Advice from Dr. Marla Robertson: Expanding your Professional Learning Network (PLN)

Marla Robertson pic
Dr. Marla Robertson, Literacy Studies faculty, shares her experience and advice about expanding your professional learning network and finding your own learning opportunities.

I remember accepting my first teaching job after I had completed my degree. I was fortunate enough to be hired at the school where I had done my student teaching, so I was familiar with the school and the district. I felt like I was ready to have my own classroom, but I also knew there was a lot to learn.

I went into this first year with an attitude of learning and began to connect with teachers, the instructional specialist, the librarian, the special education teachers and many others that were a part of the school in which I worked. Whenever the school or district offered an opportunity to learn about something new, I was there. I was a sponge, soaking up anything that I could about teaching at this school.

I have learned over the years that this was good practice, but there were many other resources that I could also have been connecting with that could have assisted me in my learning to be a better teacher.

Here are a few ideas on how to begin creating your own Professional Learning Network (PLN) to aid your journey to become the best educator you can be. My examples will be focused on literacy teachers, but you can find similar opportunities for any content.

  • First, get to know the specialists in your school and in your district. Most schools have people designated as instructional specialists for particular content areas. Part of their job is to assist teachers in their learning. Often there are district-level personnel that have this role. Learn about the resources that are available to you in your own school and district.
  • Join national professional organizations. If you are an elementary teacher, look for organizations that focus on professional learning for your grade level. If you are a content area teacher, look for organizations that specialize in providing resources to teachers in your content. Because I focus on reading, I chose to join the International Literacy Association (ILA). This organization provides many resources to teachers through journals, online resources, etc. (see literacyworldwide.org for more information). Also look into the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). This organization has amazing resources too (www.ncte.org).
  • Join local and state professional organizations and attend their conferences. There are often local groups of teachers that organize learning opportunities for teacher learning in your area. For example, for the north Texas area there is the North Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts (NTCTELA). The state of Texas has the Texas Council of Teachers of English Language arts (tctela.org) and the Texas Association for Literacy Educators (www.texasreaders.org), state organizations that represent national organizations. NTCTELA holds a conference every year in the Metroplex on the second Friday in June. They bring in four or five nationally recognized experts in teaching to present keynotes and breakout sessions during the one-day conference. For a small registration fee you can learn from some of the most widely recognized experts in the country without having to travel too far from home. Sometimes you can get your district to cover the cost of your registration. It doesn’t hurt to ask! In 2016 this conference will be held on June 10th at the Hurst Conference Center (for more information, go to www.ntctela.org). The TCTELA conference for 2017 will be held in Fort Worth next January, right in our neighborhood!
  • Read professional journals. Most professional teacher organizations have one or more journals that have great articles with ideas for teaching. For example, ILA has The Reading Teacher and the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, to name a few. These journals have amazing resources. You can get access to these journals through membership in the organization or through educational databases. NCTE also has journals as well as TCTELA and TALE. See if your district has access to these journals through subscriptions or through databases. If not, join the organization so you can get access for yourself. Many of the journals are available online.
  • Pay attention to what’s going on in the D/FW area (or your local geographical region) that may provide opportunities for you and your students. For example, another professional development opportunity in the area is the North Texas Teen Book Festival to be held in Irving on April 22 and 23. Check here for more information northtexasteenbookfestival.org. This opportunity is free. If you work with pre-adolescent or adolescent learners, this festival is a great opportunity to see what books are hot in 2016 and meet some amazing authors.

The first years of teaching are a challenge. Creating and expanding your PLN will help those years be productive and help you feel more prepared for your career as an amazing teacher!

What are your thoughts on Dr. Robertson’s advice? How can you create and expand your Professional Learning Network? -Dr. Semingson

Advice from Dr. Harrison McCoy: What Would I Do Differently If I Was Starting Again as an Educator?

McCoy Photo
UTA Graduate Dr. Harrison McCoy, a previous guest blogger and award-winning teacher, shares his reflections on teaching.

What Would I Do Differently If I Was Starting Again as an Educator?

Pre-service teachers get a lot of advice about what to do when they are assigned their first classroom. Some of it will work and some of it is a total waste of time. So, when I sat down to consider what I would do differently if I were just starting my career as an educator today, I considered the advice that I had been given along the way.

