Best Practices

Here are some strategies and suggestions that I have used in my own practice, and some that I have gleaned from other educators to pass on to you. Feel free to use any strategy you think will help you in your own classroom, and send me an email with a suggestion of your own for the benefit of all. Teachers teaching teachers! That’s one of the best practices of all!


5 Great Teachers on What Makes a Great Teacher. NPR presents a round table discussion from some of the best educators in the country on what makes a teacher great.




What Makes a Great Teacher? Chris Lehman Answers the Question

When I established this blog, my intention was to recognize and celebrate great teachers. There are many loyal readers of this blog who are, I am sure, interested in the stories about these talented and gifted educators. But I am aware that, more than anything, classroom teachers want to know how they themselves can improve their practice, and so today I would like to share with you an article that I stumbled across on the internet yesterday. The article was written by Chris Lehmann, the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. He wrote this article a few years ago when he was a teacher at Beacon School, a progressive public high school in Manhattan. Here is Lehmann’s answer to the question What makes a great teacher?

lehman_chris_promopic[1]What Makes a Great Teacher?
by Chris Lehmann

What makes a great teacher? Sort of an important question, right? I’ve seen teachers who worked for hours on their lessons, who were scholars in the field fail miserably, and I’ve seen teachers who, if you give them five minutes before they walked in to glance over their material, they could run a class for an hour on any topic under the sun. In the end, what makes a great teacher? I wish I had a magic eight-ball that allowed me to figure this one out, but it’s something I’ve really given a lot of thought to… and I think what follows are at least some interesting ways to think about the profession. So what makes a great teacher?

1) Passion for teaching. This can manifest itself so many ways. I’m the “jump around the room” kind of teacher, and sure, that comes from a lot of passion, but some of the best teachers I’ve known have had a passion that students had to be quiet to catch onto.
2) Love of kids. You laugh, but it’s true! I’ve seen people come in and talk about teaching and talk about how much they love their subject and know about their subject, but they never mention the kids. Worse, we had an interview once where the teacher clearly knew his stuff, but he basically admitted that his classroom management style was fear and intimidation. Not who I want teaching kids I care about.
3) Love of their subject. Again… pretty important. I spent four years dropping by Mike Thayer’s classroom because to watch him explain physics or calculus was, for me, to understand how you could have a passion for something that was always a mystery for me. Great teachers not only love their subject, but they love to share that joy with students.
4) Understanding of the role of a school in a child’s life. High school is more than the sum of the classes the kids take. It’s a time to grow, explore, try on identities, find joys that might just last a lifetime. Sometimes the best teaching we do happens on basketball courts, in the halls after a class, at a local coffee shop or in a drama studio. The best teachers know that they are teachers for much more than the time they are in the physical classroom.
5) A willingness to change. This one gets overlooked sometimes, I think. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. We talk about how schools should be transformative for kids, but I think they can be just as transformative for teachers. If you expect kids to be changed by their interaction with you, it’s got to be a two-way street.
6) A work ethic that doesn’t quit. It’s a hard, draining job that will demand all that you can give sometimes. You’ve got to be able to have some balance in your life, but there are very few teachers who can be effective by cramming everything they need to do into the hours allocated by the average teacher’s contract. (And for the record, the overwhelming majority of the teachers I’ve met put in hours well above and beyond the contract.)
7) A willingness to reflect. You’ve got to be able to ask why things went the way they did… both on the good and the bad days. And you have to be able to admit when the reasons it went bad were because of what you did, not what the students did. (Equally important is the understanding that often things go right because of what the kids brought to the table, not because your lesson plan should be bronzed.) Teaching requires a willingness to cast a critical eye on your practice, your pedagogy and your self. And it can be brutal.
8) Organization. My personal Achilles heel, and one of the things I’m always working to improve. My Palm Pilot helped, really. But I hate paperwork and official looking documents, and it kills me. I am amazed at the people like Dale Lally who seem to get his papers handed back before the kids hand them in or seems to be able to put his hands on every unit he’s ever taught within a moment’s notice. Kids know what to expect, they know he’s going to be organized and have a structure to his class… and he’s still creative and spontaneous and interesting. I can only imagine how much better of a teacher I’d be if the structure of everything I did was just a little more organized.
9) Understanding that being a “great teacher” is a constant struggle to always improve. I think I’ve had some moments of great teaching in my career, but I also still see all the holes in my teaching — sadly, often times mirroring holes in my self — and I still want to get better… because I think I’ve got a long way to go to be a great teacher every day. And even if I get better at everything I see as weaknesses now, I can only imagine what new challenges will face me on that day.
10) Enough ego to survive the hard days. The tough days will leave you curled up under a desk, convinced that you can’t teach or the world is too hard for these kids or the work is too much or whatever the problem was that day… you have to have enough sense of self to survive those days.
11) Enough humility to remember it’s not about you. It’s about the kids. If your ego rules your classroom, if the class turns into “me vs. them” or if you can’t understand that a sixteen year old might be able to tell you something you don’t know, then don’t teach. Or at least, don’t teach high school.
12) A willingness to work collaboratively. Sure, there are some great teachers who close the door to their classroom and do what they want, but I think you send a strange message to the kids that way sometimes. Teachers are part of a school community, and even where that community can be flawed (and lots of schools are), a great teacher should be willing to work to make the community a better place.

