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What I Relearned When I Watched My Colleagues Teach

Moving to a new school this fall marked a role shift for me as a teacher. After eight years as a general education teacher (as in, Ms. Jacks, Eighth-Grade English), I am now the learning specialist and co-teacher in an eighth-grade integrated co-teaching class, which means I follow a group made up of both “special ed” and “general ed” students from class to class throughout the day. My job is to support teachers and work with individuals or groups of students to maximize learning for all.

I’m thrilled, because now I get the chance to do what I’ve always wished I could do more of as a regular teacher: experience other teachers’ classrooms, focus intensely on the neediest students, and devote my energy to thinking about how people learn best. We’re only a few weeks in, but already some insights are emerging. Things about teaching and learning that felt true to me intuitively are becoming clearer now that I’ve stepped out of my single-classroom cubby-hole and can see a bit more of the forest and the trees.

As I began to record my observations, I realized they break into two rough categories: teacher moves on the one hand, and curriculum on the other. I’ll focus this piece on the former and discuss curriculum in a separate piece soon.

What I’ve learned, or relearned, since I began stepping into my colleagues’ classrooms during the school day:

Great teaching truly does come in a variety of styles. I’m lucky to work in the classrooms of four amazing teachers, each one with a truly different way of being and teaching. What each of them is doing is unique, and it works. Because…

You must teach from who you are. Teaching is both an art and a science, and more on the latter soon, but the art comes from within. Great teachers can be blunt, sweet, stern, goofy — as long as those qualities are honestly channeled outward toward the students and their learning. What’s more, kids can spot a fake, so we’re best off being ourselves and making it work.

That said, there are some constants across styles, ways of being that categorically work best. All of the teachers I work with (and have worked with, and have been) are most successful when they’re both warm and firm. We all know this, but it has been powerful to see it in action, daily, manifested through different personality types.

Lisa, the eighth-grade science teacher, deployed a deft warm/firm move on the first two days of school when dealing with a strong-willed girl, Maya. On day one, she was already talking back to teachers; Lisa picked up on this and not 10 minutes into class, picked Maya to be the guinea pig in their first experiment. She proceeded to strap some safety goggles onto Maya’s face and had her stand still while two other students held a swinging pendulum. “Will the pendulum swing back far enough to reach Maya?” became the class’s first research question of the year. This might sound mean in print, but in practice Lisa was warm and smiling, with just the slightest twinkle in her eye as she quietly assured Maya she would be unharmed. (Thanks, friction!)

But the most important move Lisa made came the next day: as the class filed in, she welcomed Maya brightly and said, “Maya, I want you to be a rock star today.” Sure enough, whose hand was in the air about 10 times? Lisa made sure to recognize Maya’s efforts at the end of that class. So the warm/firm combo worked, and continues to pay dividends. Since that first day, Maya does struggle to stay focused, but she snaps back to attention whenever Lisa redirects her. Maya knows that Lisa’s expectations are high, and she knows it will be rewarding to meet them.

I could go on with examples of my colleagues being warm and firm.

The eighth-grade math teacher has a solid game face, letting kids know when it’s time to get to work. But she makes sure to recognize students who are meeting her expectations, especially when it’s a kid who often struggles to do so: “Make sure you look just like Jason does right now…” One of the Humanities teachers is great at publicly holding students to their personal goals; when one particular girl begins laughing out of turn or picking fights, Ms. C will allude to a conversation from that morning: “Naomi, remember you’re staying above it today. You’re stronger than this.” Another Humanities teacher might speak sharply to the class when they get unruly, but he invariably concludes by saying, “But you are all good people because you’re good people. Not because you did or did not show your best self today.”

This warm and firm feedback from adults is vital for middle schoolers in particular, who are trying out different identities and need both clear boundaries and unconditional respect as they shapeshift. I realize that these aren’t earth-shattering discoveries. They’re more like hypotheses I’m finally getting to test in a day-to-day science experiment of my own now that, like my students, I change classrooms throughout the day.

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