I also thought about how much things have changed, and at the risk of sounding like that “get off my lawn” grandpa down the street, things are not what they used to be in the classroom. I am nearing the end of my 17th year as an educator and I am four years away from being eligible for retirement, so it seems an interesting thing to look in the rear view mirror with one eye on the road yet ahead.

Here’s a takeaway: When I started teaching in the mid-90s, I was an imitator of those around me. Now, I want to be an innovator, influencing those around me.

If I were starting over today…

  • I would become a better student of human nature. We have the opportunity to understand human development and behavior so much better today. A few years ago, as I was concluding my studies for a master of education degree at The University of Texas – Arlington, that institution unwrapped a new graduate degree in Mind, Brain and Education designed to explore the neurobiological and psychological activity of learning. Whether it is nature or nurture that determines it, students are not the same as they were 20 years ago. Educators face students with emotional and psychological issues that threaten their ability to learn and the teacher’s ability to teach. These issues are not resolved with conventional understanding of classroom management and discipline. Understanding human behavior is becoming as necessary as understanding content.
  • I would integrate inquiry-based learning into my instructional design. Inquiry-based learning, simply put, is based on posing questions that lead students to become adept at process learning. The alternative (and more traditional) approach often feeds students information and requires them to become adept at only memorization and repeating expected answers. No matter the content area or grade level, there is a place for inquiry because from the time we are born, we are seekers using our senses to discover. We have to learn not to learn that way.
  • I would learn how to coach and facilitate learning experiences instead of teaching. My students do not need me in order to learn. They have the ability to learn anywhere, anytime, and from anyone. I am privileged to get paid to facilitate that process and show them how. I help them establish connections and cultivate pathways that encourage their process.
  • I would emphasize learning and minimize grading. Our conventional classroom approach tends to teach students to focus on points and averages. Not all learning can be measured in a grade point average. I frequently pose this question to my students: “How much would you be willing to learn if I told you that you would not be graded on this material?” In the beginning, they laughed at me. They laugh less often today. Some of them are beginning to get it.
  • I would get comfortable with failure as a part of the learning process. When my students try and fail, they are encouraged to try again. Mistakes made while learning are not penalized. Almost all assessment is formative for me. I do not penalize for failure during the formative phase of learning. Summative outcomes are the result of struggle and improvement.
  • I would take control over my own professional development. There are so many ways that educators themselves can learn anywhere, anytime, and from anyone. I am absolutely not dependent on my district to help me become a better educator. My goal is to be better every day, and no one controls that better than I.

When I wrote my dissertation for my doctorate in the mid-80s, I did so on an IBM Selectric Typewriter, before there was a correcting tape inside. Now, when I publish this post, in a matter seconds educators on the other side of the world will read it. I am amazed at how much teaching has changed, but that change is bringing with it the most astonishing opportunities imaginable. Pre-service teachers who want to be amazing educators will have the chance to go where I cannot even dream, but they must learn to embrace the times.

What are your thoughts on looking backwards over your teaching career so far? Leave us your thoughts in the comment box below! -Dr. Semingson

Advice from Dr. David Sparks: “Confidence, Teacher Voice, and a Sacred Quest”

David Sparks
Dr. David Sparks, Assistant Professor of Science Education and Faculty in the UTeach program at The University of Texas at Arlington, shares advice.

Confidence, Teacher Voice, and a Sacred Quest

“My brothers. I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me! A day may come, when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of Fellowship, but it is not this day!”

~Aragorn, from The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

Something that I notice quite often in new or developing teachers is a certain timidity that comes with their solo introduction to the classroom. It is the much-needed ability to square up the challenge and walk into any classroom confident and bold. In the case of teaching, you are not fighting Orcs, but the battle is for your classroom. Many teachers believe that size matters; you have to be a big 6’ 2” teacher with a booming voice and a scary gaze to take control of a classroom. But that is not the case. I have seen female teachers who are barely 5 ft tall stare down huge football players. I have also seen larger teachers that have been completely run over by the students. New teachers must show more confidence and grow their ability to take ownership of their classrooms.

