Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Make Coaching Part of Your Professional Development Plan

During these final days of school, many of you are having end-of-year conferences with your evaluating administrator and are receiving accolades and areas of growth based on their observations, your progress toward goals, and your professional learning for the year. Evaluations like these are no one’s favorite thing, neither for the evaluated or the evaluator, but the best meetings of this type conclude with both parties having an idea of what strengths have been reinforced and of what the next step is in the educator’s growth as a professional. If we are educators with growth mindsets, we don’t see appraisals as reflections of our worth as human beings but instead as opportunities to continue to hone our craft in what is an extremely challenging profession—one that no one ever really masters because there’s always room for improvement.

The hardest thing about any feedback—and something we need to be mindful of as we provide comments on our students’ learning—is that we tend to fixate on the negative. Thirty accolades can be undone by one “recommendation for growth.” That’s human nature. Do your best to conquer the monster of your negative inner voice and instead try to be objective. Force yourself to see that less-than-stellar mark as a guide to help you direct your improvement efforts next year. Turn those marks of “developing” and “improvement needed” into invitations to become “accomplished or distinguished.”

An instructional coach can be a valuable ally in your improvement. We don’t work for your principal; we work for you. And, unlike most every other kind of professional development, we bring the learning into your classroom and personalize it to your individual needs.

Here’s how:

1.  You identify an area of growth and contact a coach to help you. Or you contact a coach first, meet to talk about your situation and ideas, and let the coach help you determine an area of growth.

2.  Set a measurable goal along with the coach, determine what you need to learn to help you achieve that goal, and learn all you can with the guidance of the coach. Instructional coaches have experience with research-supported best practices and can provide you with resources to facilitate your learning. Because we know you’re busy, we can distill some of the learning and come to your campus to share it with you at a time that fits into your schedule.

3.  At some point, you could choose for the coach to observe your class to collect data. Even better, the coach could video your lesson so you can watch yourself and/or your students to get a clear idea of what is going on. Collecting data before and after the learning is a fantastic opportunity for you to document your progress toward your goal.

4. Part of the learning could involve observing someone else teach, watching the coach model part of a lesson, co-teaching with the coach, or rehearsing a lesson with the coach.

5.  Implement your new learning and collect data to see how it worked.

6.  High-fives all around if you met your goal. You can now continue working on another aspect of the same goal, begin a new goal cycle, or decide you’re going to just revel in your success. If you didn’t meet your goal, that’s okay, too. Your coach can help you implement Plan B (or C or D or E) until you see results.

That’s instructional coaching in its purest form, but it doesn’t always look like that. Sometimes, coaches help teams or individuals plan lessons, work on ways to implement differentiation strategies, set up classroom management routines, and turn other professional learning into action.

You’re free to share with your administrator that you’re working with a coach, or you can choose to keep it quiet. The coaching relationship is a partnership. What happens in a coaching relationship stays in that coaching relationship. Your boss will only know what you choose to share.

Instructional coaches can help with any of the four domains on T-TESS:  planning, instruction, learning environment, and professional practices.

Here are a few areas from the T-TESS where a coach would be happy to assist you:
  • Unpacking lessons from the curriculum and tailoring them to the needs of your students and your teaching style
  • Communicating daily learning goals clearly to your students
  • Integrating technology in a meaningful way to enhance student mastery of goals
  • Using formative assessments to get a clear picture of student learning and to communicate that to students and parents
  • Collecting data to measure student progress and adjusting instruction in response
  • Framing lessons to engage and connect with students
  • Providing opportunities for students to individualize their learning
  • Promote authentic questioning and student inquiry
  • Increase student ownership in their learning
  • Plan for collaboration that maximizes student participation and accountability
  • Promote high-level student achievement through goal setting, metacognition, and self-monitoring.
  • Increasing your own content expertise in your subject area
  • Sequencing instruction appropriately
  • Using effective questioning techniques so that all students can access learning at an appropriately sophisticated level
  • Adapting lessons to meet the needs of all students by using appropriate differentiation strategies
  • Gathering input from students to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction and adjust if needed
  • Creating a safe, efficient, welcoming classroom environment that promotes student leadership and high-level learning
  • Establishing, communicating, and maintaining clear expectations for student behavior
  • Developing rapport with and among students
  • Reflecting on your practice to implement changes that result in improvement in student performance

Consider including a coach in your professional development plans for next year, and be prepared for powerful, personalized professional learning that can transform your classroom to increase student success.

