out to be a drill, so we went back to class, and I reclaimed my place at the front of the classroom by the projector. I grabbed my lesson plan and picked up where we left off. I didn’t get to finish what was on the plan, which, my 25-year-veteran teacher self knows is OK, but my first-year teacher self wasn’t so sure.
The most meaningful critique I received about my teaching happened shortly thereafter. My observing supervisor approached me after the observation and told me, “learning is messy, don’t be afraid to get dirty.” It was a critique and advice all wrapped up into one. I know that she was encouraging me not only to be prepared but also flexible and able to go with the flow. She was also telling me to leave my comfort zone in the front of the room and move around. Even though she was right, it was scary at first.
I took her feedback and I started to walk around the room more. It sounds so simple, but I didn’t even realize how stationary I was until it was pointed out to me. In walking around and engaging more with my students, I learned to listen to them more and read the room rather than just follow what was on the paper. I still made my detailed lesson plans, but I began to realize that while the content was important, the connections I was making were more important. Our guts know this, but the research backs it up: It’s all about relationships.
Our students need to feel safe, seen, heard, and cared for. They need the content, but they need something they can connect with and relate to even more. As Maya Angelou so eloquently put it, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” My carefully laid out lesson plans didn’t account for that.
This critique and the advice impacted my practice considerably. I have learned over the years that preparation is essential. Content is important. But getting to know my learners and creating a safe and positive classroom community are the most critical components to student learning and success.
My supervisor was right, learning is messy. When I first started teaching, I was afraid to get dirty. But not anymore! We need to be OK with the messiness. In fact, once I embraced that, not only did I become a more effective teacher, but I had a lot more fun. And the students did, too.
‘Explain Why You Are Using an Instructional Strategy’
Kelly Owens is a literacy interventionist who enjoys sparking educators’ professional reflections via her contributions to MiddleWeb, The King School Series (Townsend Press), and Emmy Award-winning “Classroom Close-up NJ”:
A garden stepping stone’s inscription suggested I should see obstacles as stepping stones. That reverse psychology has shaped how I react to negative feedback. Hearing criticism can make any of us cringe or it can open a door to self-improvement. A weeknight phone call I received decades ago from a parent shaped my resilience as a teacher and helped me develop a positive work-life balance.
As a novice teacher, I was keen to show my accessibility to students’ families. A September welcome letter shared my teaching aspirations and previewed learning opportunities the year had in store. I included my home telephone number as a goodwill gesture. I thought that implicitly demonstrated my wholehearted commitment to supporting them in their child’s educational journey. Teachers put in tons of extra hours, so I figured this was par for the course.
For two marking periods, no one took up the offer to call me at home. Then, one weeknight, my apartment’s phone rang. I turned down my stove’s burner, picked up the phone, and discovered a steaming parent on the other end.
I had a good rapport with both the parent and her child, so at first, the after-hours communication didn’t phase me. After some brief pleasantries, the parent changed course and segued into the reason for her call. As she transitioned, I did a time-lapse review of the school day, trying to anticipate her concerns. The only unusual occurrence was when the child’s instrumental teacher kept her late, causing her to enter my class mid-lesson. I recalled helping the child catch up, so she could achieve the learning goal along with peers, who’d been present the entire lesson. The way I saw it, I worked with the child individually to set her up for success.
That’s not how the child viewed it. The version the parent relayed was that once her child joined my class, the rest of her classmates were engaged in partner work, and she was not. Whereas I had viewed the individualized instruction as a positive strategy to bring the student up to speed, the student saw it as having to work alone. She viewed herself as being different.
Honestly, I was shocked. My good intentions had totally unintended consequences in the student’s eyes. Had her parent not contacted me, I wouldn’t have known how it had affected the child’s self-esteem. After apologizing to both the parent and the student about the misunderstanding, I was intent on turning lemons into lemonade. Self-reflection helped me develop teaching practices that would prevent such incidents in the future.
- Know where students are developmentally so you can understand their behaviors. Respond with strategies appropriate for social-emotional characteristics common for that age.
- Explain why you are using an instructional strategy. Explicitly tie it to your overall goal for setting students up for success.
- Build a classroom community with balanced communication where the teacher communicates with students, not at students.
- Leverage the benefits of peer teaching. It’s a win-win for both parties.
- Develop a positive work-life balance. The quality of time spent instructing students and building home-school connections outweighs the quantity of time you are available. Fewer hours of availability doesn’t mean you are less effective, as long as you are productive and strategic about employing best teaching practices.
Criticism can trigger growth. It exposes areas where you can improve yourself. Use critiques to your advantage as stepping stones to achieving your best teaching self.
Thanks to Rebecca, Kathryn, Stephanie, and Kelly for contributing their thoughts!
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.
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