We’ve all seen them. That teacher who seems to have some kind of magic. The one who has a happy classroom most of the time, whose students adore them and who often gets the most difficult students and still seems sane at the end of the day. How do they do it?
It could be that they have facilitation skills. And the good news is they are skills anyone can learn. Here are the six skills I think every teacher should have.
Go slow to go fast
There is immense pressure on teachers to hit the ground running and dive right into content at the beginning of the year or the beginning of the day. Rigid curriculum, school year benchmarks and testing all try to convince us that all this content needs to be delivered RIGHT NOW. However, wise teachers know that everything goes much more smoothly if we take the time to establish routines, build relationships and regulate emotions with our students first. Once we have our classroom running smoothly, tackling the content goes much better, and faster!
This is the thing I’ve found to be the most difficult for the teachers I’ve worked with. Perhaps because of our training, perhaps because of the many pressures we’re under and the number of students in our classrooms, we really want control of almost everything. Being open sounds like an invitation to chaos. However, being open is actually the key to establishing better relationships with our students and helping them learn much more effectively.
This openness allows us to adapt in the moment to what our students need and what will help us keep a collaborative atmosphere in the classroom. It allows us to stop an activity, even if we had planned for it to go longer, to keep going if we’re on a roll, and to start something new if what we’re doing isn’t working.
Being open doesn’t mean it’s a free for all and anything goes, but it does mean we are more ready for new ways of doing, unexpected outcomes and change. After all, openness was the key to surviving and thriving during virtual teaching. We had to be open to new tools and new ways of thinking about teaching and learning. And some of the unexpected outcomes were better than we imagined they could be. While that level of change isn’t something we want to repeat, the mental attitude of openness can help us through the changes we will encounter going forward.
We, as teachers, most often ask questions we know the answers to. We’re looking for our students to give us particular information about the content we’re teaching as a measure of our effectiveness as a teacher. However, The spirit of inquiry the curriculum demands is all about asking questions we don’t know the answers to. And it turns out that we can have better relationships with our students when they realize we actually want to know what they think and how they’re doing, which, in turn, boosts their learning.
In my work in adventure education, I often encounter students who answer my questions with the answers they think I want to hear:
“What did it take to get your team from over a minute to under 30 seconds?”
“What did you do that was teamwork?”
“Worked as a team. What’s the next activity?”
It often takes a while for them to realize that I actually want to know what they think. And it takes even longer for them to trust me and each other enough to actually SAY what they think. That’s when they start actually taking responsibility for their actions and their learning and the day starts to mean something.
As teachers, we observe our students closely every day. We look for the signs they’re engaged, that they’re learning and that they “get it.” We also may be looking at the behavior of our students, ready to enforce consequences when necessary and inserting a bit of praise to keep them on track.
Wise teachers also look at the behavior of their students, but they know that behavior isn’t bad, it isn’t good. It’s communication. The behavior of our students tells us about their physical state hungry, tired, hot), or their emotional state (excited, angry, bored, frustrated). These, in turn, tell us about their readiness for the activity we’re doing and what we have planned next. If we also have openness and presence of mind, we can use our observations to help us determine when to stop, keep going or start something new, adjusting to the needs of our students.
We can also use close observation to notice patterns. Patterns of leadership, followership and engagement can give us clues about hierarchy and status which affect our students’ learning. It turns out that students who are less engaged are learning less (Bianchini, 1998). Noticing these patterns also allows us to detect potential problems of sexism, racism and ableism, which then prompts us to step in and do something about it.
Sequence with Intention
Teachers are familiar with the concept of sequencing. We learn it as scaffolding and we use it all the time when we teach content. What teachers sometimes don’t realize is that this is also an important concept for the social and emotional development of our students. I often find that this is why teachers discard the Social Emotional Learning curriculums they’re given and why some activities become uncomfortable. They haven’t been sequenced properly.
The idea behind sequencing is simple. It’s knowing in what order to do activities, give instructions and ask questions. In sequencing, we need to consider the needs of our students, their readiness for what we have planned and what goals and outcomes we’re aiming to achieve. Just like we wouldn’t expect our students to be able to do algebra before they can add and multiply, we shouldn’t expect them to be ready to talk about their innermost thoughts and feelings before building trust with those around them and having the words to articulate them.
SEL curricula often offer sequences of activities, even listing reflection questions to accompany them. Teachers often try the activities, then when the results aren’t what they expected, reject the entire curriculum because “it doesn’t work.” It may not be that the curriculum is bad. It’s probably because the group of students the teacher is working with is at a very different level of readiness from one the author of the curriculum is imagining. Students who know each other well are ready for different activities and reflections than students who just met.. Students who all come from affluent, two-parent households will be at a very different starting place from students who have economic challenges or less stable home situations. Even at the same grade level, the same sequences of activities will not work for every group! Being able to adjust the activities and rearrange the sequence is a crucial skill that will allow teachers to utilize any curriculum.
All these skills allow us to better manage risk, for ourselves and for our students. Learning is challenging and comes with a lot of risk: risk of failure, embarrassment and loss of social status to name a few. The skills of facilitation allow the teacher to build a supportive learning community, bringing students to an environment of comfort when needed and nudging them tomaximize learning with appropriate risk taking. In turn, this makes the classroom a more functional and pleasant place to be for teachers and students alike.
It may be “teacher magic” or it may be facilitation, but learning and honing these skills will make your classroom a better place, one you’ll be happy to return to each day.