With the end of school only days away, next year is probably the last thing on your mind, but in case you are interested, feel free to reach out to a coach now, especially if you’d like to meet during that back-to-school week in August. We can help you start the semester so that the year goes smoothly as you implement your powerful student-centered learning goal. We look forward to partnering with you.  

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Left to Their Own Devices

First there was the transistor radio. Then, the boombox. The Walkman followed, along with its next generation offspring, the Discman. iPods and tiny MP3 players, as well as smartphones, are more recent gadgets that allow music—piped into the ears via headphones or earbuds, wired or bluetooth—to be the 24/7 accompaniment to each of our lives The sound of silence has been replaced by the sound of whatever your streaming music subscription is playing at the moment.     

In so many classrooms today, students are “working” with one or more earbuds in their ears. Their smartphones are supplying the soundtrack to their school day as they read, write, take notes, watch their teachers teach, and collaborate with peers. Teachers who support leaving students to their own devices for background music say that their students are quieter and better behaved when they listen to music while reading and/or writing. They subscribe to the misquoted adage from playwright William Congreve: “Music soothes the savage beast.” (The actual quotation, I discovered, is, “Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast.” Who knew?) Other teachers ignore the earbuds, perhaps believing that the student is unplugged or the music is paused, though I almost always eventually see that student reach into a hoodie pocket to skip a song that shuffled onto their playlist or make a new music selection.

When left to their own devices, teenagers will choose music over silence, and most will justify that preference by saying that it helps them concentrate and that they are more productive when music is playing. Research, however, shows that in most cases, student-selected music interferes with cognitive tasks in academic subject areas. Here are a few nuggets of information teachers can use to shape their in-class listening policies and respond to teenagers who disagree with them:

  • The consensus among education researchers is that music has a negative effect on tasks relying on linguistic comprehension, writing, and memory.
  • The exceptions to this are creative production (like working on an artwork), productivity (like mindless assembly line work), and perhaps exercises that involve spatial manipulation (you know, useful things like folding up a piece of paper, punching some holes in it, and predicting what it will look like when it is unfolded). The so-called Mozart Effect that had parents rushing to purchase classical music CDs to make their babies smarter is a little more limited than originally reported, and there’s nothing magical about Mozart.
  • Music with lyrics is bad for learning. One study (discussed in this article) showed that university students who listened to music with lyrics while reviewing for a test scored more than 60% worse than their peers who studied in silence. Students listening to music with no lyrics did better than those who studied with lyrics, but the no-music students performed the best.   
  • Silence increases reading comprehension, too.
  • Introverts are more adversely affected by background music while reading and studying. While music had a negative effect on reading comprehension and memory for introverts, their classmates who were extraverts did not see a notable decline in memory, only in comprehension, said a 1997 report by Furnham and Bradley.    
  • “Fast and loud” music disrupts reading comprehension the most, according to a 2011 study by Thompson, Schellenberg, and Letnic.
  • Musicians’ brains seem to be wired differently. Listening to music has a more severely negative effect on language comprehension for trained musicians than for non-musicians. Language and music appear to be processed by the same neural networks in the brain. Visualspatial test results were the same for musicians and non-musicians. This article explains further.   
  • A 2010 study by Anderson and Fuller showed that not only does reading comprehension performance decline significantly when junior high students are listening to music, but it declines more significantly for those who say they prefer listening to music while they read. In other words, the kids who protest the most when you tell them to take out their earbuds are the ones who benefit the most from your asking them to do so.   
  • Writing is affected negatively by music, too, even if the writer is not paying attention to it. According to a 2001 study by Ransdell and Gilroy, college students who had music playing while they were writing expository essays using a word processing program had more difficulty with word fluency. They generated fewer words per minute and had to delete more prior to their final drafts.   
  • Music can improve one’s mood, so maybe there’s some usefulness when you’re dealing with surly teenagers.  
  • There's abundant research about the myth of multitasking and how we can't simultaneously focus on texting, tending to social media, and doing cognitive tasks, but today I'm sticking to the topic of background music. 