My_2009_Photo[1]The Rebound Effect: Positivity Generates Positivity

by Terry Lee Marzell

Every chalkboard champion knows that positivity in the classroom generates positivity in return. Here’s a tangible example of that which I learned one year, quite by accident.

You know how at the beginning of every year we are asked to complete a form that lists our goals for the year? Well, one year I decided that my goal was to make a sincere effort to be better at praising my students. I wanted to create a more positive relationship with my kids and a more congenial classroom environment. In addition, my principal was impressing upon the staff the need to foster better communication with parents. I decided I would combine the two goals, and so, on my form, I wrote that each month I would write six letters to parents praising their child. As a junior high school teacher with six classes of 42 students each, I reasoned that it shouldn’t be difficult to find one kid from each class each month that I could say something good about.

And so for the entire year, at the end of every month, I selected my six students and wrote each one a praise letter on decorative stationery. I read each letter aloud to the student before I put it in the envelope and sealed it, and then I gave it to the kid to take home to their parents. I shared the notes with the students to lower their anxiety level—a letter from the teacher is rarely good news—and to ensure that the note would really get delivered. But I could just as easily have put some postage on the letters and sent them through the U.S. mail.

The response I received from the parents was overwhelming. Many of the parents wrote notes back to me, expressing messages about how much they appreciated receiving praise about their child, how much their child enjoyed my class, or how pleased they were that I was their child’s teacher. Imagine my surprise when I realised that I was receiving praise letters like the ones that I was sending! I saved these notes, partly because they were so uplifting, and partly as proof that I had met the goals I had set for myself for the year. In May, I presented them to my principal at my annual evaluation conference. My principal suggested I photocopy the notes and take them to the District Office to be placed in my personnel file there, so I did.

And here is how those letters further rebounded positivity back to me. A couple of years later I applied for a transfer to a new school that was opening up in my district. I was thrilled when I was selected for the position. Imagine my surprise when, later, my new principal told me that he had read those letters in my personnel file, and it was partly because of them that he decided to hire me!

Try this strategy. It could create a rebound of positivity for you, too!


My_2009_Photo[1]Be the Chalkboard Champion of Your Own Book!

by Terry Lee Marzell

When I became a teacher 32 years ago, I started keeping a collection of items that marked my activities and successes in the classroom. I kept the sweet little notes from students and the praise letters from their parents, the thank you cards from colleagues and the district office for the extra services I performed, photographs of special projects or activities we worked on, the newspaper clippings about the programs I initiated, the evaluation forms I was especially proud of, and any awards I received.

I just kept these things in a file folder until, a few years later, when I became a scrapbooking enthusiast, I decided to transfer them all to a simple scrapbook. I arranged the items in chronological order, mounted some of them on school-themed scrapbook paper, and placed them in clear plastic page protectors. I also combed through old school yearbooks to photocopy published pictures of me at work in the classroom, on field trips with the kids, or chaperoning various school events. When the scrapbook was completed, I realized that what lay before me was a record of many classroom successes and an archive of my professional achievements.

