We teachers all need consistent, deliberate practice to become—or remain—master teachers. Unfortunately, the demands of the school year often get in the way. That's why I love the summer. If I use the summer effectively, my entire year goes better—and I get better, too.
Depending on your schedule over the next few months, you may have some additional time to refresh, reflect, and prepare for the coming year. If so, try some of my favorite tips for improving your teaching practice.
1. Get to know your assessments.
Recently, I was working with a team of teachers who bemoaned the fact that they couldn't teach the way they wanted to teach because they had to prepare their students for the "big test." When I asked them if they had actually ever sat down and studied their state assessment, they admitted that they hadn't.
It's no wonder they felt constrained by the test. They were taking other people's word for it rather than unpacking the test for themselves. Once they understood the test, they were much clearer on what they needed to do—and what they didn't need to do—to prepare their students.
For instance, one teacher learned that she could skip a chapter in her math book because the skill it taught never appeared on her state assessment. Another teacher learned that she was spending too much time teaching obscure poetry terms and too little time teaching students how to determine the tone and theme of a work of literature—skills she would rather teach anyway. This knowledge freed the teachers to teach the way they wanted to teach while reassuring them that they would, at the same time, be preparing their students for the test.
2. Unpack your standards.
There's a lot of talk lately about "unpacking" standards. Unfortunately, most unpacking involves a complicated process that ends up obfuscating standards rather than clarifying them.
That's not the kind of unpacking I'm recommending you do. Instead, look at each standard in terms of the following questions:
- What thinking process does the standard demand?
- What thinking skills will best help students develop that thinking process?
- What content and skills will students need to learn?
For example, suppose you're unpacking the following Common Core State Standard: Determine the theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text. The key thinking process involved is investigation. The key thinking skills that students would need to investigate the theme might be analyzing perspectives and constructing support for their main points. As for content and skills, students would need to know how to analyze the theme, how to trace its development, how to quote from the text, and so on.
If you can answer these three questions about every standard you teach, you'll be able to plan units that help students think rigorously. Moreover, you'll find that these units are much more interesting to teach.
3. Understand your own why.
One of the first things I ask teachers when I help them plan lessons is, Why are you teaching this? Most times they answer, "Because it's in the curriculum." If that's your only reason for teaching a lesson, it's no wonder there's no joy in your teaching.
Spend time this summer thinking about your own personal "why." Are you teaching a unit on Shakespeare because you want students to taste the richness of his language? Are you teaching students how to convert decimals into fractions so they can be ready for algebra in a few years? Are you teaching students the life cycle of plants so they can better appreciate our planet and thus be better stewards of natural resources? Find your own "why" and use it to animate the lessons you plan—and to feed your own passion for teaching them.
4. Collect things that interest you.
Although you have an idea about how the coming school year will go, you probably don't know who your students will be or what they'll need in order to learn. Start amassing a collection of interesting items this summer—articles your students might enjoy, strategies you've wanted to try, books that might supplement your students' reading, or cool math problems and real-world scenarios that apply to your lessons.
One year, I tore pictures out of magazines of rooms that I loved. That fall, I ended up using those pictures as part of a creative writing exercise with students. Another year, I found a bunch of old children's books at a thrift store that I later used in a unit on teaching rhetoric.
While on vacation in Alabama, a teacher I worked with found a pin that said "I ate a bug!" Delighted by that notion of rising to the challenge, she used the pin to spark the "I Ate a Bug Club," which she started in the fall to motivate students to stick with her advanced placement class. Another teacher I know buys "mystery boxes" at yard sales for a few dollars each. She once bought a box full of old hats that her students later decorated as an art project. Another time, she ended up with a box of old tea cups that she used to teach a unit on liquid measurement and then, later on, to have a tea party with her students.
Allow yourself to be inspired and intrigued. Don't try to figure out exactly where everything will fit. Just put the items away somewhere. Then, when you get stuck during the school year, revisit your idea box and pull something from it that will give your teaching a boost.
5. Read outside the field of education.
Some of my best teaching ideas haven't come from a book written for teachers. Sometimes, I get inspired by books written outside my field. To this day, when I want to see my teaching in a fresh way, I still turn to Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown, 2000); Chip and Dan Heath's Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Random House, 2007); Daniel Pink's To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others (Riverhead, 2012); and Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How (Bantam, 2009). Even one of my favorite cookbooks—The Best Recipe (Boston Common Press, 1999), which doesn't just give the recipe but explains why the recipe works—has inspired me to teach writing differently. Now I understand that it's important to show students not just how to use a writing strategy but also why it works.
I use the summer months to read books that interest me—business books, biographies, novels, and even cookbooks. I also take time to read blogs or magazines that I don't have a chance to read during the school year on topics that range from politics to finance to home design. I find that reading widely outside my field makes me a more creative and interesting teacher. I always find new ideas that I can use in my teaching, new examples that will help me explain my subject, or new approaches to teaching that would have never occurred to me.