I remember a department head of mine who would have team meetings with classical music quietly playing in the background. I left every meeting with Vivaldi stuck in my head no clue about the content of the meeting.

Apparently, I’m not alone in having these challenges.

If we aim to make our classrooms places where students engage in rich reading experiences, produce thoughtful writing, think deeply, and talk about their learning, the research is overwhelmingly in support of banning the earbuds and turning off the background music. Most young people who are literally left to the own devices aren’t going to make decisions that are best for their learning. Stretching students to become uncomfortable with silence and to be alone with their thoughts might be doing them a favor in the long run.  

The only trick is going to be convincing them of that. . . .

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Teaching: An Appreciation

Starbucks gift cards and two-for-one Chipotle burrito bowls are nifty, but they don’t do enough to give teachers the thanks and appreciation they deserve not only during Teacher Appreciation Week but all during the year. The outside world that views teaching as a profession that enjoys three-months of lazy summer vacation and 8-to-4 workdays hasn’t spent much time with teachers to see the reality. I’m preaching to the choir here, but teaching is hard, and teachers are superheroes. 

Indulge me, if you will, in a little appreciation of America’s most important profession and allow me to thank you for what you frequently thanklessly do. 

Thank you for opening your classroom doors and welcoming every student who walks in, even the ones who don’t wear deodorant, the ones who don’t want to be there and make that very clear by their every action, the ones who don’t get a lot of love elsewhere and seek attention in inappropriate ways, the ones who need help with things other kids their age don’t, the ones who can’t stay in their seats, the ones who challenge everything you say, the one who think it’s cool to complain, the ones who know which buttons to push to get a rise out of your, the ones who come with pages of daily paperwork requirements, and the ones whose parents demand a large chunk of your time and attention. 

Thank you for spending time planning and preparing for engaging instruction because—unlike many other professions—teaching isn’t one where you can show up without extensive prior preparation for the day. Thanks for conferring with colleagues and coaches, studying standards, and consulting curriculum to craft carefully-constructed educational experiences that not only take students where they need to go but get them pumped up about getting there. Thank you for knowing that teaching isn’t one-size-fits-all and for tailoring lessons to meet the variety of needs in your classroom. 

Thank you for teaching more than just content. Thanks for teaching young people how to get along with one another, to self-regulate, to set goals, to advocate for themselves, to organize their time and materials, to make smart choices, to “act right,” to question things, to treat others with respect, to solve problems, to stand up to injustice, to take responsibility for their own actions, to participate actively and appropriately in the wider community, and to pay attention to the world around them. Thanks for tying shoelaces on the playground, tying neckties on game day, and forging ties among students in your classroom.  

I appreciate your commitment to learning, personally and professionally. Teachers realize that we have never completely figured it out and that we must continue to grow as professionals, so we read books to improve our craft, attend trainings throughout the year and often during our summer “vacation,” engage in educational chats on Twitter, and form professional learning communities with colleagues. Most of that is without pay. A thank you isn’t really payment, but it’s what I can give you. 

The best teachers plant seeds that sprout during the year but don’t reach their full growth until much later. Thank you for having the vision to plant your garden and for the time and attention needed to water each seed, to provide the much-needed light, to support seedlings, to shape and redirect growth, and to continue to feed each one until it blooms. Thanks for the patience you show when it looks like a seed won’t sprout and for continuing to tend the garden until it does. 

Thank you for remembering what it’s like to be young. Teenagers are wonderful works in progress. Thank you for your patience, your grace, your humor, your coaxing, your flexibility—did I mention your patience?—your enthusiasm, your amnesty, and your kindness. 

