Reflections on Teaching & Learning

Steven WeberBlog, Reflect Better


  • This post shares reflections on teaching and learning through a career in K-12 education.
  • Poverty impacts a student’s ability to perform at school.
  • School staff ultimately determines opportunity to learn.
  • Formative assessment is the silver bullet.
  • Provide opportunities for students to inquire. It’s no longer important to focus on what the teachers can do with the content. The goal is to see how students can demonstrate understanding in multiple ways.

Lessons Learned: Reflections From a Career in K-12 Education

As I reflect on my first year as a classroom teacher, I often wonder how much more effective I could have been if I knew then what I have learned along the journey. What lessons have you learned throughout your career? The reality is that we learn from making mistakes. And we learn from our experiences with different students, families, and the roles we are given by those who believe we can make a difference in the lives of students.

As a first-year teacher, I was ready to change the world and inspire students to become lifelong learners. I was passionate about teaching and learning. But there were so many things that I did not know at the time.

Reflections: Poverty Impacts a Student’s Ability to Perform at School

As a first-year teacher, I wanted every student to learn at a high level. And I had high expectations for my students.

I did not understand the impact of hunger on students. I felt like I cared for all students, but I did not know about Eric Jensen’s research or the ASCD Whole Child Indicators.

Understanding the impact of poverty on students provides teachers with a way to reach students and to help them with academic language, goal setting, and social skills. Many first-year teachers have the heart to support every child. But they may lack the strategies to support the whole child.

Recently, I drove to work in a downpour. On the way to work, I passed three bus stops. At the first bus stop, two students were huddled under the mailboxes in front of a trailer park, trying to stay dry while waiting for the bus. There would have been a larger cover at an ATM machine. At the second bus stop, a student had an umbrella, but the rain was blowing in from the side. At the final bus stop, five students were standing in the rain using their book bags as umbrellas.

Does your school provide a towel and/or dry clothes to students who wait in the rain to catch the bus?  Do you think it would be difficult to learn if you spent the first part of your day in soaking wet clothes? Poverty impacts Opportunity to Learn (OTL). Educators must address the whole child before they can expect students to learn key concepts and skills.

Poverty impacts Opportunity to Learn (OTL). Educators must address the whole child before they can expect students to learn key concepts and skills. Click To Tweet

Reflections: Opportunity to Learn (OTL) Is Determined by School Staff

Early in my career, I thought that every student had the opportunity to learn. If students were enrolled in a free public school and had good attendance, then they had the same opportunity as other students across the United States. Over time, I have discovered that OTL varies across schools within a state and even across classrooms within a hallway. Who determines OTL?

Providing all students with a fair opportunity to learn is perhaps the most pressing issue facing U.S. education (Moss, Pullin, Gee, Haertel, & Young, 2008). Variables that impact Opportunity to Learn have been identified as content coverage, content exposure, content emphasis, and quality of instructional delivery (Stevens & Grymes, 1993).

Does your school have a guaranteed and viable curriculum? The use of OTL data can help educators identify gaps in curriculum and instruction, areas related to pacing or instruction time, and whether or not instructional practices or programs are having the desired impact on student achievement.

Do teachers meet on a regular basis to ensure that students have an opportunity to learn the grade-level curriculum and standards? If teachers are not provided with time to meet on a regular basis to discuss OTL, then school administrators are leaving OTL to chance. If I could go back to my first classroom, I would be more intentional about ensuring OTL.

Reflections: Formative Assessment Is the Silver Bullet

They say there is no such thing as a silver bullet in any profession. I beg to differ when it comes to teaching and learning. If I could go back in time, I would want to have a deep understanding of formative assessment and how it can impact teaching and learning. During the No Child Left Behind era, several schools focused on test prep and benchmark testing. This is not the type of testing or assessment that I am describing.

Assessment FOR Learning is different from tests designed to give students a grade.

In a culture of learning, assessment is ongoing. It may appear in the form of a Post-It note, role play, survey, presentation, thumbs-up/thumbs-down vote, Google Form, artwork, accountable talk, or a quick write.

“Formative assessment, done well, represents one of the most powerful instructional tools available to a teacher or a school for promoting student achievement. Teachers and schools can use formative assessment to identify student understanding, clarify what comes next in their learning, trigger and become part of an effective system of intervention for struggling students, inform and improve the instructional practice of individual teachers or teams, help students track their own progress toward attainment of standards, motivate students by building confidence in themselves as learners, fuel continuous improvement process across faculties, and, thus, drive a school’s transformation” (Stiggins & DuFour, 2009, p. 640).

If you would like to strengthen formative assessment in your school, visit 60 Non-Threatening Formative Assessment Techniques (TeachThought, 2015). As a young teacher, I focused on content, key skills, and end-of-unit tests. I did not know the importance of a ticket-out-the-door or a quick write to check for understanding.

If the goal of teaching and learning is to increase student understanding, then we must plan for frequent and timely formative assessments. These assessments also build confidence in students and help them assess their strengths and weaknesses as a learner. Formative assessments should be the engine that drives teaching and learning, not the caboose.

Reflections: Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Too often, young teachers want to show their principal/evaluator that they know the content area they were assigned to teach. When I started my career, the state evaluation tool focused more on what the teacher did than on what the students were doing. In other words, a good evaluation meant that I had performed or demonstrated that I was an effective teacher. There was a checklist of items that indicated I was progressing towards the standards of a professional teacher.

Fortunately, teaching and learning are changing and the standards for teacher evaluation are changing. Alan November wrote an excellent book about teaching and learning titled, Who Owns the Learning (2012)? When I visit schools and observe classrooms, this is the question I ask myself. Student contribution comes in the form of project-based learning. You can also see student contribution when a group of middle school students are making a video in science class, rather than watching a video.

When students participate in a Socratic Seminar, you can hear students push back and ask clarifying questions. In a classroom where three students are designing a product based on an authentic task, you can see that students are applying their skills and demonstrating their understanding. Another way to analyze student contribution is to ask, “Are the students being compliant or contributing?”

If I could offer advice to the first-year teacher, I would recommend the following:

  • Quick Write
  • Accountable Talk Stems
  • Genius Hour
  • Innovation
  • Student-Led Questions
  • Outdoor Learning
  • Student Choice
  • Student Voice
  • Project-Based Learning
  • Essential Questions
  • Transfer Goals
  • Service Learning Projects
  • Writing Across the Curriculum
  • Formative Assessment
  • Blogging
  • Goal Setting
  • Reflection

It’s no longer important to focus on what the teachers can do with the content. The goal is to see how students can demonstrate understanding in multiple ways.

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Teaching and learning are changing at a rapid pace. In 1893, the Committee of Ten determined “every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the pupil may be” (National Education Association, 1893).

Since that time, public schools have become an engine for opportunities to learn and economic advancement. As you reflect on your career in education, what lessons have you learned? What would you change if you could go back in time?

I am thankful for the opportunities that I have been given to serve as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, curriculum director, and assistant superintendent. As the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “I am not what I ought to be, not what I want to be, not what I am going to be, but thankful that I am not what I used to be.”

About Steven Weber

Dr. Steven Weber is the Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning with Fayetteville Public Schools (AR). His areas of research include curriculum design, formative assessment, professional learning, and school leadership.