What are your fundamentals of teaching? I asked myself this daunting question when I took over a college course on the foundations of education. The syllabus required that I address the history of our current school system, debates over reform, standards and testing, teacher preparation, and more.
I also wanted to highlight for my students the essential ingredients that had enabled me to have success in my teaching. For that, I needed a list.
I’m a compulsive lister. From a running tally of favorite writers to the menu of school-approved lunches on my fridge door, lists populate every corner of my life. A list is many things: memory device, record of ideas generated, dynamic display of knowledge.
A list is starting place and end product, often the first task when wading into a complex issue, and often the last task when development is done and implementation begins. I think of lists as both ground floor and roof.
To list my fundamentals of teaching, I started by recalling core aspects of my elementary school classrooms. I added what I’ve learned while teaching higher education. I noted what I admire in my three sons’ teachers and my colleagues. I researched. I asked a colleague who was teaching another section of the course to make her own list, and we met over coffee to deliberate.
Some items, like social justice and family engagement, fell off the list and landed in a file of beliefs and ideals. Others, like growth mindset and a culture of error, were combined. When I was done, my list contained 12 points—the dozen elements I believe are necessary for my teaching success.
My Teaching Fundamentals
- Content knowledge: Know the material. If it’s new, I study—a lot—before I teach.
- Intentionality and preparation: My colleague brought “intentionality” to the table. I brought “preparation.” Know the core thing you wish to teach each lesson, and prepare exhaustively to teach it.
- Differentiation of instruction: Carol Tomlinson has it right—use differentiated lessons and assessments to target various learning styles.
- Flexibility: Assess, formally and informally, as you teach, and adjust when your plan isn’t working.
- Classroom management: Design your classroom system—organization, routine, ebb and flow of movement—carefully, so your class stays productive, avoids chaos, and remains ready for the unexpected.
- Growth mindset and a culture of error: I love Carol Dweck’s TED talk on teaching students that they can learn, as well as Peter Johnston’s work on dynamic theory and how we can signal to students that learning involves taking risks and making mistakes.
- High expectations: Something I’m constantly working on is how to convey—through word choice, tone, gestures, and facial expressions—my high expectations of students... and how to cope when they still don’t learn.
- A community of mutual respect and safety: Students can’t learn if they don’t feel safe.
- A student-centered, student-created environment: Create a space where students have agency in planning, creating, and evaluating. It’s more than just walls covered in student work.
- Real life: I used to call this “real-world connections.” But my education students have taught me that being in the classroom is, simply, living. Teachers are real people, students are real people, and content and conversation originate from and return to the world outside school.
- Professional development and constructive teacher collaboration: Always be learning, from conferences, media, research studies, and, perhaps most importantly, colleagues.
- Joy: Joy is common to all classrooms and teachers I most admire and celebrate.
The list has continued to evolve since that first go-round, changing a little each semester with new terms or arrangements. And my students always take to it. As they read, research, discuss, and observe pre-kindergarten though grade 12 classrooms wearing their teacher-candidate hats, they seek evidence of each fundamental.
But the list continues to be essential for me as well. It reminds me of the complexity of teaching, but also serves as a tool to cut through that complexity. It guides my preparation as a teacher of teachers, as I am tasked to exhibit the fundamentals while exploring them with my class.
I even hold the list in my mind when I meet with my sons’ teachers, talk with other parents, and discuss with my husband our children and their development. My list represents my core beliefs about what children deserve as they learn and grow.
What might you include on your list of fundamentals? Does it depend on your school context and culture? Your own strengths as a teacher? Your values as a citizen? Consider setting a number of points, like 12, and sticking to it. See how creatively you can combine things or peel them apart. Scrutinize which items are truly fundamental and which are not. (I wrestled with “timely technology” for a while.)
Discuss your list with colleagues, design a professional development task, and ask your students for feedback. Listing is a useful exercise that can open up new pathways for discussion, collaboration, and profound thinking about our profession.