George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

4 Practical Tips for Improving as a Teacher

Maintaining habits that actively focus on your professional improvement can help you be a more confident and impactful teacher.

April 19, 2024
skynesher / iStock

The best teachers get better. But how do they do that? 

Certainly, experience helps. Ask any veteran teacher, and most can describe pedagogical skills that sharpen with each year in the classroom. Experience by itself, however, is not enough. Sadly, some teachers lose their edge over time. So how do teachers not only stay sharp but hone their abilities for greater impact?

Don’t wait for your next formal professional development. What can you do on a daily basis? For inspiration, you can reflect on your previous accomplishments, those activities outside the field of education. What hobbies and talents have you pursued to the point of special pride or recognition? How did you reach that level of excellence? 

Consider the following four practical steps for success. Reflect on how these elements might appear in your personal endeavors and how you can apply them to your professional teaching.

1. Purposeful Practicing

My college choir director used to say, “Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” In other words, whatever you do time and time again will eventually become your habits—good or bad. Like any performer in the arts or sports, teachers must be purposeful in how they practice. This begins with proactive organization that sets measurable goals. Effective teachers already do this with every lesson plan, clarifying objectives for students and themselves.

Purposeful practice also includes mastery of fundamental actions, requiring repetition and refinement. Musicians rehearse a difficult song by slowing down the tempo and taking it one measure at a time. Athletes run drills, conditioning their minds and bodies until techniques become second nature. Teachers develop skills that endure with equal attention and effort. In his video about effective teaching practices, Harry Wong discusses classroom procedures, starting the school year with intentional exercises. Such routines equip both students and teachers for meaningful learning. 

Other strategies for self-improvement may seem minor but can make a big difference. To practice better questioning, I’ve printed signs with open-ended prompts (“In what ways...?” “How might...?” “For what reasons...?”) and posted them around my classroom. Another approach is listing question stems on an index card, keeping it nearby for when discussion dwindles. After years of practice, I find that good questions arise more easily, and I rely on these tools less often. But they are always available if needed.

2. Recognizing Milestones

Success rarely occurs overnight. Even so, it’s vital to recognize smaller victories along the way. Think back to your personal achievements and how you might make them a focal point. Maybe it is an award you keep on display in your classroom. Decorations could be from your educational career (e.g., diplomas, certificates, credentials), a particular hobby or passion (trophies, medals, photographs, products, etc.), or overlapping endeavors. Or perhaps you can recollect a particular experience and its lasting power. This could be a breakthrough practice or a poignant exchange. Such encounters aren’t found in record books, but you’ll never forget them. 

Teachers accumulate all kinds of mementos—tangible and intangible—throughout their careers. Celebrations provide a pat on the back and a push to keep going in the right direction. 

Not all milestones are honors or highlights. Often, a pivotal moment begins as an obstacle. Many of our most revered athletes, performers, and visionaries are those who persisted through mistakes, injuries, or even tragedies. For these inspirational heroes, failure is not the opposite of victory, but rather a vital ingredient.

Remember your own struggles in various endeavors. Recall what it took to overcome these setbacks, then apply similar tactics to your teaching challenges.

3. Monitoring Progress

Beyond milestone events, teachers get better through continuous review and reflection. Obviously, assessment scores and other achievement markers offer data for analysis. From year to year, though, students can change, along with one’s criteria for “success.” How else might teachers monitor their progress? 

A common strategy in both athletics and the fine arts is “film study.” Coaches, conductors, and choreographers regularly record practices and performances. When I directed school plays, the most frequent direction I gave student actors was “Bigger! Make gestures larger and longer. Speak lines more loudly. Be bold.” For every production, the turning point was when we recorded a run-through and watched it. Once my students saw and heard themselves, it finally clicked. They experienced an audience’s perspective and realized the impact of their actions. 

Teachers who want to improve will do the same. When was the last time you recorded yourself in the classroom? Use your phone to capture a few moments for self-evaluation. Study your teaching from your students’ perspectives. If video is too conspicuous, collect your conversations with a voice-recording app. All it takes is a few minutes of footage. At the end of the day, play back the recording as you tidy up your classroom or during your commute home. No one else needs to watch or listen—unless you want to partner with a colleague and help each other. 

4. Find a Mentor—and Be One to Others

Everyone needs assistance along the way. No doubt, you remember those teachers, coaches, or other mentors who steered and supported your various ventures. Who’s helping you become a better educator? 

Seek out mentors who can serve as a confidant, resource, and sounding board. They don’t have to teach your same grade level or subject; they may not even be in the same building; but they bring wisdom, encouragement, and examples of fruitful pedagogy.

You, too, should serve as a mentor to fellow teachers. Think about your hobbies or past triumphs and when you shared your expertise with others. Did you notice how you learned more as you taught someone else? Researchers call this the “protégé effect,” which is even more powerful through sustained, direct interactions

I believe that mentoring others also reminds you why you began in the first place. As you guide a relative novice, you revisit your past and reflect on your own growth. Helping the next generation nurtures personal rejuvenation. Of course, this isn’t the only benefit of teaching. But it’s one of the best. And like all the actions above, it’s how the best teachers get better.

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