10 questions to consider to level-up your teaching

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EngagED Learning Magazine Cover

This article is part of
Vol. 1, issue 1 (Fall 2021)
of EngagED Learning magazine.

by Matt Miller, Educator, Editor of DitchThatTextbook.com
Twitter: @jmattmiller 

In the heat of a school year, there’s a LOT on teachers’ to-do lists. 

Lesson planning. Grades. Emails. Meetings. 

Oh, and we have to teach, too!

But sometimes, it’s necessary to do some big-picture thinking . We can reflect on and plan for bigger goals, plans, and strategies than we can feasibly in the heat of a school year. If you’re ready to level up your teaching, here are some questions to consider. Maybe take them one at a time–or a few at a time–on a leisurely walk or while you’re relaxing. 

1. What do I want my education legacy to be?

« Wow, Matt, you’re going for the big stuff right away! » Yeah, I know … but this is a question I never have felt like I thought about enough. Or maybe it’s that I haven’t planned for it enough. 

When your education career is finished, how will people describe you — students, parents, co-workers, leadership, community? I’ve even written short mission statements about my goals as an educator to try to stay focused. Posting those in a place where you’ll see them can help. For me, that’s always been taped to my computer monitor.

2. What is my best lesson? What is my favorite lesson?

The answer may be the same to those questions. Or they may be different. For these questions, « lesson » means a day of instruction. However, if you prefer to look at an individual activity or even a multi-day lesson, that’s up to you.

Let’s reverse engineer it and see what we can learn. Think about why it’s effective. Why is it fun? Why do you (and/or the students) like it? Are there takeaways here that you can apply to other lessons? You might write those down somewhere (on a sticky note) where you’ll see them when you plan your lesson plan.

3. What’s a lesson I always struggle to teach?

You saw this one coming, didn’t you? If we’re going to analyze the good ones, we’re probably going to analyze the bad ones, too. But if you’re like me, when life is busy and there’s no time to reflect, these are the ones you run from as soon as you’re done teaching them.

Just sit with this lesson you struggle to teach. What don’t you like about it? Where do things break down between you and the students? What is it missing? Maybe there’s someone who teaches something similar that can provide some suggestions or ideas.

4. How are my relationships with my students?

For lots of great teachers I’ve met, this will be the easiest question in the group. My wife is one of those teachers. She chats with students all the time. They come to her with struggles and she helps them. If I’m being honest, that’s never been my strength. I’ve had to work at building relationships with my students.

Are there times and places in your day where you need to remind yourself to connect with students (or, like me, where you need encouragement to be brave and strike up conversations)? It’s not weird to plan these kinds of things because, as the famous maxim goes, failing to plan is planning to fail.

5. Could more collaboration help me teach better?

Here’s an idea I pose in my keynote speeches at schools and teacher conferences: When you don’t collaborate with other educators in some ways, you are limiting your students. That’s because they’re limited to only your brain–one brain’s worth of ideas and experiences. But we can draw upon the brilliance of others just by asking, « What do you think of this? » or « What could I change or add here? » When we do that, we are no longer the limiting factor to our students. We become the empowering factor! We empower students to see more, do more, and experience more because they’re exposed to the ideas of many people instead of just one.

Could you empower your students to experience more by collaborating? Who could you collaborate with? Where are forums online–or in person–where you could bounce ideas off others?

6. How do I ensure all students have a voice?

It’s easy to hear from the students that raise their hands, come to you with questions, and are passionate about what you teach. But what about the quiet students? The ones who don’t surge to the front of your attention? If we don’t make an intentional effort to hear from everyone, we’re probably missing someone.

There are different ways for students to have a voice, too. It can be their spoken voice, teacher communication or student-to-student communication. It can be giving students choices in content or how class is run. It can also be helping students to take a stand and make changes they hope to see in school or in the world.

7. How do I stay relevant?

This is a constant struggle for any well-intentioned teacher. We want to make sure we’re relevant to our students’ lives, giving examples and making connections that matter to them. But we also want to be relevant to the real world, knowing where the world and the workforce is going and preparing students for it.

How do you stay connected with what students are interested in? With what they need? How do you keep a finger on the pulse of what’s going on outside the walls of the school? The good news: you don’t need to be a guru or an expert to be better in this arena. 

8. If my students didn’t have to be there, would I be teaching in an empty room?

I read this question eight years ago in Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess and it has stuck with me ever since. When learning is a sensory experience that students look forward to, everything changes. Even if we can’t make class something magical every day, we can aspire to make it something students look forward to. If we set that as the bar and try to reach it every day, we’ll be stretched in that direction.

Are there new places where you can make learning enjoyable? Memorable? Fun?

9. What do I want to keep from remote learning?

When teachers switched to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, they were forced to try new practices and learn new strategies. It was a struggle and frustrating at times, but it ended up being an incredible learning experience. Although many have been reminded of how much they love their face-to-face classes, they learned some things that can improve their practice.

What were the parts of remote learning that worked? What approach had surprising, unexpected success? What can be incorporated into your teaching going forward?

10. Where could I stand to take a risk?

I’ve heard it said that if you haven’t failed recently, maybe you aren’t stretching yourself enough or taking enough risks. Those types of statements tend to oversimplify sometimes, but maybe there’s a bit of truth to them. After several years of teaching high school Spanish the textbook way–textbooks, worksheets, workbooks–I wasn’t getting the results I wanted. I took a risk and started teaching Spanish conversationally with less reliance on the textbooks. The road was bumpy and there were failures, but I’ll never look back as an educator.

Is it time for you to take a chance on something where you’re not sure how it’ll go–for the sake of your students?

After teaching Spanish in a small high school for several years, Matt Miller started his blog, “Ditch That Textbook,” to provide the kind of help he’d received so generously from others. 

Find 10 more questions in the complete article available online: Miller, M. (June 3, 2021). 20 teacher questions to ask over the summer. Retrieved on https://ditchthattextbook.com/teacher-questions/

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