“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:3-6).
Teaching is a complex process. There is no ‘one-size’ fits all approach. There is no cookbook or prescribed method of instruction that is statistically more significant than another. Moreover, in order to meet the instructional demands of students, teaching takes much time and effort. Many external factors can interfere, even impede, learning for a child. So often, a goodly number of these external factors are uncontrollable by the teacher.
Even so, teachers strive for excellence. And, teachers expend much time and energy to give to their students the best possible Christian instruction. Teachers offer this commitment to excellence out of love, thanks, and praise to their heavenly Father for the gift of Jesus, their Lord and Savior.
After analyzing much educational research and interviewing many Christian teachers in several LCMS districts, teachers have consistently expressed certain characteristics or qualities that make for a healthy environment for learning. Below are just some that teachers have identified. Let’s begin with what I consider the most significant.
Integrate One’s Faith
To teach in a faith-based school, particularly in a Lutheran school, is a choice made by the teacher. In fact, teachers who aspire to teach in a Lutheran school enroll into a different tract in one of our ten synod universities for the appropriate preparation and religious instruction. Those that begin in a secular college or university make a choice to enroll into synod’s Colloquy Program for the needed preparation and study. The integration of one’s faith is of particular interest and of most importance to the Christian teacher.
The modeling of one’s faith through prayer, word and action gives the Holy Spirit opportunity and means to strengthen the faith of students. Moreover, Christian teachers in Lutheran schools so beautifully discern when to help students acknowledge their sin or when to direct students back to the Cross of Jesus Christ for forgiveness and healing. Such instruction prepares students to be Christian citizens and ready to serve in a congregation of their own some day.
Maintain a Safe and Positive Learning Environment
Harry Wong devotes an entire book to classroom management and how to prepare for the first day, week, and months to follow (Wong, 1998). Effective management and timely discipline can be the difference for teachers having an exceptional versus a mediocre year, or possibly success or failure in the classroom. The data on teacher quality and healthy learning environments strongly suggest that teacher effectiveness is linked to teachers being able to manage their administrative tasks appropriately, respect the dignity of children, and be consistent when disciplining students. I can report that teachers believe with 100% conviction that the practice of creating a safe and positive learning environment ascribes to good teaching and good learning environments.
Competence to Communicate
The transfer of content knowledge is integral for helping students achieve mastery of content material. Teachers who are able to discern when conversations are facilitative or have become dysfunctional for a particular learner or learning environment adjust their instruction accordingly. Exceptional teachers have a knack in helping students explore content rather than just talking about content. And, exceptional teachers invite their students into their thought processes about their content. According to Fisher and Frey (2014), this invitation more readily happens when the teacher thinks aloud during their instruction; thus, inviting their students into one’s own thought processes. This ‘thinking aloud’ by the teacher enables a student to meta-cognitively process the procedural skill needed to master the concept.
Change Pedagogical Approaches
Educational research draws linkages between teachers’ pedagogical beliefs with teachers’ classroom practices. Cady, Meier, and Lubinski (2006) and Waters-Adams (2006) report relationships between beliefs and practices in the teaching of mathematics and science. Why are these studies worthy of our attention?
Both studies acknowledge the type of learning approached modeled – constructionists or traditionalists. Furthermore, the learning environment engenders fundamentally different learned experiences. Teachers, as constructionists, favor a student-centered approach to instruction. On the other hand, teachers, as traditionalists, favor a teacher-centered approach to teaching.
What is important to understand and realize is that both approaches are good instructional approaches. In providing a healthy learning environment, educators practice both approaches and pick the appropriate time for one or the other.
Research strongly supports that productive learning environments are more likely to happen when teachers engage students through questions, prompts, cues, strategies, demonstrations and appropriate illustrations (Shulman, 1987; Marzano, 2007; Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001; Goodwin & Hubbell, 2013; Fisher & Frey, 2013). Teachers instinctively discern which strategies are appropriate or not when scaffolding students’ initial attempts to bring about a better understanding of content material. And when teachers build a ‘toolkit’ of particular strategies appropriate for grade level and ability level, the more productive the learning environment can become. Below are a few of those strategies for consideration:
- Discussion Roundtable
- Reciprocal Teaching
- Whisper Reading
- Note Taking & Summarizing
- Graphic Organizers
- Compare/Contrast Charts
- Mnemonic strategies
- Elaborative Interrogations
- Decision-making tasks that enable one to generate and test hypotheses
Build Relationships with Parents and Students
Teachers repeatedly stated that to build strong relationships with parents and students requires one to establish genuine, caring, and professional relationships with their students as well as well as getting to know their students’ personal interests, strengths, and weaknesses. Teachers consistently acknowledged that relationships with students and parents are more deeply cultivated when teachers can commit and can invest their personal time beyond classroom time.
Sergiovanni and Starratt (2007) describe the difference and importance for active and passive reflection as it relates to learning environments. Teachers who I interviewed and surveyed ascribed an effective teacher to that of a risk taker, someone who is willing to learn from another and incorporate that gained knowledge into their daily routine. Setting aside time to grow as a professional and be a continual learner of one’s content and pedagogical practice yields better teaching and more productive classroom environments.
Differentiate According to Student Need and Ability
Teachers interviewed and surveyed believed that differentiated instruction more likely occurs when a teacher strives to ascertain their students’ ability level through various formative and summative assessments. Teachers also conveyed that the analysis of student test data must include a charting and reviewing of that data by teachers and students alike. And teachers further believed and promulgated that adjustment of instruction to meet their students’ ability levels is one of the most challenging instructional tasks to accomplish but a most didactic way to ignite student learning.
We are privileged to be in partnership with one another. That partnership extends beyond classroom walls or our convening together as a result of individual beliefs regarding good teaching and what constitutes a productive learning environment. We are privileged to enjoy a more wonderful partnership – a partnership that has been bestowed upon us from our heavenly Father through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
What a privilege it is for me to be in partnership with all of you as you readily instruct future leaders, future congregational leaders!
I readily keep all of you in my prayers. I affirm you and your Christian service and passion as you deliberately and intentionally deliver the Gospel of Jesus Christ each and every day to your students.
It is my hope and prayer that you give some thought to these eight practices, possibly even reading and reflecting upon a listed source for your own professional growth.
God’s blessings to you as you give the most precious gift one could receive – the gift of Christian education!
Let us always give thanks to God for our churches and schools.
Resources to Consider:
- The Art and Science of Teaching, ( Marzano,2007)
- Essential Questions, (McTighe & Wiggins, 2013)
- Better Learning Through Structured Teaching, (Fisher & Frey, 2013)
- Touchstones of Good Teaching, (Goodwin & Hubbell, 2013)
- Supervision, A Redefinition, (Sergiovanni & Starratt, 2007)
- Causes & Cures in the Classroom, (Searle, 2013)
- The Differentiated School, (Tomlinson, Brimijoin, & Narvaez, 2008)
- Developing mathematics teachers: the transition from pre-service to experienced teacher, (The Journal of Educational Research, 2006)
- The relationship between understanding of the nature of science and practice: the influence of teachers’ beliefs about education, teaching and learning, (International Journal of Science Education, 2006)
- Developing effective teacher beliefs about learners: the role of sensitizing teachers to individual learning differences, (Educational Psychology, 2008)
- Curriculum 21, (Hayes, 2010)
- Reading of informational Texts, (Cummins, 2012)
- Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12, (Gallagher, 2011)