Thank you for putting up with an ever-growing load of policies, procedures, paperwork,  requirements, hoops to jump through, forms to complete, expectations, hurdles, and initiatives that take you away from the work you want and need to be doing with your students. Thanks for realizing that these are put in place by well-meaning people who also want the best for kids but may have forgotten what is most important. Or maybe they didn’t realize that they aren’t the only one adding to your pile of things to do. At any rate, thank you for putting kids first and not letting the paperwork drive you out of the profession.   

Thank you for being the grown-up in the room. You may be the only one your students encounter routinely. 

Thank you for believing that a student’s experience out of the classroom is as important as what they do in the classroom. Thanks for the time you spend sponsoring clubs, attending games and performances, and taking part in students’ extracurricular lives. This often means extending your workday and adding to your to-do list, but students take notice. And it does make a difference. 

Thank you for every instruction you have patiently repeated, every parent phone call you have made, every positive note you’ve sent home, every second chance you’ve given, every third chance you’ve given, every word of encouragement you’ve provided for a student (or colleague) who has lost hope, every misbehavior you’ve redirected without losing it, every broken pencil and paper scrap you’ve picked up off the floor, every left-behind notebook you’ve placed on the whiteboard tray for later retrieval, every student handwriting sample you’ve matched to determine which of the two nameless papers belonged to which kid, every minute you’ve spent on hold with the help desk to reset a forgotten student login, every lengthy “guess what I did over the weekend” story you’ve listened to, and every constructive comment you’ve written on a paper when every part of you wanted to write something snarky and sarcastic.    

Thanks for coming early, staying late, working weekends, responding to e-mails at weird hours, and giving up your tiny lunch break to get everything done. Maybe you’re one of the super-efficient ones who can get it all done during the school day. Even if you’re not one of those, know that you are appreciated for your time and effort. 

Thank you for being a nurse, life coach, maid, babysitter, researcher, therapist, nutritionist, actor, director, mediator, politician, librarian, accountant, statistician, police officer, visionary, manager, salesperson, writer, publicist, diplomat, security guard, judge, event planner, curator, flight attendant, comedian, cat wrangler, long-distance athlete, computer technician, troubleshooter, consultant, parenting expert, juggler, advice columnist, surrogate parent, reporter, attorney, and motivational speaker. . .because that’s what teachers are.  

Have a stellar Teacher Appreciation Week.   

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Three Things You Should Probably Know

Three Things You Probably Should Know at this Point in the Year About Every Student You Teach
Fun While Test Proctoring

Research tells us that teacher-student relationships are the key to teaching, especially for reaching those students who are guarded, distant, and prickly. At this point in the year, when you can count the weeks remaining on one hand, it’s useful to think about how well you know the students you are teaching. I’ve devised a little game that could be a fun* way to pass the time while you are actively monitoring during upcoming high-stakes testing.      

Here’s how to play:  

Use a copy of your seating charts or roll sheets to access the names of all your students. Go down the list, student-by-student, and ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What is this student proud of?
  2. How does this student struggle in my class, or what would be the most beneficial way this student could grow in my subject?
  3. What is something outside of my class that is important to this young person?

The way to win is to be able to answer each of these questions for every student in your classes.

This is a game I would have had a hard time winning when I was a classroom teacher. I could have answered all of these questions without hesitation for some of my students, but for most, I would have had one or more blanks. There were students I didn’t get to know—the quiet ones who didn’t call attention to themselves and therefore didn’t receive much, the defensive ones who walked in on day one with a permanent chip on their shoulders, the compliant ones who came to school to “cooperate and graduate” but who didn’t earn extra attention from me because they were doing fine. In retrospect, I probably didn’t make all the breakthroughs possible for those students whom I didn’t get to know as people and as learners.

Most middle school teachers and high school elective teachers seem to have figured this whole relationship thing out. In high school content-area classes, however, I think high scores on the Relationship Game are more scarce.

There are a number of factors to explain this. As students get older, they become more guarded and private about whom they will allow access to their trusted circle. Also, high school classes are more difficult and more content-heavy, so teachers at that level may tend to favor the curriculum over the humans who are there to learn it. Let’s face it: some high school English teachers gravitate to teaching English because they love Gatsby, Holden, and Romeo. Nearly every seventh grade English teacher I know teaches seventh grade English because they love seventh graders. The same is probably true for math, science, and social studies.

