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5 Simple Tips for Making an Outsized Impact on Students (Opinion)

Here’s the latest post in a lengthy series on “small” moves teachers can make that can have big payoffs in the classroom.

For what it’s worth, you can find my four suggestions here.

Sharing Materials Online

Amber Chandler is a national-board-certified ELA teacher in Hamburg, N.Y. She is the author of The Flexible ELA Classroom, The Flexible SEL Classroom, and Movie Magic:

I teach a few college classes, and inevitably, students will ask that I share the slideshow I use or ask to take pictures of the slides. It never once has occurred to me to decline that request, but it wasn’t until pandemic teaching when I realized the benefit that this same practice would have for my 8th graders. Sharing all materials—slideshows, worksheets, and the like—digitally is a “small teaching move” that I’ve made. I’ll share a few ways that it has made the difference.

The first difference that happens immediately is a more level playing field for my students. I teach in an ICT (integrated co-teaching classroom) setting, and providing these materials allows access to not only those with special needs, but those who miss class, and those who may need a refresher when not in my classroom. When I made this switch, I explained to my students that in my college classes, it is commonplace for me to share all the resources with my students, and it seemed even more important to share with them. We brainstorm all the reasons they might need or want a copy of the materials, and it helps build ownership over their own learning.

The second benefit is that my ICT teacher, as well as an ENL (English as a new language) teacher who also co-teaches with me in the afternoon, has a copy of all of our materials to preteach and reteach. I post anything that I use in class in Google Classroom under “materials.” This includes links to videos, worksheets, assignment directions, additional resources, and even links to secondary sources that might be of interest.

The final benefit is that by providing all of the materials in one place, this allows the best possible communication with my students’ families. They are able to see exactly what materials I’m using and they might use them to brush up themselves! They are able to help their children, and there is never a question of what is expected, the details of the assignment, or due dates. Though I always made those materials available before, the fact that I can share their availability with families at open house in the fall has created a partnership right from the start.

Like most everyone else, during the pandemic, we were forced to post everything online, but this has become a part of how I run my class. Students know that they have all they need to do their best, no matter when or where they are accessing the information.

Some may say that these are students’ responsibilities, but I’d beg to differ. As an adult, there are very few spaces that don’t provide digital copies without me asking. I’m using this opportunity to share with my students that they can be independent learners and I show them how to compose emails asking for clarification and how to notify me when they have completed missing assignments. Though some may think that I am spoon feeding them by providing everything at their fingertips, I’d argue that I’m helping them learn to operate effectively in the world where they live. This is just a “small teaching move,” but I’m thrilled to say that it has paid dividends and helped my students become more autonomous.

Introductory Phone Calls

Sandy Mendoza is an EL immersion teacher and works with English-language learners in K-5:

I’ve found that two “small teaching moves” have increased student engagement.

The first small move is calling all my student’s parents within the first month of school. I work with about 45 students each year, and the call usually lasts about 5 minutes. I call to say hello, give a positive comment about the student, and ask if they have any questions.

The other small move is eating lunch with 2-3 students each week. They do not have to earn it; I just go down my list of students. This small move allows me to get to know students and have them build connections with their classmates and me. This gives me the opportunity to ask about their weekend sports tournaments, new siblings, books they enjoy …, which in turn, helps me talk to them about more personal things that they may be dealing with.

Positive Phone Calls

Dale Ripley, Ph.D. has taught for over 40 years at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels, primarily in high-needs—Title I—schools. His first book, The Successful Teacher’s Survival Kit, describes 83 simple strategies that successful teachers use in their classrooms, while his latest book, The Tactical Teacher: Proven Strategies to Positively Influence Student Learning & Classroom Behavior, shows teachers 58 different ways to improve the negative classroom behaviors of even their most challenging students in order to increase student learning:

In most cases, establishing an effective working relationship with a student’s parents/caregivers will help you be a more effective teacher with that student. In order to do this, I suggest you ask yourself this question: “What is it that most parents want for their kids in school, and how can I give that to them?” A great question!

I have found that what most parents want is relatively simple: They want their kids to be safe, happy, and to learn at school. There are two questions for teachers inherent in these parental/caregiver desires.

First, how can you establish an environment in your classroom where your students feel safe, happy, and they are learning?

The second question is: Once you have established these things, how do you communicate this to the parents/caregivers of your students? How do you let them know that their child is safe, happy, and learning? Keeping your successes a secret does not serve you well. You have to let the parents/caregivers in on the good news.

