Professional Learning

An Intentional Approach to Improving Your Teaching Practice

By selecting one area for growth, collecting resources, and connecting with others, teachers can make meaningful improvements in the classroom.

August 7, 2023
SeventyFour Images / Alamy

In recent years, I’ve tried to utilize summer vacation to better my teaching in an intentional way: I’ve worked to reflect and identify a single area for growth to focus my practice, pursue potential ideas and resources related to that area, and adapt the materials that I find according to what I know about my own classroom and teaching style.

Last summer, my focus was improving the level of inquiry in my classroom. I describe my process below, which transfers to any area or topic on which you might hope to focus your own professional learning.

Identifying a Single Area for Growth 

Change is often most effective when its scope is small, at least to start. Last year, I began my reflection process by looking through student feedback, including the results of a final survey I gave students to rank their experience of our classroom community according to our stated core beliefs. Students scored curiosity below all other values—which became a strong motivator for me to find a better system for fostering inquiry.

It’s important to make note of additional areas for improvement that become clear through reflection. One tool I use for doing so is FutureMe, which allows me to write emails to my future self. 

Yet less is more when it comes to transforming your teaching practice, so I first limit my focus to one topic—one way that I want to be better for my students, with their feedback in mind. 

Exploring and Collecting Resources 

I have three priorities when gathering resources related to my chosen area of practice: staying aligned with my identified area for growth; looking for a system, not just a mindset; and connecting with other teachers. 

For me, these priorities required that I narrow my exploration of content to material directly related to helping students get better at questioning. For every potential resource, I held myself accountable to my original question: Will this help my students get better at inquiry? If yes, I dove in. If not, I moved on. 

Next, I considered whether the resource offered a tangible system I could bring into my classroom. If I could not picture what the resource would look like in action, I found that it was not the best use of my time. There is much theory in the world of education, but actionable content was, for me, most applicable and needed.

Finally, I reached out to my network of fellow teachers to get support. Whether a teaching team or an online community, combating the silo of the classroom through connection, even through #TeacherTwitter, can galvanize new ideas. 

The resource I found most helpful was the TQE method from Marisa Thompson, which scaffolds students’ thoughts, questions, and epiphanies. I reached out to Marisa to see if she would be willing to talk me through what her system looked like in practice, and she graciously offered to connect—demonstrating the power of community work, which is the center of education.

Making New Strategies Authentic to Your Classroom

Once you’ve found the resources you want, it’s important to adapt them to your own teaching style and context.

Since our classroom already leans on an octopus analogy, I came up with an eight-step process for students, “Read Like an Octopus,” that embedded the TQE method not just mechanically but thematically. 

I planned a day for introducing the system and additional days that extended the system to other areas of our work, such as peer review. Instead of relying on the standard peer feedback tool I had used in prior years, I invited students’ thoughts, questions, and epiphanies into each interaction, which proved to be a sustainable structure throughout the year. 

Committing to make a resource meaningful within your classroom means adapting it to fit the context of your community, then prioritizing it throughout the year. The system you found soon becomes a system that belongs—and that’s when it truly impacts students. 

Not Just a ‘Summer’ Strategy

Summer vacation is vacation, so there’s nothing wrong with waiting until you’re back at work to go through this process. In fact, engaging in this process during the school year allows you to reflect and respond to your current classroom—with the potential of making the adjustments even more authentic. 

Identify a time frame to go through this process that works for you and balances the many other responsibilities that you carry during the school year. You might choose to reflect on your first unit assessment with the goal of researching and adapting a system to utilize later in the course—say, in the second semester. If you choose to do so during the academic year, consider how you can leverage colleague support to further deepen your research and implementation. 

Why This Matters

As teachers, we all want to be better for our students—but the path to better is often foggy or overwhelming. Sometimes, it’s both. 

I find clarity by narrowing my focus and specifying “better.” And my students see the results. This year, I asked my students the same survey question about curiosity, and in all of my classes, they said that our work on curiosity was the most significant improvement between last year’s courses and this year’s.

Intentional steps, no matter how small, are how we arrive at the real impact we want to make as teachers. That is the work, and the work matters—one step, or system, at a time.

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