Personal Learning Network

What I Learned From Teachers Who Inspired Me

Inspired by his colleagues, one teacher learned to differentiate instruction, foster a flexible learning environment, avoid harshly penalizing failure, and encourage problem solving and innovation.

April 17, 2015
Hands forming a heart with the sun in the middle

There is no denying that public and non-public schools are different. Yet my interactions with public school teachers have helped shape me into the private school teacher I am today. I encourage you to reach out not just to teachers beyond your own school, but also beyond your type of school. Following are my experiences, which have shown me that best practices have a place in every classroom.

1. Differentiate Instruction

As a new teacher, I expected that each student learns the same way, mostly by reviewing the same assigned readings and class notes -- and I did a poor job of differentiating instruction to cater to an individual's unique learning style. Two summers ago, all of that changed when I spoke with Rick Wormeli, one of America’s first National Board Certified teachers. He told me, "I might teach the way that's uncomfortable for me, but that's fine. My success comes from my students' success." To foster greater success, I now strive to teach my students as individuals, not as a collective, and at times that calls for teaching and treating different students differently. As Wormeli also told me, "Fair isn't always equal," and I want to do what is developmentally appropriate not just for the ages and classes I teach, but also for each unique charge. I don't always succeed, but I strive to embrace differentiated instruction. I also plan to use time this summer to work on improving, and I will keep Wormeli's wisdom closely in mind.

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2. Foster a Flexible Learning Environment

Along those lines, I also owe equal gratitude to Mark Barnes, a celebrated teacher and education author, for helping me rethink my classroom management skills -- or lack thereof. Up until a few years ago, I made ill use of classroom time by obsessively checking that students paid attention and made appropriate use of the laptop. I also expected that each student progress at the same pace, with the same resources. This bred lack of interest, mistrust, and animosity, but things improved after I spoke with Barnes. "I've got kids in bean bag chairs, and they're reading books," he told me. "I've got kids at tables, and they're talking to each other, and kids on their cell phones doing something, using a tool, and then kids on computers. It looks like it's crazy, but really it's just kids engaged." My classroom still doesn’t look like Barnes', but thanks in large part to him, I allow students agency over how they use classroom time, and what sources they use to master concepts and complete work. Still, I also plan to work on further improving my management.

3. Don't Harshly Penalize Failure

Until speaking with Barnes and Wormeli, I rarely allowed students to retake assessments or submit late work for credit. After a certain point, this rigid policy proved effective in just one way -- helping struggling students sense the futility in trying to recover. Teachers keep students "incompetent" by failing them for not submitting work on time or not completing work successfully, Wormeli told me. He asked, "Is that really the legacy I want to carry forward? Incompetence, but being able to tell all my colleagues in the larger society, 'Oh, I caught him. He couldn't get past me with missing a deadline, let me tell you.' Or is it, 'Hey, you screwed up, child. Let me walk side by side with you and develop the competence and the wisdom that comes from doing something a second and third time around, where you'll get your act together.' Both of those are greater gifts, in the long run, than simply labeling a child for a failed deadline." Following that advice, if a student approaches me within two weeks of receiving a disappointing grade, in most cases he can retake a similar assessment for full or partial credit. After all, the end goal is mastery, and I'm not nearly as concerned about when an individual masters a concept -- just that it is in fact mastered.

4. Encourage Problem Solving and Innovation

I've also drawn inspiration from Simon Hauger, a math teacher who in the 1990s grew interested in doing more to connect students with their passions and creative energies. A few years ago, he co-founded The WorkShop School, a part of the Philadelphia School District, which fully embraces project-based learning to help students learn about and solve real-world problems.

LIFTOFF TO LEARNING from Shorts: Simon Hauger and The Sustainability Workshop from PopTech on Vimeo.

"We need to be cranking out innovators, problem solvers, and creative thinkers, people that aren't afraid to take risks, people that don't want to just regurgitate answers, and people that are finding their passions in life," Hauger told me. "When you're working in an area that you're passionate about, you do your best work." I have Hauger to thank for reminding me to encourage my students to take risks and to question not only what they learn, but also how their curiosity and passions can help make the world a better place. Nevertheless, I need to do a better job of providing problem-based teaching, and I'm currently reworking several lesson plans to reflect those efforts.

What have you learned from sharing your experience with different types of teachers at different types of schools? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.