Playing to Our Strengths: Helping Teachers Hone Their Practice

Guest post by Jethro Jones

I had someone ask me the other day, “What does effective teaching look like to you? What do you look for when you walk into a classroom?” I thought this was a really interesting question that I have not had to answer in awhile, but I think it is important to share how my thoughts about this have changed over time.

A few years ago, I thought explicit instruction, à la Anita Archer, was the best way to do it. I quickly learned that putting all teachers and students in that same box makes it really easy to standardize everything, so everyone is getting the exact same thing in the same way. However, this method took away many of the special attributes that students loved about different teachers and held some classrooms back from meaningful engagement and authentic learning.

Then, as I learned more about Robert Marzano’s and Charlotte Danielson’s approaches, I thought those were better. Both of those approaches allow for more flexibility in how teachers teach, but even Marzano’s and Danielson’s ideas have some limitations; the description for “Distinguished,” or “Innovating,” is not all-emcompassing—nor was it ever intended to be, I believe. A good administrator can find ways to help most any teacher grow, but the tools in these two approaches put more focus on the negative aspects, rather than helping teachers get even better in areas where they are already exceptional. As a side note, one thing that Marzano states clearly is that innovating is really about creating new strategies for what a teacher is seeing in her class, rather than clearly defining what innovating means, which leaves a lot of room for discussion (in a good way).

After observing teachers for many years and coaching them, I now realize that good teaching looks different for each teacher. There are some teachers who are superb lecturers who can engage students for entire class periods with their lectures; there are teachers who are outstanding at small-group station rotation and find ways to facilitate learning for all students in small-group settings; and I’ve even seen other teachers who are masters at leading students in whole-group discussions by asking questions that promote critical thinking.

Whatever a teacher’s style, she has to work to be the best she possibly can be. In other words, teachers should teach in their areas of strength and be really strong in those areas. Our role as school leaders is to support our teachers in ways that encourage them to hone their craft.

Trying to get teachers to change how they teach is a futile effort. They have to want to improve themselves. It is far easier to help teachers get better in an area where they are already successful than to try to get them to conform to a standard that doesn’t take their personality into account.

Take for example Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. Carlin is a master at lecturing. Each of his podcasts is a four-hour lecture that is totally engaging; it is awesome to listen to him speak. I wouldn’t want him to change his approach. However, for me, lecturing is not a strength, which is why I don’t often do a single-speaker podcast. My podcast contains interviews, because I’m good at asking questions.

Every teacher has a personal style of teaching unique to them, and we should be celebrating their talents rather than trying to force their abilities into our preferred way of practice. Instead of focusing on changing our teachers, let’s put our energy into helping them hone their craft in order to make their practice even more effective.

How can school leaders help teachers play to their strengths and improve their practice?

Jethro Jones is the principal at Tanana Middle School in Fairbanks, AK. He is the host of Transformative Principal, a podcast featuring interviews with principals, leaders, and influencers who help improve K–12 education throughout the world. He was a 2017 Digital Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @jethrojones.

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