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Five Things That Prevent Teachers from Succeeding with Students

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

In this article in Teacher Quality Bulletin Newsletter, Erin Burns, a North Carolina high-school teacher and turnaround team leader, shares her insights on habits that can stand in the way of teachers’ effectiveness:
• Rigid, boring lessons – “Many low-performing schools fear any activity that doesn’t have a rigid structure,” says Burns. “Rigidity does not always equal rigor.” Worksheets and multiple-choice drills turn students off and don’t help them understand concepts at a deep level. By contrast, she describes a highly engaging biology lesson in which students modeled DNA and protein synthesis by decoding a “DNA recipe” and creating Rice Krispie treats. “Though there were slight moments of chaos because students were so excited,” says Burns, “every student was engaged. Students would frequently reference these types of engaging lessons and activities at the end of the year, as they had made a memorable impact.”
• Being disorganized – Not being able to put your hands on the materials you need when you need them wastes valuable time and adds to teachers’ workload, says Burns. She created a central repository for her team using Google shared drives so all teachers could combine their resources, as well as a teacher-created lesson plan template in PowerPoint and accessible ideas for lessons so teachers don’t need to create lessons from scratch.
• Reactive classroom management – If teachers aren’t proactive, one student refusing to take off his headphones or hand over her cellphone can result in a stressful confrontation that ruins a lesson for 29 ready-to-learn kids. Burns recommends building positive relationships with students who are behaving well, identifying potentially disruptive students and building bridges with them – as well as getting them the emotional support they need and reaching out to their parents. Simply walking around the classroom talking to students as individuals makes a big difference: “How did you do at the game last night?” “Did you get that new job you applied for?”
• Not assessing frequently enough – “It may be unpopular in this anti-testing environment to suggest more testing, not less, but it works,” says Burns. Her teacher team has moved from one big test every few weeks to frequent mini-tests and quizzes with immediate feedback to students. Now kids have “multiple attempts to show mastery of a concept as opposed to just giving up and having to accept the F,” she says. “We’ve built in opportunities for students to retest and replace poor quiz grades on large interim assessments. They always have the opportunity to work towards a higher grade and grow their knowledge of the topics covered as the semester progresses.”
• Focusing too much on summative test scores – “When I first started working with my team,” says Burns, “many of my teachers simply needed a shift in outlook because they were constantly told that their students’ poor test scores were all their fault… I pushed my team to grow their students as individuals. Our goal was beyond hitting a specified proficiency number, but to simply make sure our students left our classes knowing more biology than when they entered. The proficiency number would increase eventually if we just focused on growing students one by one. Allowing teachers to focus on growth instead of a seemingly impossible, looming proficiency goal allows them to stop acting out in frustration to student behavior and lack of engagement and starting focusing on their individual student growth goals. When leaders create a culture of focusing on the positive, it trickles down to teacher-student interactions.”
“Five Habits That Lead to Ineffective Teaching – and How to Fix Them” by Erin Burns in Teacher Quality Bulletin Newsletter, April 13, 2016

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