I’m not trying to say that high school teachers don’t love the students they teach; I am admitting, though, that our attention to content and our unwavering focus on preparing our students for college and “the real world” sometimes takes priority over getting to really know our students as human beings.  

The purpose of my little game isn’t to make you feel like a failure if you don’t have answers for all the questions. Instead, it’s a reality check.

At this point in the year, you likely know most of your students as well as you are going to know them this year. If you aren’t happy with your score, what will you do next year to change that?   


* If you know me well at all, you know that the word “fun” was written with a great deal of sarcasm accompanying it because I’d be foolish to try to describe anything done during active monitoring as at all enjoyable. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Don’t Forget the L

Social-Emotional Learning, or SEL, is all the rage these days. It seems we have realized that we can’t just stand in the front of our classrooms and teach, heedless of the fact that there are human beings in our classrooms who have emotional baggage they lug with them to school each day.

The anxiety, interpersonal conflicts, insecurities, fears, abuse, stress, sadness, peer influences, grief, drama, and trauma that weigh down the lives of even the most seemingly well-adjusted kids impede students’ abilities to focus on the business of school. What we now know about the brain is that any kind of stress triggers the brain’s fight-or-flight response, which overrides the rational, thinking part of the brain. Students who enter our classrooms having experienced trauma (or even just a really bad morning) are unable to learn until the amygdala relinquishes control of brain activity and allows the student’s brain to return to normal functioning.

It’s no surprise, then, that the education world has jumped on the bandwagon of Social-Emotional Learning. SEL reminds us that building relationships is crucial. Students need to feel comfortable in our classrooms. They need to trust the teacher and their peers. They need to know that the classroom and the campus are safe spaces, physically and emotionally. They need to develop positive dispositions about themselves and about school. 

Positive reinforcements, praise, chants, cheers, claps, “atta boys,” classroom meetings, and affirmations abound in schools today, and we pat ourselves on the back because our students feel great about themselves. Teachers have filled their students’ social-emotional buckets so full that school has become a happy place for most—and certainly for many who traditionally disengage from classroom connections.

My concern in all of this is that we sometimes forget about the L in SEL. The important thing about Social-Emotional Learning is the learning that results from all of our community building and connecting. We can never lose sight of the SO THAT.

The SO THAT is the reason behind the things we do, the impact our efforts have on student learning.

I make sure my students feel safe in my classroom SO THAT they are comfortable taking risks when I ask them to engage in classroom discussions and think about things that are hard for them. 

I let my students see that failure is a part of learning and provide many low-risk learning activities SO THAT students can push themselves to experiment as thinkers and writers without worrying about a grade being attached to it.

I get to know my students’ as people SO THAT they know I care about them as more than just a number in my gradebook because I am planning to push them to do things they may not believe they can do and I want them to know I’ve got their best interests in mind and that they can trust me when it gets precarious.

I talk with my students about things other than school SO THAT when it comes time to talk about academic things they will pay attention to that, too. 

I ensure my students connect with others in the class SO THAT they have a network of support to rely on as they learn because students learn from one another better than they learn from me.  

I try to make students feel comfortable talking with me SO THAT they aren’t afraid to approach me for help when they face struggles with the rigorous content in my course. 

There are so many worthwhile SO THATs that come from paying attention to our students’ social and emotional needs, but we need to make sure that community building and feel-good strategies are not ends in themselves. Social-Emotional Learning without the Learning is not the goal of school. School needs to be a safe, joyful place because we’ve got big plans to meet students where they are and take them to where they need to be. 

Don’t forget the L.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Fix-It Strategies

Stuff breaks.

It’s an unfortunate part of life, but we have to deal with cars that won’t start, computers stuck on the Blue Screen of Death, ice makers that don’t make ice, and cell phones that won’t hold a charge.

Sometimes, when we read, comprehension breaks down, too. We encounter a paragraph with dozens of words we don’t know. A piece of text is too technical for our know-how. We find ourselves at the end of a page and have no idea what we just read.