Personally, I found my book to be a great source of solace during those periods of my career when I questioned whether or not I had made a serious vocational error! Also, I think it will make a nice table display when I eventually retire. But seriously, a book like this can become a valuable tool whenever you need to make a list of your accomplishments; if you’re looking for a new job or applying for that summer institute, for instance. Think about creating one for yourself. You can be the chalkboard champion of your own book!


My_2009_Photo[1]Creating a Memory Book of Your Class

by Terry Lee Marzell

At my school, every teacher on staff has a Homeroom class. Our school is built for 4,000 students, and the concern is that with a student population that large, a kid could get lost in the shuffle. In Homeroom, the teacher strives to connect with each individual student, fosters team-building among the students in the group, and nurtures those relationships from the first day of their freshman year until the day they graduate. Today, I am going to share with you a strategy I use with my own Homeroom class. It’s a scrapbooking idea, and if you like it, you can adapt it to fit your own class needs, whatever they may be.

For this memory book, you will need a photo album or a large three-ring binder, 8 1/2″ by 11″ scrapbook pages, some page protectors, and some colored papers. I recommend you use acid-free pages and papers available at your local Michael’s or scrapbooking store. You could also invest in at least one acid-free journaling pen. If you’re into decorating stickers and such, you can buy some ready-made, but personally I prefer a rather simpler-looking page.

At the beginning of each year I ask a colleague to take a photograph of me and my class, and then I print a copy of the roster from the attendance program. These items go into the class memory book. Throughout the year, I add photos of students engaged in our weekly Homeroom activities. If the lesson calls for a written response, I collect a few representative examples and place them in the scrapbook, too. Also, if attend their extra-curricular activities, I take pictures and include those, too. I try to make sure that there is a visual record of some kind of each and every student in the group. At least once a year, I invite the students to create their own personal page to add to the scrapbook.

Since we have the same Homeroom group for all four years they attend high school, I am able to add to the scrapbook every year until their graduation. The memory book becomes a sort of yearbook of just this one class, and it shows how they have physically and socially grown over their high school years. At the end of their senior year, I offer to make color photocopies of the pages in the book and then I have the pages spiral bound. I only ask that they pay for the printing and binding costs, which is approximately $10 per copy. After the copies are made, I place the names of every student in the class in a bowl, draw out one name, and give the original scrapbook to the winner. Or you could keep the original as a memento for yourself, if you would like. By the time they graduate, you’ve probably bonded pretty closely with the kids and would like to keep the memory book to remember them by. Or you can use it as an example for the next group.

I like to put the memory book on display during Open House and Back-to-School Night. Parents love to thumb through the pages and look at the photos and writings of their own kids. Additionally, this scrapbook was very useful when we were going through the accreditation process. It was a visual record of the kinds of things we are doing in Homeroom, and it substantiated our claims that in Homeroom we are forming important relationships with our students.

I have gotten a lot of positive feedback to the scrapbook idea throughout the years. Feel free to create a scrapbook of your class. The kids (and your administrators) will love _____________________________________________________________________

My_2009_Photo[1]Neutralize Negative Teacher Stories; Substitute Stories about Chalkboard Champions

by Terry Lee Marzell

Is this an experience you have had? You meet someone new, perhaps at a party or at the local watering hole, they find out you are a teacher, and they promptly launch into a half-hour diatribe of the worst teacher they ever had in their life. The teacher made them read aloud in class, the teacher lost their homework and made them do the assignment over, the teacher gave them an F and they couldn’t graduate with their class. You politely listen to yet another tale of woe, mentally counting how many such depressing stories you have listened to throughout your career, while silently promising to yourself that you will never tell another person on this planet that you are an educator.

Here is a strategy I have developed to neutralize the demoralizing effects of such an encounter. First, I listen to everything the person has to say, making the appropriate sympathetic noises and facial expressions. Then, at the conclusion of their story, I ask them this question: “And who was the best teacher you ever had?” You can almost see the Rolodex-flip through their file of schoolhouse memories until they finally find at least one teacher they can speak about positively. Using this strategy shifts the feeling tone of the conversation, it neutralizes the negativity, and anyway it’s only fair that if through social convention you’re forced to listen to a troubling story, you should also get the opportunity to enjoy an uplifting one.

