Interestingly, the work of teachers and the work of research scientists have a number of similarities. Both teachers and research scientists have public components to their work, such as the daily classroom instruction or the announcement of a ground-breaking discovery. Both do a significant amount of preparation behind the scenes. Teachers make long-range and daily plans to optimize the time they have with students, while scientists develop research plans and spend months and even years hypothesizing, testing, securing funding, and analyzing. For both groups, at any moment, there can be a last-minute change that affects the well-constructed plan. We obviously know that the work of scientists is technical and complex; it’s time we recognized that high-quality teaching is an art and a science, too. Being a successful teacher is a complex undertaking and not for the haphazardly prepared.
This chapter highlights how effective teachers organize for instruction by creating the maximum learning time and opportunities for students. Specifically, effective teacher research on the quality of organizing for instruction focuses on these 4 factors:
- Focusing on Instruction.
- Maximizing Instructional Time.
- Expecting Students to Achieve.
- Planning and Preparing for Instruction.
Focusing on instruction
Effective teachers approach instruction with a focus that is similar to an athlete getting ready for a competition. Athletes do not just show up and compete; rather, they prepare consistently over time, refining their plan as the event nears. And, if they believe in their goal and that their plan will succeed, they translate their plan into actions. In the classroom, teachers organize for instruction in much the same way, although their plans focus on academics.
Organization does not just occur; teachers use multiple levels of planning, such as yearly, term, unit, weekly, and daily plans, to ensure that knowledge, concepts, and skills are presented in a sequential manner with adequate time for both teaching and learning. When planning for instruction, teachers create an overview of each unit, identifying components that are primary, secondary, enrichment, and remediation. In this way teachers have preselected what must be taught and what can be used to supplement instruction. In deciding what will be the essential instructional focus in their classes, teachers need to carefully consider the curriculum. Specifically, their efforts to organize for instruction should reflect three strategies. Namely, instruction should
- be organized around important concepts and questions,
- reflect the concerns of students, and
- be oriented toward standards-based assessments.
Effective teachers emphasize the importance of instruction through their beliefs, planning, and actions. The emphasis on instruction is a quality that overlaps with others in this chapter, as it incorporates time, expectations, and lesson planning. In the final analysis, what is important is the integration of multiple components that result in outstanding performance of both teachers and their students.
Maximizing Instructional Time
Time is a nonrenewable resource in the classroom. Teachers only have a finite amount of it, and when it is gone there is no way to generate more. Many classrooms have schedules posted in them with bells or activity changes noted, but the actual time use during the instructional block often is not specified. A very noticeable difference between effective teachers and their less effective counterparts is that effective teachers do more with their time. There is a rhythm to the classroom resulting in significant differences in the learning. One strategy that effective teachers use is the investment of time at the beginning of the year to establish routines and expectations that help them conserve their time so that minutes are not lost on transitions or disruptions.
An important step in establishing expectations is the development of relationships with students. Over two decades ago, researchers observed that more effective teachers spent a greater amount of time getting to know their students on the first day of school. These teachers sent a message to students that they were important—and the effectiveness of this strategy has been reinforced in the subsequent research literature, as well as by our own common sense. Building a solid foundation of relationships in the classroom helps to create a collaborative and supportive environment that operates more smoothly.
Furthermore, effective teachers are good at saving time. For example, they have routines to facilitate transitions and carefully targeted questioning strategies to make better use of the limited time they have with students. Classroom routines clearly help teachers maximize learning time and may be classified in four
- Activity routines are used to engage students in practicing specific skills. The location and time of these activities are standardized and modeled until the activity occurs without much direction from the teacher on the mechanics of it. Repetition transforms many typical classroom activities from novel to routine events. Activity-related routines facilitate the movement of students and smooth transitions. Instead of telling students to report to various groups, the teacher may just announce that it is time for writer’s workshop and students know where in the classroom to go to start on their work. Other examples include reading groups, science labs, and physical education warm-up exercises.
- Instructional routines relate to the procedures used with particular instructional strategies and methods. For example, students may be taught the specific steps involved in the strategy of “Think, Pair, Share” (an instructional strategy where a student thinks, then pairs with another student to exchange thoughts, and shares with the larger group). With each successive opportunity to “Think, Pair, Share,” stu- dents will become more comfortable with the strategy. Thus, instructional routines become linked to specific strategies. The use of instructional routines shifts the emphasis from how the instruction is delivered to the content that is addressed.
- Management routines establish order in the classroom, such as how to:
- indicate if students are buying the school lunch,
- walk in the hall,
- pass out materials and collect them when done,
- let the teacher know that help is needed, and
- dismiss students from the class.These routines reduce the administrative and transitional time spent in the classroom. They are not academic in nature.