For many of our students, this happens all the time. We give them texts, ask them to read them, and watch them run into roadblocks. Comprehension breaks down, and they don’t know how to fix it. What do we do in response? How do we help them? Sometimes, we ask them to underline, circle, or highlight unfamiliar vocabulary and other things they don’t understand. That’s a start, but it’s not enough.

Imagine you are having a really bad hair day. You look in the mirror and recoil in horror at what’s atop your head. Your hairstyle is a disaster, and you can’t leave the house looking like this. What do you do? Just point to the problem area? Circle what’s wrong? Merely identifying the problem isn’t going to fix your heinous hairdo.

You promptly take measures to alleviate the problem. Perhaps you apply a different product, take out the blow dryer or the curling iron, splash a little water on it, trim a bit with your shears, or—if none of that works—hop back in the shower and start all over.

You have go-to fix-it strategies when you find yourself having a hair crisis.

You also have fix-it strategies you use when you encounter difficult text.

When a word baffles you, you may look for context clues to determine the meaning, decide how crucial that word is to your overall understanding, look up a definition of the word if you need to, and reread the sentence, substituting that newfound definition for the word you didn’t know.

If you get to the end of sentence and go, “Huh?”, you may return to the start of the sentence and reread more carefully, put it into your own words, identify the most important elements, look at how the sentence relates to what comes before and after it, and read the words aloud in order to hear what it’s saying.    
At various times, you might jot notes in the margin, underline to emphasize the most important ideas, scribble a question beside a paragraph, sketch a visual or simple graphic organizer to help you make sense of some ideas, or talk with a friend about the text.

Your toolbox of fix-it strategies is a valuable resource for your students. Merely telling them to circle unfamiliar words or read a confusing passage again leads to frustration. “Look how many words I don’t know. Now what?” “I read it once and didn’t get it. How is reading it again going to help?”

We must talk with students about when to know whether a word is worth looking up and what to do after they look up a definition of an unfamiliar word. We must show them how to reread with a new intention to clear up confusion. We have to provide them with as many strategies as possible and help them to determine when each one is useful. Having strategic talks with students about reading builds stronger readers. Filling in the meaning for them doesn’t help them build skills of their own; they’ll be helpless when their comprehension breaks down without a teacher in sight.

Fix-it strategies aren’t confined to the literacy realm. We have math strategies, problem-solving strategies, critical thinking strategies, decision-making strategies, and study strategies—just to name a few—our students can benefit from.

Don’t leave your students stranded without a plan to fix their broken-down learning. Stuff breaks. Make sure your students understand that difficulty is a normal part of learning, but provide them with some tools to help them steer their way back onto the road to success. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Far-Away Results

Where will your students be in 15 years?  What will they be doing? What will the world expect of them? How will the things you are doing in your class right now prepare them for that far-away result? 

In 15 years, my former students won’t be writing DBQs, but they will be taking in information, evaluating its content and credibility, and communicating their own conclusions about what to do with that information.   

In 15 years, they won’t be engaging in a Socratic Seminar about themes in Romeo and Juliet, but they will be in situations that require them to speak articulately to advance an argument, communicate clearly, organize their thoughts logically, disagree without attacking, support their conclusions with evidence, listen and respond to others, and connect ideas to the “real world.” 

In 15 years, you won’t find many of them working with a partner to stage and perform a duet acting scene from a play, but most will be collaborating with others, considering the visual and emotional impact of stylistic choices, preparing for a presentation, speaking in front of a group with poise and confidence, analyzing the motives of others,  and communicating to achieve a desired effect. 

In 15 years, most former orchestra students won’t be rehearsing Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, but the discipline, persistence, attention to detail, teamwork, patience, troubleshooting, concentration, focus, and direction-following they practiced will serve them well in their work and leisure pursuits. 

In 15 years, they won’t be solving a math problem, working on a coding assignment, or collecting data for a biology lab, but they will use logic, reasoning, problem solving, and analysis as they solve real-world problems as parents, employees, public servants, leaders, doctors, lawyers, programmers, and educators.

