In honor of Teacher Appreciation week in May, I wanted to share with you a few secrets I’ve learned throughout my life from the best teachers I know – whether it be teachers I had as a student, or co-teachers I’ve worked alongside over the years. I am referring to them as “secrets” because these are 4 things I never explicitly learned in the classes of my teacher certification program or from a teacher mentor advising me. These 4 secrets are things I learned from observing the teachers in my life, and watching what they did. I took these 4 secrets and modeled them in my own classroom, and WOW – how they transformed how I teach! I am excited to share them with you today!
Secret #1: Use every minute of class.
Dr. Jeff Marshall was by far the best teacher I had in college. Not only that, he ended up being my advisor during my curriculum and instruction graduate program, so I was able to sit under his teaching for several years, and I am forever grateful!
Dr. Marshall led by example. His entire class period was run exactly how he encouraged us to run classes with our own students – including using every minute of the class period. From the start of class until the last possible second we were learning. Everything he did was with intention – whether it be modeling how to use inquiry-based instruction, facilitating discussions, or asking us deep questions to stretch our thinking. Because every minute of class was so purposeful and so impactful, I never wanted to miss a minute going to the bathroom, or scanning my cell phone for new text messages.
Now here is why I see this as a secret – because he used every minute of class so intentionally, he rarely had to deal with classroom management. He didn’t have to manage our distractions because he held our attention every minute of class. I loved his class and I wanted to be present every moment.
I found this same concept to translate with my high school students the exact same. If I ensured that every moment of my class period was filled – and filled with MEANINGFUL learning experiences – my students wouldn’t WANT to check their phones, or go to the bathroom, or talk about where to eat before prom with their neighbors. And it truly worked – I found that I didn’t have to manage nearly as many classroom distractions when I made sure to engage students EVERY minute of my class period.
Secret #2: You can do a WHOLE lot with a WHOLE little.
This next secret comes from one of my favorite coworkers who also served as my department chair – Dan Harrington. We taught together at a private Christian school and had a VERY limited (and by limited I mean nonexistent) science department budget. Coming from a LARGE public school with every resource under the sun PLUS a $250 gift card each year to use on consumable resources in my classroom, I was a little overwhelmed by how little I was expected to work with at my new job. But Mr. Harrington really showed me how you can do a whole lot with a whole little.
What do I mean by that? Well, the lack of resources really forced me to be creative. A lot of the traditional labs I normally did with my students weren’t possible in my once-a-computer-lab classroom with no running water or safety equipment. I had to find new ways of teaching my students the same skills and content – and I came up with some of my BEST ideas and resources because of this.
Not only that, I had a lot of fun developing “kitchen chemistry” type activities, like one of my favorites – Sweet Tea Reaction Rate lab. I found that buying lab resources from my grocery store or Walmart was a lot cheaper than ordering and paying for chemicals out of my pocket, so I created labs with household products. I also replaced labs I didn’t have the resources for with simulations, like my Enzyme Lab in my biology class, and found that these replacements were actually BETTER at helping my students learn than the traditional labs I was used to doing. Sometimes the best ideas come when we are forced to think outside the box, and I am grateful for how Mr. Harrington modeled that for me and showed me how much I could do when provided very little. That concept is central to all of the resources I create now, because I know what it is like to be a teacher with very little!
Secret #3: Prioritize students and parents.
Now this may seem obvious and not like a “secret”, but hear my out. A lot of people SAY that you need to prioritize students and parents, but they don’t actually do it. Jamie Whitlock was only a year ahead of me in her teaching career (I started at the school we taught in together the year after her) but she was light years ahead of me in wisdom. I have never seen another teacher model prioritizing students AND their parents like Jamie did.
I don’t know if it was because teaching was her 2nd career and she was a parent, or if it was just innate gifts that she had, but Mrs. Whitlock truly cared for her students as a whole person. This level of care extended to also caring for their parents/guardians.
I love high school students. It is a HUGE part of why I became a high school teacher. But I am going to be honest – I don’t love parents. I have a MUCH greater perspective on parents now that I am one, but I still don’t enjoy interacting with parents. Because of this, it was even more extraordinary to see how Jamie did that. She truly valued the parents/guardians as much as she did the students. She saw what a difference it made to interact with them regularly like she did with her students, and because of it, entire families were impacted by her care and attention.
Because of this, I committed to contacting parents weekly through a mass communication system, as well as contacting parents individually regularly – meaning more than just when things were going poorly. Here’s the real secret: I started to see parents as a resource I could utilize to help reach students rather than an obstacle, and it transformed my teaching practice. You can read more about my parent communication strategy here!
Secret #4: Make labs FUN!
Again, this is another one that may not feel like a “secret”, but stick with me. I had great lab experiences from high school because I had great science teachers – particularly my chemistry teacher, Zach Matson. I was lucky enough to have Mr. Matson for both Chemistry 1 and AP Chem, so I had two years to watch him model this for me. I always loved Mr. Matson’s dry sense of humor and ability to stay calm no matter what. Even when we were all panicking during a combustion lab or completely messing up a titration, he stayed patient and calm with us. I thought, “I want to be like this when I am a teacher!”
Then I actually became one, and realized how stressful lab days can actually be. I wanted to make them fun for my students, but I found that in doing so, they were becoming NOT fun for me and I actually dreaded lab days. One winter break when I was home and visiting my old high school, I got to visit Mr. Matson and I asked him about how he stayed so calm despite all the craziness of lab day. He said, “Deery (my maiden name), the lab isn’t about getting it right and getting perfect data, it’s about learning. You learn just as much from messing up as you do from getting it right.”
One reason I was always so stressed with my students was because I didn’t want the lab to flop and us not learn what we were supposed to learn from it! But after talking to Mr. Matson I realized that the WHOLE lab was an opportunity for my students to learn. This took so much pressure off, and labs started to feel more fun! Not only that, I put into practice a few other lab strategies to make lab days stress-free so that I could enjoy them as much as my students did. I’ll teach a free training on this, so if interested, you can learn more about it here!
I am forever grateful for these teachers who have impacted my life – and there are so many more I could have included! But I specifically chose these four teachers because of the four secrets I learned from watching them in their own classrooms. These secrets were not taught explicitly, but were modeled by how they did their jobs. In turn, I have implemented these into my own classroom and seen how they have transformed my practice. I am so thankful for each and every one of them! I wish Teacher Appreciation week was EVERY week, because teachers SO DESERVE to be appreciated!!
What have you learned from influential teachers in your life that has changed how you teach in your own classroom? Let’s celebrate them for Teacher Appreciation week! Shoot me an email so I can hear about them here!