- Executive Planning routines assist teachers when planning for instruction. It is the planning format that is followed, such as looking at the curriculum standards, reviewing last year’s notes on the lesson, aligning the curriculum with planned assessments, identifying resources, making an instructional materials list, and sequencing lesson activities. This routine focuses on establishing a pattern for how one plans so that all the necessary components are addressed. It is like the scientific method in that there is an order and fixed elements so that one considers each piece.
The first three routine types relate directly to the expectations that teachers have for the time they spend with students; the fourth, “Executive Planning,” focuses on teachers making better use of their limited planning time. Later in this chapter, we will discuss elements of lesson planning in more depth. Establishing routines is one way of letting students know what is expected from them in specific situations. However, the reason why effective teachers use routines goes beyond classroom management; more specifically and more importantly, effective teachers use routines to make the most of classroom time for teaching and learning.
Expecting Students to Achieve
Teacher expectations for student success are powerful motivators for both the teacher and the student. For students to achieve at the highest levels, teachers need to set appropriate goals with students and support them in attaining their goals. Effective teachers convey a “you can do it” attitude to students and demonstrate confidence in the students’ abilities to master new content and skills.
Effective teachers communicate high expectations to all students. Setting high expectations and supporting students in achieving them is a means to close an achievement gap among students. Researchers have found that top students receive more attention and higher expectations from their teachers than students in the bottom third of their class, so teachers need to be aware of potential biases. Consequently, expectations must be realistic and reasonable for each student to accomplish during the time spent with the teacher. Teachers who assume responsibility for student learning and set high expec- tations for all of their students are generally more successful.
Having high expectations is not enough to ensure student success. Teachers must actively engage students and demonstrate their commitment to student achievement through their whole-hearted dedication to teaching. Mastering essential concepts is expected for all students, but effective teachers use more than mastery; they issue challenges. Students will work for teachers whom they perceive as believing in their abilities. Moreover, higher achievement standards are hallmarks of the effective teacher’s classroom. Clearly, the power of an effective teacher is in helping students master material they would have never been able to do on their own. They empower students to take responsibility for learning as part of their commitment to ensuring students’ success. These effective educators establish a climate of trust where praise is authentic and criticism is constructive. Effective teachers expect more of students and, in turn, raise students expectations for success. And, consistent with our focus on organizing for instruction, helping students meet and exceed expectations must be linked to the instructional plan.
Planning and Preparing for Instruction
In classrooms where students consistently experience success, the teacher invariably has done complex, behind-the-scenes work to plan for instruction. Another way to think of planning is as decision making. Planning helps teachers with the following activities:
- focusing on the purpose for the lesson;
- reviewing the subject matter and available resources before presenting it to students; and
- determining how to start, deliver, and assess the lesson.
Effective teachers spend a great deal of time deciding how they will teach, as they know that well-constructed plans typically yield better quality academic time because behavioral concerns diminish when students are engaged. There is a growing trend for schools to encourage teachers to plan together by providing time for team planning or department-level planning. This collaborative approach reduces the isolation that teachers may feel, provides models for novice teachers, and creates a synergy of ideas. Nonetheless, many teachers engage in lesson planning alone at night and on the weekends. Regardless of how the planning is done, effective teachers consider the required curriculum, long-range and short-term perspectives, available materials, and student needs in their planning for instruction.
As any educator will recognize, students come to school at various states of readiness and developmental levels. Effective teachers meet students where they are and provide experiences to take them to higher levels of knowing. It is not sufficient for teachers to simply present material without considering where the students are in their development. Clearly, instructional objectives and supporting activities must be appropriate for the learner. Effective teachers reflect on the instruction they are planning to ensure that the lesson 1) meets student needs, 2) is at a pace that enables students to learn the material, and 3) provides feedback to let teachers know whether students understood the content.
The activities in the classroom need to be sequenced in a manner that promotes students’ cognitive and developmental growth. Some lessons may be appropriate at the end of the school year that would not work as effectively in the beginning of the year if students lack prerequisite knowledge or skills, such as fine motor coordination or an ability to abstractly think about algebra-related skill sets. Thus, the lesson should match the intended learning outcomes and be paced such that students can achieve those outcomes. The effective teacher allows the lesson to evolve so that adjustments can be made based on circumstances, including on-the-spot classroom feedback from the students. In summary, selecting the appropriate objective, lesson, and pace is a complex and vital component of teaching.
Key components of effective instructional planning include knowledge of the curriculum, proper selection of instructional materials and resources, and attention to both long-term and short-range planning. Each of these components will be discussed in turn.
Knowledge of the Curriculum
“Expert knowledge is organized around important concepts, the big ideas, not isolated facts”. Curriculum is the framework from which teachers draw to identify these important con- cepts and to focus on desired learning outcomes. Furthermore, “curriculum defines the specifics of what students should learn: the concepts and generalizations, the related topics and facts, and the skills and habits of mind that will enable learning”. Effective teachers have a deep knowledge of their content area and are able to balance competing demands as they provide a rich but well-grounded curriculum for students. They also plan lessons to allow students to use their knowledge in new and authentic ways.
