Teaching Strategies

Student-Centered Teaching in a Traditional School

Teaching in a school that doesn’t align with your educational philosophy can be tough, but there are ways to make it work.

June 9, 2023
Johner Images / Alamy

Many years ago, I interviewed to teach math at a highly rated, prestigious school. While on a tour, I commented on how I noticed the desks were in front-facing arranged rows in almost all of the classrooms. The administrator responded, “We are a traditional school. Parents expect a traditional education because that is what they had.” While I appreciated her honest answer, I was quite lucky that I had another offer because I would have struggled to fit in at this “traditional” school.

But this is not every teacher’s reality. For many different reasons, we might find ourselves teaching in a school that is not a fit with our educational philosophies. Perhaps you love every other aspect of your school, but your style doesn’t quite look like your colleagues’ approach. Consider the following tips on how to work with traditional school characteristics such as desk arrangement, assessment types, teaching style, and how to communicate your philosophies to stakeholders.

4 Ways to Do Student-Centered Teaching in a Traditional School

1. Learn the art of furniture rearrangement. As a teacher who shares classrooms with other teachers, I know that negotiating furniture arrangements can be difficult.

I wanted my middle school students to sit in groups for collaborative learning; however, I often shared the classroom with a high school calculus teacher who wanted desks in rows facing the board. I asked my colleague if he was OK with my placing color-coded stickers on the desks to facilitate a quick rearrangement into groups.

After just a few days, my students were well trained in the art of speedy furniture rearrangement. Yes, I lost a few minutes of class time getting the desks arranged, but it was well worth it to promote a collaborative class environment.

2. Make the best of standardized assessments. Some schools will require district-wide or department-wide common assessments. These assessments are helpful in collecting data as a benchmark and comparison of student progress across several classes. If you are a student-centered educator, this standardized style of assessment may not be in alignment with your philosophies—but, regardless, it’s still required.

As a secondary teacher, I teach an optional SAT/ACT test prep class in the summer for high school students. Because these are high school students, I am honest about my opinions about prepping them for a standardized test. I tell them frankly that they must know the tricks to ace this test because it’s currently necessary for many colleges’ admissions. They seem to accept this reality and do their best to learn how to approach this type of test.

If you teach middle school students, you can be open with those students as well. Honestly share with the students the benefits of standardized testing. If you are using project-based assessments in your class, explain how the two types of assessments compare. “In the pizza shop activity last week, you demonstrated how to find the circumference and area of circles. In next week’s benchmark test, you will also find the circumference and area of circles, but it will be asked in a different way.”

In the blog Maneuvering the Middle, Noelle Pickering writes, “By thoroughly reviewing the content, students gain confidence in what they are able to do. They feel more familiar, are able to ask questions, and in [sic] emotionally feel more prepared for the exam.”

Then, there is a huge topic of traditional grades—I have also written about student-centered grading practices in a traditional grades school.

3. Embrace inquiry along with student-centered teaching and learning. While direct-lecture-style teaching has its place at times, this is not the typical approach for student-centered classrooms. (To learn more about what a student-centered classroom looks like, listen to Mastery Portfolio’s podcast Learner-Centered Spaces.)

If you find yourself in a school where inquiry learning is not common, find like-minded teachers. Collaborate with your school’s instructional coach and/or curriculum coordinator on how to effectively teach and assess the required standards with a student-centered inquiry approach.

Using the aforementioned circle example, the standard “determine the circumference and area of circles” (taken from seventh-grade math Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills [TEKS]) can be met in a myriad of ways—projects, art activities, group work, stations… the list goes on.

4. Effectively communicate your strategies to dubious administrators, parents, and colleagues. It will be quite obvious to everyone in your hallway if your class is out of their seats and talking in a kid-level voice all at once, and the classroom next door is quietly working on a worksheet or taking notes. If an administrator or colleague questions why your class is “noisy” or “active,”invite them to have a conversation about the benefits of student-centered learning. Share resources and welcome colleagues to visit your class.

If a parent is questioning the approach, communicate often by sharing the exciting activities that students are engaging in through a newsletter, a school-approved photo gallery, or family “homework” in the form of a fun logic problem or shared reading. Still, it may be hard to convince some parents that a student-centered approach is beneficial for student learning. However, most parents will change their minds when their child regularly comes home excited about what they did in class that day.

There is no such thing as a perfect school. But we as educators can make the best of the situation by working with what we have to make teaching and learning the best it can be for our students.

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