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Transformational Teaching Catalyzes the Classroom

The little blond girl, with her heart pounding, worked at a rapid pace to complete the double digit addition problems. She had been absent for the past two days, and didn’t grasp how to add double digits and suppressed the feeling to ask for help as she didn’t trust how her teacher would respond. Prior to being absent, her teacher had only taught how to add single digits. Upon her return to school, her teacher didn’t seize the opportunity to review or catch her up to pace.

As she furiously worked, the little girl felt her teacher move beside her. She hunched over her work, fearful that others would see that she didn’t grasp the concept. The teacher briskly picked up the little girl’s worksheet, and scrutinized the work with eyebrows raised. She circled the completed, yet incorrect problems in her bright red pen and then in an exasperated tone said, “you need to work harder to figure this out.” Work harder? Her stomach felt like it was in knots. She was just 6 years old and this was the beginning of many years to come of struggling with math due to not grasping the why behind the process.

That little girl was me. I share this story with you because I vividly remember how irrelevant school felt at times and how much anxiety it caused me, even in first grade, especially as I struggled to grasp math concepts. There’s a huge difference between allowing students to struggle to the point of frustration compared to engaging them in the process of a productive struggle. What I really needed was a transformational teacher who understood my needs.

Transformational teachers are strategic at providing students with opportunities to grapple with problems in a productive struggle. They ensure tools are accessible to students, and they intentionally scaffold skills to allow learners to construct meaning and develop deep conceptual understanding. Personally, it’s important for me today, just as it was when I was younger, to understand why we are doing what we were doing. Transformational teachers place an emphasis on fostering a culture that prioritizes the process of learning and developing critical thinking skills in students as opposed to merely memorizing facts. In reflecting on my memory from first grade I recognize that my learning situation would have been vastly different if my teacher had embraced the transformational teaching methods listed below.

Transformational Teaching Methods:

  • Provide students with access to manipulatives and other tools to support their learning.
  • Serve as a coach to students as you engage them in inquiry based teaching.
  • Strategically scaffold collaborative conversation strategies with students so that they can  dissect the process with their peers rather than solely partnering up to complete work.
  • Demonstrate empathy for students and listen with understanding when working with students.
  • Foster rich relationships with students to establish trust and serve as a catalyst for risk taking.
  • Craft hands-on learning experiences for students.

While I’ve been blessed to have numerous teachers positively impact who I am today, one stands out in particular. My seventh grade social studies teacher, Mr. Merritt, demonstrated the behaviors of a transformational teacher. He made the curriculum come to life when it came to the way he taught and how he facilitated our interactions with peers. Mr. Merritt embraced a constructivist approach. Constructivist pedagogy consists of teachers facilitating hands-on learning where students construct understanding and meaning from their experiences. Mr. Merrit immersed us in a culture that valued meaningful conversations around thought provoking topics and events. Rather than simply transmitting information to us to regurgitate later, he was an artist when it came to how he cognitively engaged us to analyze, synthesize, defend alternative perspectives and reference background knowledge. As students, we were provided choice to demonstrate our understanding of the content.

Being a transformational teacher means supporting students to take ownership over their learning and becoming invested in the process. As educators, how do we teach the skills that lead students to seek ways to further their learning without constantly holding a carrot out in front of them?

Transformational Teachers Support Students To Thrive By:

  • Fostering a collaborative classroom community through experiential community building protocols and debriefing the process, interactions between peers and emotions.
  • Developing a candescent culture of Ignite Your S.H.I.N.E.® where students learn to embrace one another’s strengths and support each other using strategies modeled by their teacher when their peers struggle.
  • Empowering student voice and providing choice in how students learn as well as demonstrate their understanding.
  • Collaborating with colleagues to create dynamic learning experiences using backwards design such as the Understanding by Design Framework.
  • Scaffolding learning of developing skill sets to engage in productive struggle.
  • Involving students in understanding the content standards and learning outcomes in addition to involving them in goal setting and reflection.
  • Infusing technology in a purposeful way to deepen the learning experience and amplify student voice along with enhancing the 4Cs of learning (creation, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking).
  • Embedding the Habits of Mind to support learners to listen with understanding and empathy and take responsible risks, to name a few.
  • Utilizing the feedback loop as it allows learners to grow uniquely based on their specific needs and continuously refine their learning and work.
  • Incorporating the Visible Learning Research by John Hattie daily to maximize student growth.

As an educator, I didn’t start out as a transformational teacher. Each year I layered new strategies by immersing myself in reading educational articles and books to grow. I’m also fortunate to work with a phenomenal team in my elementary school as we share best practices with one another and collaboratively plan. Connecting on Twitter and developing a professional learning network with educators around the world continues to challenge my thinking and provides me with new resources and ideas. I’m deeply passionate about teaching and learning, and learning alongside others fuels me! Transformational teachers exemplify the qualities of what we desire for our students; they continually learn in effort to grow and they embrace change.

It may surprise you that when I was in college I never imagined that I’d become a teacher. While I had some outstanding teachers, I left school thinking that teaching was not for me based on some of my negative experiences. I couldn’t see myself standing and delivering content. My passions included anything that I could integrate creativity, imagination, wonder and awe into. I’ve always been fascinated by psychology and how the brain works too. One day, as I attended a child psychology class, I had an epiphany. While I can’t recall exactly what triggered it, it was at that moment I realized that I could be the change. I could go into education and be the difference by bringing wonder and awe to the forefront. I wanted to shake things up by channeling Mr. Merrit’s transformational teaching methods, and invigorate a true love of learning within students. I yearned to go into education because teachers have the potential to change the world. Sure, that may sound idealistic, but I think we need people who believe it with all their heart. In the end, we can!

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Transformational teachers grasp that they have immense impact when they provide students with the tools to be successful and become invested in their own learning, with trust and relationships as the cornerstone of classroom culture. As a teacher myself, I want every kid to leave my class knowing they are loved and respected. My goal is to support them in feeling confident that they can apply their skill sets to new situations. That’s different than purely wanting students to have content under their belt to be prepared for the next grade level. Transformational teaching is all about teachers being masterful in their planning, delivery and facilitation of learning within a culture where students engage in metacognition and create, imagine and innovate. Furthermore, transformational teachers infuse opportunities for students to explore their passions whether it’s through integrating coding, robotics, makerspace or passion projects. I find that when we make learning relevant along with blending students’ interests into what we do in the classroom, they begin to make the connection that learning is beyond just the core subjects. Additionally, it triggers true comprehension of how individuals vary in their strengths, and promotes every student to feel increased confidence.

Being able to observe the whole child grow, drives me to continually reflect and retool my practice. There’s no finality to teaching. I believe that in being a transformational teacher it means that we continuously adjust to the needs of our students, while engaging them in learning that leaves them thirsting for more. Each of us has the potential to be a transformational teacher. Make the commitment to create small shifts in your practice for maximum impact on learners, that will last a lifetime.

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