Teachers’ plans need to be aligned with the state, school district, and school-adopted curriculum. Curriculum alignment ensures a link between what the state or district intends for students to learn, what teachers teach and assess, and what students actually learn. In a time of high-stakes testing, the curriculum addressed in the classroom needs to be aligned with the skills and knowledge to be tested in order to promote student achievement and learning equity. Even without high-stakes assessment systems, good teachers still align classroom plans with intended outcomes.
Instructional Materials and Resources
Effective teachers continually add to their repertoire of knowledge about instructional materials and equipment in order to meet the needs of their students. They use their knowledge of instructional standards to guide their decision making on what resources they need to acquire or develop. Most teachers use supplementary materials and overheads on a regular basis. An increasing number of school districts are infusing schools and classrooms with computers and information technology. While the extant research has not expressly linked effective teachers and technology use, at least one report indicates that when computer technology was used, student learning increased. Teachers use technology to offer more individualized attention to students, increase hands-on instruction, and create a student-focused environment. Note: While technology was singled out here as an example, it represents just one of the many resources that teachers use to support students in learning.
Consider long-range planning to be like a blueprint which effective teachers use to consider the broad picture when planning and sequencing instruction. Long-range planning considers key issues such as curriculum standards and student needs. This planning process may occur by the year or the semester as teachers look at the big picture. Effective teachers are aware of how the content fits together. Also, they take into account common student misconceptions that affect lessons. Long-range planning enables high-performing teachers to integrate their instruction with that of other educators and develop interdisciplinary units. By knowing where the class will be going instructionally, teachers can plan units to connect in a seamless fashion. In addition, by allocating time to planning, teachers can prioritize instructional goals and allocate time appropriately during the instructional days they have.
A more concise, specific level of long-range planning is the instructional unit plan, which attempts to capture the big picture for instruction over several weeks. Unit planning provides an opportunity for teachers to consider what specific objectives will be taught, how much time should be allocated to each objective, what ways students will further their understanding of the concepts, and how to assess the students. Additionally, effective teachers use all available data such as pre-assessments and knowledge of students to assist in outlining how the instruction will be delivered. Unit planning is the time when the teacher begins brainstorming, collects and organizes a variety of materials, and makes the initial determination of how to address the specific content. At this stage of planning, the teacher needs to consider the relationship between the instructional process and assessment. If a unit test or culminating assignment is to be administered at the end, then the teacher needs to develop it in the beginning to ensure that the intended learning outcomes, the instruction to be delivered, and the assessment are aligned.
Short-term planning refers to daily and weekly planning. Effective teachers use long-range plans to determine approximately where they should be in order to meet their objectives. Short-term plans are the physical manifestation of the mental preparation teachers undergo in planning for their students. It demonstrates their knowledge of the content, understanding of students, consideration of the classroom’s organization, instructional resources, appropriate instructional strategies, and assessments. In essence, good planning calls on the whole gamut of extensive professional knowledge that effective teachers possess.
Weekly lesson plans, in contrast to unit plans, are developed closer to when the actual instruction will occur. A good recommendation for new teachers is to do this level of planning two weeks in advance. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. Developing the plans at least one week ahead of time allows teachers to reflect on student progress during the previous week and modify lesson plans in response to it. These short-term plans include details that may not have been available when the unit plan was developed, such as school-wide assemblies, instruction needed for a large group of students who were out with the flu, current events, and consideration of other needs.
Daily lesson plans are the elaboration of the weekly plan. They provide day-by-day information on the objectives, materials, strategies, and assessments that will be used. Universal daily lesson plan formats do not exist; however, an adequate daily lesson plan should be understandable to another teaching professional. Experienced educators and researchers suggest the following common elements: teacher’s name, date, topic area, period/time, objectives, specific content, materials, instructional strategies, student activities, alternative assignments, assessment, and homework. Alternative assignments refer to the “over planning” teachers do in the event that the lesson flows more quickly than expected or some students finish early. Alternative assignments are not busy work; they are meaningful extensions of the lesson. Ideally, lesson plan models should include suggestions for differentiation of instruction or accommodations to meet individual student learning needs. Daily lesson plans specifically state what will be done, what materials are needed, and how teachers will know whether students have learned the objective(s).
Teachers know that planning and preparation are essential, but planning is not a 100 percent guarantee that classroom instruction will go exactly as desired. The classroom is a dynamic, constantly changing environment. There are times when the plans need to be modified, sometimes almost instantaneously. For example, when teachable moments, unannounced fire drills, illnesses, unexpected assemblies, and a host of other unanticipated events occur, effective teachers adapt to the moment. How the teacher responds is critical to maintaining the momentum of instruction. When teachers go through the mental exercise of planning and organizing for instruction, they know what is important — and they are better able to adapt when needed.
adapted from "Handbook for Qualities of Effective Teacher" by James Stronge, Pamela Tucker, Jennifer Hindman.