In my long career I have endured many a doleful worst-teacher story, and that is one reason why I wanted to write a book about great teachers. I love to tell stories about remarkable educators. There are so many fascinating and inspiring stories to tell! To read about twelve of the greatest and most moving teacher stories I have personally discovered, look on for my book,  Chalkboard Champions.



The Culturally-Sensitive Teacher and the Student from Iraq

by Terry Lee Marzell

When assisting an Iraqi student in an American school, it is helpful to consider the student’s cultural perspectives. According to the Hofstede Scale, Iraqis exhibit an extremely high preference for hierarchical order and centralization. Iraqi culture is classified as a collectivist society, with loyalty to the group being of paramount importance, and it is a strongly masculine culture that emphasizes competition and achievement. Iraqi citizens typically exhibit a high avoidance of ambiguity and a strong concern for the establishment of absolute Truth. They usually prefer short-term rewards to long-term rewards, and emphasize work rather than leisure activities. Furthermore, unlike American society, Iraqi cultural norms emphasize considerable restraint and a preference for rigid codes for belief and behavior (Hofstede, 1980).

If the student is a recent immigrant to the United States, consider what they left behind. Besides a familiarity with their own language, cultural customs, traditions, foods, clothing, music, art, religious practices, and so on, this student would have left behind a life dominated by considerable social turmoil, random violence, political corruption, and the demolition of its infrastructure. In addition, the general health of the population has declined due to the destruction of hospitals and either the flight or the execution of most of the country’s medical personnel. To a large degree, this chaos is a direct result of the 2003 Gulf War and subsequent US military activity (Lefko, 2014).

th[9]In 1982, Iraq was lauded by UNESCO for eliminating illiteracy within its borders and for developing an educational system considered one of the best in the region (Lefko, 2014). Since then, educational opportunity, and therefore literacy, has steadily declined. Many schools were damaged or destroyed, leaving behind deplorable building conditions and extremely limited resources such as textbooks and classroom supplies. In the face of never-ending war and insecurity, many parents kept their children at home out of fear for their safety, and large numbers of these children went to work to help support their families. By 2007, Education International estimated the literacy rate in Iraq had fallen to 65%, with just 54% of the women and 74% of the men receiving a basic education (Lefko, 2014).

Knowledge of these basic circumstances becomes the basis for recognizing the instructional needs of the Iraqi student and for guiding the instructional practices of the culturally-sensitive teacher. In general, the teacher librarian should work conscientiously to build trust with the student. Be aware of the student’s heightened need for personal safety, and be particularly observant of any possible health issues. Recognize that there may be gaps in the student’s knowledge base which could be a reflection of the disruption of his or her formal education.

The teacher should also strive to incorporate strategies into the instructional program from all four stages of the culturally-responsive leadership scale: the contribution stage, the additive stage, the transformational stage, and the social action stage (Summers, 2010). Where possible, expose the Iraqi student to relevant reading materials about Iraqi culture in both print and electronic versions, and integrate additional resources such as images, music, movie clips, posters, art prints, databases, and web sites into the curriculum. With regards to language acquisition, attempt to secure some resources in the student’s native language and some in easy-to-understand English. Suggest works by Iraqi authors, and ask your school’s librarian to create visually appealing book displays of relevant books.

When designing lessons, keep the student’s cultural preferences in mind (Farmer, 2012). For the Iraqi student, collaborative learning activities would be welcome, but when assigning group work, use Kagan-style strategies that require each student be responsible for a clearly-defined task that contributes to the whole. Make sure learning objectives are explicit, especially if teaching a concept through games or play. Whenever possible, emphasize the structure of the learning task, even if there is flexibility with the outcome or finished product.

Working knowledgeably, responsively, and diligently, the culturally-sensitive teacher can help the Iraqi student navigate the American education system successfully.

Farmer, Dr. Lesley. (2012). “Culturally-Sensitive Learning Practices.” Educational Media and Technology Yearbook, Vol. 36, p. 161-172. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Hofstede, Geert. (1980). Model of Cultural Dimensions.

Lefko, Claudia. (June 26, 2014). “The Human Narrative in Iraq Still Missing.” Common Dreams.

Summers, L. (2010). “Culturally-Responsive Leadership in School Libraries. Library Media Connection (Mar.), 10-13.