10 Ways to Grow As an Educator

September 14, 2017 Douglas Petrick

My experience as an educator, paired with discussion with my colleagues, has led to several revelations as to how I can evolve my teaching over time. Below are my top 10.

Petrick_Top10_157188651_Oleg PrikhodkoGettyimages.jpg1. Evolution, Not Revolution

The way you teach today should not be the way you teach five, ten, or fifteen years from now. Look for small ways you can continue to improve. Rapid change can be disruptive and may fail if you move too fast, so take it slow. At the end of the term, think about what you did well and where you can grow. Student feedback can be helpful in this regard. If there are consistent themes (“I wish Professor X made labs more exciting” or “The lab experience needs more hands-on time”) start there and consider small changes in how you set-up your labs.

2. Continuing Education for the Educator

Growth is not always organic and, as the saying goes, none of us are as smart as all of us. Participating in workshops, seminars, and hands-on idea sharing where you get together with other educators can spur new ideas. A business friend of mine related that he often dislikes the thought of attending workshops, and he’s honest about the reason: “I already know what will be discussed. My ego gets in the way.” But he’s learned to let some of that go because even though he might be well-versed in what he does, there’s always a good takeaway that, in the end, is meaningful and impacts his work for the better.

3. Self-Evaluation

Student evaluations can hurt. Anonymity allows students to unload their gripes, and they can sometimes be less than kind. Harsh comments can leave some scars, create doubt in your abilities, and hinder your desire to try something new in fear that students will savage you once more. Self-evaluation means you reflect on your strengths and park the student negativity outside your head. Look at your student evaluations and find the positive. Notice the small clues if you have trouble identifying your strengths. If students do not harp on your inability to communicate, that shows you have good communication skills. Reading between the lines can enable you to find strengths. Sometimes strengths pop out as you sit back and reflect on your classroom experience. “Hmm, I seem to be able to make students laugh” (not at you, but with you). Humor, then, is a strength. Go with it. Use it more and watch to see how it impacts student engagement.

4. Connect the Dots

Is there a theme that runs through your teaching? Look at your course objectives and think about how each objective might tie into an overall theme rather than be discrete parts that seem disconnected from one another. Think about popular media, television series, movies, and novels. While each episode, scene, or chapter is unique, they are all pieces of a puzzle that fit together to form the whole. Labs, lectures, group work, and homework can all be pointing towards one overarching idea. The theme need not be grand. Here’s an example: “Class, Algebra is more than about solving for X. Algebra is the foundation for understanding very interesting things involving higher order mathematics such as space travel, engineering, and innovative technology. Over the months ahead, we’ll explore why solving for X is crucial for understanding our world through the language of math.”

5. Timing Is Everything

Timing relates back to the first point discussed earlier. Wholesale change in the middle of the term can be jarring to students and you may want to wait until the next term to try out new ideas. That’s okay. Remember, slow and steady wins the race. Maybe the timing for a slight change is right if things aren’t going quite as well as you planned, you recognize what the issue is, and you can fix it by acknowledging to the class that you understand the problem. In that case, tell them how you’re going to alter the course to improve their experience. If students know you see the problem and recognize that you are part of the problem--not just them--the result will be less disruptive for the students.

6. Anticipate Potential Student Struggles

As you get to know your class, try to identify potential student struggles before they happen. You may see patterns arise through homework, or when students have difficulty grasping more complex concepts. Knowing is half the battle. Thinking ahead allows you to capitalize on teachable moments and more readily value the struggle as a growth opportunity rather than a pitfall. You may be able to create a “glue” for difficult material that allows concepts to stick, an idea that relates to the thematic approach to teaching discussed earlier.

7. Know the Difference Between Interference and Interjection

Ultimately, you want to teach towards independence. Anticipating student pain points as mentioned above doesn’t mean you want to interfere with a student’s natural learning process, but you do want to be prepared to interject and help move them in the right direction when this is helpful. This way, you are putting them on the path towards independence where they are not relying on you to swoop in and save them, but they still know they can look to you for guidance and encouragement. This approach allows students to become more comfortable with developing their problem-solving skills.

8. Build Power in Numbers

Working like a lone wolf isn’t the ideal situation in education. There is power in the pack. Sure you’ve got your content covered, but thinking about how to deliver your instruction can be a daunting task. Create your pack by seeking out a few teachers who are open to sharing what they do. Then observe one or two classes, even if they don’t teach your content area. Learn what resonates with students from a delivery standpoint. Focus on teacher-student interaction and find out what pulls the class into the lesson. Use these performances, for better or worse, to reflect on your own teaching. Utilizing a pack of peers to observe can be an effective way to improve your craft.

9. Read for Inspiration

I’ve done more reading for pleasure than I have for content since I’ve become a teacher. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s not. Reading books about business, running, and the Navy Seal mindset will help you brainstorm about how to infuse those best practices into your classroom. As a physics teacher, trying to find classroom connections between Newton’s Laws and Psychology Principles may be tricky, but it flexes my creative muscles. Pushing your boundaries and stepping outside of your comfort zone as an educator will keep your ideas fresh. Identifying commonalities in non-related areas stimulates and feeds the creative process.

10. Be the Positive Solution

In the era of trolling and clickbait, it’s always easier to find fault than find solutions. Negativity can get you down, but focusing on the silver lining of each dark cloud can keep you in a positive mindset. This can be as simple as avoiding the teacher lounge when the prevailing topic is “kids these days.” Instead, opt for a solo lunch and watch a TedTalk. If the weather is cooperative, walk and talk (in person or on the phone) with someone about a positive event. Turn class problems into class solutions. If phones are a distraction, find a way to incorporate them into a lesson. If students talk too much in class, devise an activity that forces them to talk and share with each other and you. Be the sunshine in the room and believe it or not, your students will begin to feed off your energy.

Do these growth tactics resonate with you? Let me know in the comments below.

Image Credit: Oleg Prikhodko


About the Author

Physics Teacher //

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