It doesn’t always take broad, sweeping transformations to improve as an educator. Sometimes all you need is a little tweaking, a handful of small (brilliant) ideas and a little careful planning. We reached out to six accomplished, veteran educators to share a few words of wisdom about small changes that will power up your teaching this year.

From Leslie Nicholas, 2004 Pennsylvania State Teacher of the Year:

1. Start strong.

The expression “Well begun is half done” is apt when it comes to the classroom. The first day of school is critical to setting the tone for the rest of the school year. Teachers must be prepared, in every sense of the word. They must begin with challenging and interesting material to send the message that, in this classroom, we will work hard, what we do in this room is important.

2. Celebrate improvement.

Some teachers have the opinion that students either have it or they don’t. They praise those who have it and criticize those who don’t and reward results, not efforts. Make a point to stress for your students that greatness comes by being better than you were yesterday.

3. Keep it real.

Help students understand the relevance of what they are learning in school. When students recognize they will actually use the material they are studying, motivation becomes self-directed.

4. Learn the power of three.

You can’t expect to hold your students’ attention for an entire class period with just one activity. Break your time into segments. For instance, if you have 45 minutes with students, use 5 minutes for review, 10 minutes for learning new material and 30 minutes for work time.

5. Adjust your game plan.

Good coaches change the game plan frequently and make adjustments. The approach that worked well last week may not work next week against a different opponent, so coaches adjust accordingly. Teachers must also try new approaches. Make it a point to change the way you teach at least one unit every year. Change up content for a unit that didn’t work well previously. Or keep the same content but change your approach to incorporate a different learning style.

6. Allow students to fail safely.

Great learning can take place from great failure. A mistake can be a great teaching vehicle if a student learns and grows from it. To learn from errors, students must be taught to critically evaluate their work and use what they find to keep improving. 

Learn how Leslie incorporates reflective learning in his high school classroom.  

From Beth Maloney, 2014 Arizona State Teacher of the Year:

7. Use the power of student emotions as a tool to engage students in learning.  

How a student feels about a learning situation or subject will determine how much attention and effort that child will expend.

8. Share your enthusiasm.

Be as excited about learning as you hope your students are. Use fun hooks (humor, tactile objects, role playing, riddles, gamification, etc.) to engage your students in your lessons.

Learn how Beth increases engagement by creating moments to hook student interest.

From Leigh VandenAkker, 2012 Utah State Teacher of the Year:

9. Employ the power of positive body language.

We start communicating with each other with our eyes.  We send messages both positive and negative with our posture and our attention.  Pay attention to the messages your body is sending to your students.

10. Let your room do the talking.

Your classroom environment sends your students a message before you even begin teaching.  Power up your teaching by making your room speak positively to your students with uplifting posters and comfy decor that show you care about your students and their environment.

11. Focus on using positive language.

Phrase things in the affirmative as often as possible. Instead of pointing out what you don’t want students to do, rephrase your words to express what you do want.  For instance, instead of saying “Don’t be late,” say  “Please be on time.”

Learn how Leigh creates a classroom environment that develops students’ social- and emotional-learning skills.

From Monica Washington, 2014 Texas State Teacher of the Year:

12. Be a human being with your students.

They assume that you live in the basement of the school. Laugh. Tell stories. Be authentic.

13. When dealing with your students, err on the side of empathy.

Sometimes you won’t be able to relate to the things your students have to endure.

14. Make writing time fun, not a chore.

Allow fun writing, silly writing, and personal writing, and maybe fewer eyes will roll when assignments are made.

15. Make writing relevant.  

Music, television, sports, and current events can increase students’ interest level while lowering the writing anxiety level.

Learn how Monica builds vibrant learning experiences for all students by extending learning from the classroom into the world.

From Michael Dunlea, 2012 NJ State Teacher of the Year Finalist:

16. Integrate learning between subjects.

Make connections between content areas that will deepen your students’ understanding. For example, if you are reading The Cricket in Times Square, do a science lesson on crickets. Or do a math lesson that involves adding and subtracting groups of crickets.

17. Cultivate a home connection.

Have students take work home to connect with parents. Ask them to find something at home that ties into what they are studying. For instance, if you are studying communities, have students interview their parents about what kind of community they grew up in. 

18. Transform read-alouds from a passive event into an active one.

Make read-alouds come alive by choosing books that have magic, suspense, and/or humor. Incorporate movement, reenact scenes, and imitate what happens in a particular chapter. Whenever there is dialogue use voices to add dimension, nuance and context. Whenever music is mentioned make sure you play the actual music in the class. If food or aromas are mentioned in the book, try and replicate them in class (but be careful with food allergies.)

19. Use video to create a soothing backdrop to your classroom.

Project a fireplace movie from YouTube onto your whiteboard during read- alouds and during quiet work times. There are tons of these relaxing music videos available- for example, rainfall, snowy day, and ocean sounds.

20. Let students connect to stories through art.

Allow students to draw a scene from the story, or the main characters, while you are reading aloud to the class.

Learn how Michael inspires students’ love of reading through engaging read-alouds.

21. Collaborate with other teachers.

Having time to talk and work with your colleagues is essential for making it through any school year. Teacher isolation is one of the top challenges for educators. Sharing ideas and knowledge with fellow teachers not only boosts your professional I.Q., it creates community support.

22. Take charge of your professional growth.

Sure, there are district-sponsored professional development opportunities, but often they are not focused on the topics that mean the most to you. Take matters into your own hands and seek out classes and workshops that suit your needs and allow you the flexibility to learn at your own pace in a supportive environment of your peers.

Check out Teaching Partners Live Workshops to see the educators featured above in action.

What tips would you add to this list? Is there anything you are doing this year to power up your teaching?  Please share in the comments.