For instance, I read an article recently on a business blog about how LeBron James hired Hakeem Olajuwon to coach him after he lost the National Basketball Association (NBA) title in 2011. The two used analytics of James's scoring stats to develop a training program. It suddenly occurred to me that I could do something similar in the classroom to help students use their own data to improve. Reading about sports on a business blog helped me come up with a whole new approach to teaching.
Spend time this summer reading what interests you. Don't try to connect it to what you teach or to whom you teach. Just read. You'll be surprised at how you'll naturally make connections during the school year.
6. Be reflective.
One of the most valuable things teachers can do is reflect on their practice. And yet our lives are so hectic during the school year that we rarely have time to just sit and think about teaching.
Spend some time this summer reflecting on this past school year. What worked? What didn't? What do you need to cut? What do you need to add? What skills do you need to develop to be more effective? I also like to reflect on who I am as a teacher and how I can make my teaching style more accessible to my students.
One summer, I spent time sitting on the beach, looking out at the ocean thinking about my teaching. I thought about what had worked and where I had the most fun teaching during the past year. I also thought about the times when my teaching fell flat and when I was the most frustrated. I realized that much of what I was doing was a result of how I had been taught rather than how I really wanted to teach. I realized that a lot of my frustration came from trying to fit myself into someone else's idea of what teaching should be. The times that were the most fun and successful were those in which I stopped trying to fit into a mold and focused on what my students needed. It was an earth-shattering realization.
Rather than trying to make yourself into someone else's idea of a good teacher, spend time reflecting on who you are and how you can give your students the best possible version of yourself this coming school year.
7. Shadow someone.
One of the best ways to pick up new strategies or see your practice in a different light is to shadow someone for the day. If you're interested in administration, spend time talking with an administrator to learn more about the job.
Shadowing someone outside education is also a great way to develop real-world applications for what you teach. If you're a science teacher, hang out in a lab for a day. If you teach English, shadow a journalist or visit a business and see how writing is used in the real world.
Want to make real-world connections in math? Try shadowing someone at a start-up company or a tech company. Teach elementary school? Why not spend the afternoon shadowing a zookeeper, a farmer, or a fashion designer to help you prepare for your units in the fall?
The possibilities are endless. Not only will you establish great connections between the real world and your content, but you'll also remain connected to the real world yourself. And you'll have terrific insights to share with your students in the fall.
8. Learn your teacher evaluation instrument.
This may seem like a weird tip, but it's an important one. Many school systems are changing their teacher evaluation requirements. Don't wait for your district to train you on the new evaluation instrument. Instead, spend time over the summer understanding it for yourself.
Start by looking at the highest category or rating and try to understand what makes a teacher exemplary. Compare the rating to your own practice and make a list of areas where you need to improve. One teacher my colleagues and I worked with discovered that she was putting a lot of effort into controlling her classroom. However, the highest rating on her evaluation instrument was based on students learning to govern their own behavior. Her attempts to control her students were undermining her ability to earn the highest rating. Another teacher couldn't understand why she consistently earned average ratings—until she discovered that her teaching was missing a key component of the highest rating on her evaluation instrument.
Then look at the next highest rating and see what the key differences are between that rating and the highest one. For instance, we worked with a group of teachers this year who discovered that in Charlotte Danielson's Framework for Teaching rubric, one of the key differences between the highest and next highest categories is student ownership. These teachers immediately worked on developing more student ownership in their lessons as a key way to improve their instructional practice.
Go through the same process for each rating category. The differences you note among categories will tell you exactly how you need to improve your practice to ensure that you earn the highest ratings on your next evaluation.
9. Write your assessments.
If you're learning a new curriculum or transitioning to a new set of standards and you have the latitude to write your own assessments, summer is a great time to get these done. Rather than trying to plan out your entire year, write a general overview of your year (or semester or quarter—whatever you have time to do) and spend your time creating really good assessments.1
Writing assessments is one of the best ways to really understand your new curriculum. Armed with these assessments, you'll be better prepared to create lesson plans and unit plans throughout the year.
10. Spend time not thinking about teaching.
Often, we teachers try to fill the summer with so much planning for the new school year that we don't take time for ourselves. Teaching is a demanding job that's becoming even more demanding. If you don't take time for yourself over the summer, you may burn out during the school year.
Take a week—or two or three—to do something interesting, relaxing, and totally unrelated to teaching. Go white water rafting, learn to knit, take a bread-making class, put together an old car engine, perfect your tango. Do something that puts you in the position of a learner so you remember what it feels like to learn something new.
Or take that time to do nothing at all and just decompress. Take a long drive somewhere gorgeous. Putter around in your garden. Relax at the beach. Take an afternoon and sip iced tea on your front porch.
Whatever you do, take time for yourself this summer. Your mind will be fresher, the ideas will start flowing, and you'll be more ready to take on whatever will face you in the fall.