But that is the paradox: With experience comes confidence and experience takes time (possibly years). I have a word of advice for you: Fake it until you make it! Just as a wild animal might sense fear, some students are looking for a weakness to attack and many teachers let their guard down much too fast. I do not subscribe to the adage “Don’t smile until Christmas.” However, I believe you have to be stricter at the beginning of the year. You have to let them know that in the classroom it is all business. That does not mean that you can’t have a sense of humor and joke with the students occasionally. But it does mean that they need to know when you “mean business.” That brings me to teacher voice.

You must project your speaking voice to the back of the room. A good teacher voice is somewhere between a natural speaking level and a yell. The best way to describe it is like carrying on a conversation in a crowded restaurant. It is something all new teachers have to develop. It takes practice and I suggest asking for outside evaluations of your teacher voice from fellow teachers, principals, and even a couple of students that you trust. Mix in a dash of politeness after getting their attention and you have a recipe for an effective and well-structured classroom.

Do not beg for their attention but let them know that you “need it.” It might go something like this: “Class I need your attention…eyes on me……(prolonged silence)…Table 3 I need to see your eyes….(more awkward silence)…Great. Thank for your attention. We need to discuss your group work.

What is the sacred quest? It is the sense that you have ownership in that classroom. It is your classroom, but you must build a culture of we. The students need to be proud to be on your team, respectful to you and to their fellow students, and understand that you are in control. It does not take yelling or a heavy-handed authoritarian approach. But it does take bold confidence and a measure of respect that goes both ways.

Carry on Mr. Frodo. Your quest awaits.

Post from Dr. Amanda Hurlbut

5 Tips for Good Teaching (and a Good Teaching Evaluation)

by Dr. Amanda Hurlbut, Faculty in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction,

The University of Texas at Arlington

Dr. Amanda Hurlbut
Dr. Amanda Hurlbut, Faculty

As a former school administrator, I am often asked what constitutes a successful teaching evaluation? I was the kind of administrator that continually walking through classrooms just be with students and to see the innovative things going on my teachers’ classrooms – no judgment, no condemnation, usually positive praise and constructive feedback for improvement. Teachers had no problem with this constant popping in and out until I plopped myself down to complete their formal evaluation. Then we had renditions of panic attacks, nervous hives, and jumbled speech. Why do teachers get so jittery about being formally evaluated by their principals? Now that I have stepped into a supervisory role where I am mentoring new and just-beginning teachers, I thought I would share a couple of things that I have learned from the awesome teachers that I have observed over the years…

These are the top five strategies present in every super-awesome teacher’s classroom (and formal observation):