In 15 years, most won’t be playing flag football in P.E.class, but they will need to exhibit good sportspersonship, work on teams, develop “plays” and strategies, learn how to win and lose, exercise to remain healthy, and move with purpose and coordination. 

Even in the best project-based learning situation, the tasks students are doing right now in school aren’t the things most people do in the real world. Even so, what we ask them to do as students ought to develop the skills and dispositions they need to thrive in the world beyond school. If not, these don’t seem like worthwhile pursuits. 

As you are thinking about what you teach and how you teach it, ask yourself this key question: What transferable skills and dispositions does this require of my students, and how am I deliberately teaching students to develop them? 

This question has two important components:

1.  Transferable Skills and Dispositions: When planning instruction, great teachers ascribe to the adage, “Begin with the end in mind.” Unfortunately, we sometimes are a little short-sighted when we think about what “the end” is. The “end” shouldn’t lie in the course the student is currently taking. If the end is a unit test, a performance assessment, a product, or a standardized test, we are merely preparing students for a hurdle they have to get over to reach whatever is next. For some teachers, the end lies in a class the students will be taking down the road  (“I’m teaching you this because you’re going to need to do this in AP next year” or “You will have to do this in college.”). I’d argue that preparing students for the next level of academia, though helpful, is still a goal that matters more to us than it probably matters to them. Transferable skills—the ones we should focus on—are the ones necessary for success in life, that students will need to develop so they can go as far as they choose to go on the road to career and life success. Along with those skills are dispositions, habits of the mind and heart, that will accompany those skills. Teamwork, persistence, patience, empathy, tolerance, altruism, self-confidence, self-reflection, impulse control, and curiosity are among the dispositions we should help our students develop. Before we teach or assign anything, we should identify the transferable skills and dispositions involved; if these elements aren’t evident, we may want to reconsider what we are teaching and why.           

2.  Deliberate Teaching:  It’s not enough to provide tasks and activities for students that allow them to develop transferable skills and dispositions that will help them achieve far-away results. We have to be intentional and strategic about teaching students those skills. Asking students to reason through a problem won’t help the student who doesn’t know how to read the problem, take it apart, analyze its components, apply prior knowledge, choose the best tools for the job, work through a solution, and evaluate the solution’s effectiveness. Each of those transferable skills needs to be taught, probably not to every student but definitely to many. Skills don’t develop by accident, and they don’t improve without some metacognitive reflection. 

A few examples might help clarify these components. 

Note-taking is a skill students need to master to be successful in school that they also need in the real world. In life, however, no one tells people what kind of notes to take, when and how to format them, and what they should write down. The transferable skills inherent in note-taking include recording important information, organizing ideas, evaluating the relative importance of ideas or details, summarizing, and more. If I make those decisions for my students (by providing a format, telling them what to write down, allowing them to copy my notes, and showing them how they should organize them), I haven’t taught my students how to do anything on their own. If, however, I teach my students to use various formats of notes, allow them to consider the best format for this particular situation, ask them questions about how they plan to organize their notes, provide time for them to compare their notes with a partner, and ask them to  evaluate the effectiveness of their own note-taking efforts, I’m teaching skills they can transfer throughout their lives. 

An English teacher requiring students to self-select books and read during daily silent reading time in class has the opportunity to teach numerous transferable skills and dispositions: developing a “reading life,” monitoring comprehension, building reading stamina, finding value and enjoyment in reading, knowing what to do when comprehension breaks down, evaluating what they read, thinking critically, setting goals, monitoring progress and growth, and responding to a text and to other readers. Most of these skills aren’t going to happen on their own, though. Merely letting students read unbothered isn’t going to grow these skills in students; the teacher’s intentional instruction matters. With strategic use of mini-lessons and conferences with students, teachers can identify what skills each student needs to strengthen, offer just-in-time instruction to build that skill, and monitor growth and progress. 

Asking and answering that key question—What transferable skills and dispositions does this require of my students, and how am I deliberately teaching students to develop them? —is the best way I know to turn good teaching into transformative teaching. Educators who become strategic about building transferable skills and dispositions in their classrooms are the ones who make a difference in the long run. Their students succeed now and are ready to achieve far-away results throughout their lives.