Four characteristics observed in an effective teacher at the beginning of the year

Observing expert teachers is a pretty common practice in education – in the middle of the  year.  But what happens at the beginning of the year to jump-start that success?

I had been wondering this for awhile and decided to see someone for myself during the first week of school.  

My school has a choir teacher, Kelsey Tortorice, who has experienced a high level of success with a group of vocalists at our school.   I asked her if I could come in and spy on her, while also doing an audio recording of the class.

I boiled down my general observations to four elements, and they all start with P.  I didn’t plan it that way like a hip megachurch pastor might; it just ended up that way.  I’ll start from most important observations to the least important, although in reality it’s all important.  Let’s go to our 2pm choir class.  

Pre-thinking everything:

It was quite clear when I was in Kelsey’s choir class that she had thought through everything ahead of time.  Everything.  Nothing was left to happenstance.  Not only is she experienced, she has been reflective on her experience and has used her experience to structure class.

  • She had an agenda on a Powerpoint slide, which I rarely see choir directors post (we just walk in, sing, and do what the conductor says, right?):  “Attendance, sing, weekly rehearsal grade, materials overview, room set up”.  She knew what she needed to cover with them, and she made sure that they knew. 
  • The chairs were seated in a circle when students walked in with written instructions to sit anywhere in the circle
  • She said that she wanted students to teach her their last names so that communication and coordination with other teachers would be easier 
  • When she said “take 30 seconds to do X”, she gave them 30 seconds.  
  • She told them that they had a week to get a black binder, 1-inch-thick, that they can use just for this class.  

She also encouraged students to do pre-thinking of their own.  This was the first year I had heard a teacher state to a group of students that they needed to manage their lunch period (right before class) such that they can arrive to her class on time in order to be ready to start class, because at the 2:00PM bell (she stated that) they needed to be seated and ready to sing.  

Within the first 5 minutes of class, I knew what Kelsey was all about.  

Pause to reflect:  What elements of your classroom flow are you not pre-thinking?  Is it possible that your classroom management issues stem from you as the teacher not thinking about something ahead of time, which gives room for chaos? 

Pinpointing what students should be doing

Kelsey is an expert at narrating what she expects her students to be doing at every point along the way.   Nothing – absolutely nothing – is a mystery in Ms. Tortorice’s classroom.  If you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing and when you are supposed to be doing it, it’s because you’re legitimately dumb, because she spells it out by the minute.  

Here are some phrases that I saw or heard from her:  

  • “Ok, we’ll take attendance.  Please don’t respond if you’re not the person I’m calling out.”
  • On a Powerpoint:  “By the 2:00pm bell, all belongings should be below or behind your chair.  All phones away.”  
  • She broke down the criteria for their five daily participation points.  I only got to jot down 5-4-3- points.
    • 5 – seated with all materials below seat or out of the way by 2pm
    • 4 – Seated by any other materials are still out, digging out of backpack or phone still out at 2pm
    • 3 – in the room but not seated

What I really took away from my time with her is the idea of narrating student behavior.  In classes that need a lot of direction, the teacher must constantly be definitively narrating the who, what, where, and how of student conduct at any given moment.

In the sound clip below, I really appreciated how she had an established call-back-to-order procedure in place.  The classroom goes from noisy transition back to rehearsing within 15 seconds.  Take a listen.  

She offered a brain break in the middle of the lesson.  But before going there, she specified how students were to spend their brain break, and she notified them how they’d be called back out of it.  Made for a really smooth transition.  Listen below.

Polite redirection

One of the biggest takeaways from my time with Kelsey was the polite and non-aggressive tone of her redirections.  This is a group of vocalists who are starting the sixth hour of their school day (out of nine – yeah, our school day is long).  It’s easy to get frustrated with them when they’re chatting too much or getting out of order.  Kelsey redirects them with a non-threatening, non-angry tone that I have tried to implement this year.  Have a listen. 

She just states what she wants, in a precise way, with little to no emotion behind it, and students understand.  Same thing here. 

Pause to reflect:  Do you tend to get upset with your students and show anger when something is happening in your classroom that you don’t want?  Is it possible that specificity mixed with a polite, human tone could help bring them in?  

Peaceful poise in front of the class

Kelsey showed no nerves or self-consciousness about being in front of high school students.  She had a posture and calmness that conveyed mission and purpose.  There were no sudden jerky physical moves on her part (I’m starting to think that I freak my students out some time).  She walked around the classroom, taking an even pace as she circulated among all students throughout the rehearsal.  

There was a spot in which some students clapped (once) at the end of a song, but some didn’t.  She said in a very neutral tone, “It’s not your fault if you didn’t clap, I wasn’t clear about that.”  It didn’t unnerve her to apologize for something.  

Pause to reflect:  What is your poise like in front of students?  Do students sense that you’re nervous about the day?  Do you have a presence in the room that lets them know that you’ve got this?  

I think the 3 minute video with former students shows it best (see below). 

I’m thankful to work with colleagues like Ms. Tortorice who I can model, and whose effectiveness can be felt in the room.   You might not be a choir teacher, but I hope this post has helped you consider what you can replicate in your own classroom setting!

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