  1. Perfection not wanted! I found that most often, teachers wanted me to see them at their absolute best – teachers are natural perfectionists and want to be seen as professionals with high expectations for themselves and their students. The problem with this mindset is that when children are involved things are almost NEVER perfect and almost ALWAYS unpredictable. Students will want to interrupt a lesson to share a story, will get distracted by a noise in the hall or a fidgety child sitting next to them, or more concerning, will come to school hungry and/or sleep deprived and not be focused on learning at all. Therefore, it is completely unrealistic that a teacher will ever have a lesson that goes absolutely perfect with 100% of his/her children on task, paying attention, or learning with accuracy. Instead, I would rather see how the teacher handles off-task students or students who are not understanding a new concept. So many times teachers, in their quest for this “perfect lesson”, will keep going even though the lesson is tanking or completely ignore a disruptive behavior in an effort to keep going with their idea of the perfect lesson (and in hopes that I won’t notice). This was not what I want to see. After all, I’ve been-there-done-that and I know that kids will act up and lessons will not go as planned. I am looking to see that the teacher realizes what’s going on during a lesson and how he/she copes with it. This means if a child is acting out – correct or redirect the child appropriately! If students are giving you deer-in-headlights-looks, don’t keep going – stop and clarify! Most of all I want teachers to know perfection is definitely not what I expect in a lesson and is a rather unattainable goal in the quest for good teaching.
  1. Classroom management is absolutely vital to master. I do not expect that your kids will always be on task or always acting appropriately. Kids are kids and they like to shout up, get up, be wiggly, go to the bathroom in the middle of a lesson, etc. However, classroom management is evident regardless of these behaviors. Do you have a procedure in class for calling on students? Or do you sometimes let them shout out an answer…Do they ask to go to the bathroom when you are explaining literacy centers, or do they know to wait until they get started? Do students know what the expectations are for lining up to go to specials? Or do they run down the hall yelling? Some of these are extreme examples, but classroom management is very important in being a good teacher. Vital to this point is the relationship you develop with your students and the positive learning environment that you build. The best teachers create an unspoken understanding that it is okay to make mistakes; failure is part of the learning process and students are still loved and accepted even when they mess up. So when you have to correct a student for shouting out in the middle of giving directions, that student knows that you still love him, despite the mistake he made. Do everything you can now to build that repertoire with your students and then stick to it! And remember, that students who are busy and active don’t have time to mess around, which brings me to my next point…
  1. Students who are engaged in learning don’t have time to be off-task! When students are actively engaged in their learning, they don’t have time to be off task and disruptive. When what they are working on is so interesting and fun and challenging and mind-bending, they won’t tune out or fiddle or lose interest, although you might have a louder volume in your classroom. Think about it. When you are interested in what you are doing, you are more likely to stay focused and attentive on the task at hand. It is the same with students. This is not saying that you have to entertain and be fun and games all the time. But when learning is decidedly planned to be engaging and interesting to students, some of the management issues disappear. Reflect on your own learning – would want to sit and listen to a 45-minute lecture about good teaching practices? No, because that is not good teaching practice. What if Professional Development opportunities were now web scavenger hunts on Pinterest to find innovative strategies for a problem? Or working in collaborative coffee groups with like-minded peers to strategize and compromise? Or visiting places such as wildlife reserves, museums, or gardens to plan active learning experiences for students? I know which learning experiences I would prefer…
  1. Specific feedback fuels learning! Research has demonstrated time and time again that feedback drives learning. Learners must receive constructive input to help them improve in the learning practice. Both positive (what a student is doing right) and negative (what a student needs to correct) is helpful in this process. In order to grow and master in the learning process, learners must receive specific input regarding what they are doing well and what still needs work. So when a teacher says, “good job” – what exactly does that mean other than to tell the student that they are doing something right? Feedback that is explicit and provides an opportunity to either correct or fine tune a learning task is much more helpful in the learning process and will stick longer. For instance, consider these two examples of feedback during a science lesson where students have to measure a precise amount of liquid for an experiment:

“That amount is not right, try again.”

“When you measure, you are looking at the amount from a top view. To get a better measurement, you need to look at it from the side to get an accurate amount of how much is in the container since the units are on the side.”

Which feedback is more helpful in correcting the learning issue? Teachers are often so overwhelmed with the number of learners in their class or the objective that a single lesson must cover, that they get pressured to “just keep moving” in order to get it all in. Providing immediate, specific feedback is absolutely vital towards facilitating deep and meaningful learning in the classroom and in the long run, will save time since students can quickly master a topic and move on to the next.

  1. Make sure that students know what they are learning and why. My teachers used to complain about having to write learning objectives on the board each day. But what they didn’t understand is how much it influenced students in driving their own learning process…The best teachers not only wrote the learning objectives on the board, but took time to actually explain what it was that students would be learning and why it was important. These teachers would then expect students to be able to verbalize their own learning objectives as personal learning goals. When students could express in their own words what they were learning and why and how it connected to what they learned previously, it revealed to me so much more about that teacher’s capability to engage his/her students in the learning process. It meant that the teacher had taken time to explain the concept, what it meant, and why it was important to learn. And when students could verbalize their learning, it usually meant they were learning on a very deep, meaningful level. So don’t turn your nose at those learning objectives. Teach students to look for them and as a way to excite them about the learning for the day!

Dr. Hurlbut’s bio: Dr. Amanda Hurlbut is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Elementary Education at UT Arlington where she teaches Child Development and online Master¹s courses in Curriculum and Instruction. During the summer of 2015, she completed her Ph. D. in Curriculum and Instruction with a research emphasis on elementary pre-service teacher preparation in issues of inclusion and Response to Intervention practices. She spent over 9 years in the public school system as a first and third grade teacher, instructional specialist, and elementary assistant principal.

What are your thoughts on your classroom observation? What fosters great classroom instruction and interactions that help year round but especially when being observed? What are ways you seek feedback for improvement of your practice? We welcome your comments below! -Dr. Semingson