View of teacher from back of classroom as several young students raise their hands

Have you ever been in the process of doing something and realized you have no memory of exactly what you have been doing? For me, this most commonly occurs when I’m driving. Fairly often, I find that I have driven somewhere and have no memory of most of the drive. Through traffic lights and lane changes, I find that I have driven from Point A to Point B with no conscious thought of the driving process.

This is not an uncommon event, and I’m sure you have had similar experiences. When we repeat an activity such as driving over and over it becomes a habit that we can do without consciously being aware of all the decisions we make to arrive at our destination.

Habits can be very good when we adopt them to be more productive and healthier. These habits create an automaticity that allows us to free our minds from routine tasks so that we may use our cognitive abilities in creative endeavors to accomplish great things.

The classroom is no different. Teachers who establish classroom procedures that become habits for themselves, students, parents, and others in the school environment drastically reduce surprises and relieve stress when what is done in a classroom is just what is done.

Included in these habits is the use of effective instructional strategies. These strategies form the base of the teacher’s classroom instruction. In the beginning of their career, teachers quickly learn what works and what does not work, and they develop a pool of strategies that allows their students to learn. However, over time, the teacher’s growth tends to slow as they settle into those routines in their classroom.

Disrupting the “Automatic” Teaching Habits

Instructional habits can become a teacher’s own worst enemy when the reliance on familiar habits causes classrooms to become stale learning environments.  As teachers develop a toolbox of instructional strategies with which they have had success, it is easy to continue with the “tried and true” methods that have previously led to student learning without considering new strategies that could be even better. If teachers are feeling as if they are simply going through the motions with little conscious thought, it is a sign that their instruction may have become over-reliant on these familiar strategies.

There is nothing wrong with the tried-and-true methods, but growth is not only important for students; it is also important for teachers.  And growth occurs when we push ourselves out of our comfort zones. Seeking this growth may be scary for teachers who have become comfortable with their teaching habits. They may perceive risk in disrupting an “okay” learning environment to incorporate new learning strategies and practices that better meet the needs of their students.

School Leaders Set the Tone for Change

The reality is most teachers may not step out of their comfort zone unless school leaders create a climate that celebrates educational research and educator growth. Principals must establish a culture where new research and instructional strategies are not only part of the conversation but also changes in practice are supported by building leaders.

Building administrators must first set the example as they seek new knowledge and research to tweak or replace existing teaching methods. This knowledge may be used to offer specific feedback through the evaluation process, make suggestions for teacher and staff professional development involving new methods of learning, and provide collaborative time devoted to instructional improvement to address continued growth throughout their school.

NEE’s Teacher Learning Organizer is a great tool administrators should consider recommending for teachers to document how their research transforms into new instructional methods and teaching strategies.  The learning organizer can be a companion to the NEE Teacher Professional Development Plan, or it can be used alone as the next step following administrative feedback to guide teachers through their own research into new strategies. 

Principals must be patient when teachers step out of their comfort zone to try new strategies and sometimes fail on the way to growth. Teachers must be comfortable to take a risk with new strategies to continue to refine their teaching methods.

Peer Observations can Support Professional Learning

Teachers can learn a lot within their schools by engaging in conversations with other teachers about the instructional strategies they use. Peer observations, which allow teachers to receive ongoing feedback as they work with instructional growth or learn from other teachers’ implementation of new strategies, are another helpful tool in creating a culture of growth in your school.

One need only look at the how different our world seems compared to a few years ago to see the rapid pace of change we continue to experience. Instructional strategies that worked yesterday may or may not be relevant to the learning environment of tomorrow. The answer is in the balance of creating effective instructional practices while always searching for something better. Considering educational research, interacting with educators within and outside of their typical work group, and peers observing each other to facilitate growth are all ways to seek improvement as an educator. Part of being a leader in a building or district is creating and encouraging the environment of growth for everyone in your building and, of course, reading the NEE Advantage Blog for the latest news and tips from your favorite educational partner.

Chuck Mayes is a NEE trainer and field support representative. He retired in 2020 after 30 years in K-12 public education where he served as a teacher, elementary principal, middle school principal, and for eight years as the Sikeston Chief Academic Officer/Assistant Superintendent working with curriculum, assessment, gifted education, and virtual learning.

The Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE) is a simple yet powerful comprehensive system for educator evaluation that helps educators grow, students learn, and schools improve. Developed by preK-12 practitioners and experts at the University of Missouri, NEE brings together classroom observation, student feedback, teacher curriculum planning, and professional development as measures of effectiveness in a secure online portal designed to promote educator growth and development.