One mistake that I see most teachers make—from novice to veteran educators—is “the phone call home.” Most teachers only phone home when there is a problem with a student, when the student has misbehaved or failed to do assigned work. It is little wonder then that when the phone rings and whoever answers calls out to the parents/caregivers, “It’s the school calling about Johnny” that the parents/caregiver sound defensive. If the only time you call home is when a student is in trouble, what else can you expect? I think it is a wise teacher who turns this all too typical situation upside down.

I like to make positive phone calls home. Once a week, I choose three or four students who had done something particularly well that week (it could be work related, it could be behavioral) and I phone home to tell the parents/caregivers.

I always asked to speak to my student before talking to their parents/caregivers. The dialogue goes something like this:

ME: “Is Johnny home? It’s Dr. Ripley calling from the school.”

PERSON WHO ANSWERED (usually yelling): “Johnny, it’s the school calling. You’re in trouble.”

JOHNNY: “Hello.”

ME: “Hi, Johnny. I’m phoning to tell your mom/dad/caregiver about (describe great behavior here) and I want you to put them on the phone after you and I have talked. I am telling you this so you know that when they get off the phone, they will likely be very pleased with you—maybe even shocked. This is a great opportunity for you, and you may want to use it in some way. Perhaps there is something you want from them. After this call might be a good time to ask. Just saying! I wanted to let you know that I am proud of what you did. My compliments! Now—may I please speak to . . .”

I would then proceed to tell mom/dad/caregiver about whatever great thing Johnny had done.

When you do this early in the year, most of the parents/caregivers will be in disbelief at this kind of phone call. This may be the first positive phone call they have ever received from a school (a sad testament to what most teachers do—but true nonetheless).

However, if you make these positive calls home consistently throughout the school year, when the time comes that you have to make a call home to deal with a problem regarding a student, the experience is much more likely to result in an agreement with the parent/caregiver that resolves the issue.

You may think: “I don’t have time to do this.” You are wrong. If you make just three positive calls home each week—each one taking less than five minutes—you will have called the home of every student in your classroom in less than two months, or four to five times each by the end of the school year.

Not a lot of time for such a huge payoff—for both you and your students.

It’s OK to Make Mistakes

Jonelle St. Aubyn is a teacher in the Peel District School Board at Louise Arbour Secondary School in Brampton, Ontario, Canada. She has been teaching for 22 years and eight of those years has been as a teacher librarian:

As a teacher librarian (or library media specialist), it can be a challenge to get students to know and trust you as they come to the library learning commons for lessons on a variety of things, such as research, technology, or searching for a book.

A small teaching move that I have found to be very effective is to let students know that it is completely fine for mistakes to be made and that it’s actually a good thing because that’s how we learn and grow together.

I remind them that the library learning commons is a judgment-free zone and that if there are things that they don’t understand or the lesson is moving too quickly, please stop me and ask questions. Every question is answered in such a way that will not make students feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, or ashamed that they were brave enough to ask. Saying this explicitly at the beginning of every lesson has led to an increase in students feeling comfortable asking questions and/or asking for help. I also try to circulate as much as possible while doing the lesson in case someone wants to catch me and ask a question as I’m walking by instead of having to ask the question in front of the class.

So many students, unfortunately, don’t want to risk asking questions in front of their peers for fear of being ridiculed or appearing unintelligent. In a world where so much of their lives are lived online and through social media, this discomfort is understandable. However, creating an environment where students can feel comfortable asking questions and praising them when they do, goes a long way to improving student understanding and engagement.

Thanks to Amber, Sandy, Dale, and Jonelle for contributing their thoughts.

The question of the week is:

What is a “small teaching move” that you think is not as common as it should be? A “small teaching move” in this context is an action that would require very little prep, can easily be made into a routine or habit, and is likely to result in increased student engagement and learning.

In Part One, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Jessica Fernandez, Alejandra Carmona-Guzmán, and Daman Harris shared their suggestions.

In Part Two, Sydney Chaffee, Wendi Pillars, Cacee Weaver, and Cheryl Abla contributed their responses.

In Part Three, Diana Laufenberg, Valentina Gonzalez, Matt Renwick, and Cindy Garcia answered the question.

In Part Four, Kwame Sarfo-Mensah, Lauren Nifong, Rebecca Alber, and Jenn Guerrero offered their ideas.

In Part, Five, Renee Jones, Todd Stanley, Kelly Owens, Kit Golan wrote about their experiences.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here.

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