We all remember our greatest teachers. No matter when we crossed paths with them, they influence us for the rest of our lives.
But the question of what makes a great educator is elusive. To better understand how some teachers seem to be especially effective at motivating and shaping young minds, Noodle is shining a light on innovative teachers across the country.
By reading about their best practices, greatest successes, and toughest challenges, you can gain insights into what makes a great teacher great. Whether you’re a parent or an educator, a student or an administrator, read on to learn more about how one leader informs and inspires elementary school kids every day.
The threat of a snowstorm was hanging over New York City on the day that I met Hilary Lewis at the Excellence Girls Charter School, a public, all-girls elementary school that is part of the Uncommon Schools network. Hilary is the Dean of Students and Families at Excellence Girls.
Despite the anxious anticipation that hovered over the city, as soon as Hilary and I walked into the Excellence Girls cafeteria for breakfast, I was struck by the calm — there was pure silence.
The room was full of young girls, and instead of being greeted by lunchroom chatter, the only sound we heard was the occasional paper rustling as students handed in their notebooks to teachers. The students at Excellence Girls have a silent breakfast, Hilary explained, so they can focus before the long day ahead.
The notable quiet would end only a few moments later as the girls filed out of the cafeteria and into the gym for Morning Motivation, where Principal Nikki Bowen led them in chants about this month’s Core Value — justice. The girls spoke about what they had learned about the Fierce Female of the month, Mary McLeod Bethune, who embodied this value. When a scholar — the term Excellence Girls uses for student — spoke up in front of the entire school, Principal Bowen urged her to say it “loud and proud,” asking her to repeat herself if she was not audible.
Hilary is in charge of creating the school culture at Excellence Girls, and the Core Values and Fierce Female initiatives are two of the ways she fosters leadership in scholars.
After Morning Motivation, Hilary and I met in her office to talk more about her philosophy of teaching and education. Here is an excerpt from our conversation, in which she talked about the strategies she employs and how she thinks about education. Through our discussion, I gained valuable insights into what it means to be a great educator.
I studied at Amherst College and graduated with a double major in Psychology and Women & Gender Studies. In my freshman year, I had a Resident Advisor who was applying to Teach for America (TFA), and that was the first time I had heard of the program. In my senior year, unsure of what I wanted to do, I did some soul-searching and realized I came from a long line of educators: My mother taught Sunday school, and my three siblings were involved in education as well. I realized that I wanted to become a teacher, too.
My application to TFA started the process of me finding the Uncommon Schools network. I was placed at Leadership Prep—Bed Stuy. I stayed on for a third year [beyond TFA’s two-year commitment] as a first-grade lead teacher, and was later approached to consider becoming a school leader and Dean of Students at Excellence Girls. That was six years ago.
My role is Dean of Students and Families. That entails wearing a lot of hats. I create and foster school culture. I am also the primary disciplinarian — if there is a student who is struggling, I work to support that scholar, her teachers, and her family. I also create and lead professional development sessions for our teachers. Sessions may be around various management techniques, or instructional and professional support. We use resources like Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion for our training sessions.
It was amazing. That first year, you are exhausted because there are so many things you need to think about. You need to think about routines and procedures, the best professional development sessions, getting the families invested. It’s exhausting but thrilling to see the impact that it’s having on our kids. Working with girls is motivating for me personally, as a woman of color. I can’t think of a more important life service than to instill positivity, self-esteem, and confidence in young women.
You try something, see if it works, and then tweak it. A lot of the routines and procedures that you see have been crafted over years of experience, anticipating pitfalls, rehearsing, trying things out for size with classrooms.
We take a lot of best practices from our other schools as well. We sit down together in the summer and review routines and procedures to see what we can to do make things faster and tighter. I’m sure you noticed: Every minute matters here. We want to make sure that our girls are getting the maximum amount of instruction daily.
We have three weeks of August training where we get new teachers on board, explain why it’s important to get girls up from their seats quickly, because that’s going to help with cutting down minutes, which can turn into hours monthly of wasted learning time. We rehearse by having some teachers pretend they’re kids, while others lead their transitions for their students. That way, on Day 1, it’s not the first time we are leading the procedure; we’ve probably done it a good hundred times before.
I grew up in a household where education was put first. My mom was not able to go to college, and she wanted to instill in all four of her children how important it was to have a college education. Due to that, I was motivated to do well in school, and I wanted to make myself and my mother proud.
We talk to our girls about college every day. We spend a week in May where we learn more about college. We have college students and speakers come in, we put up pictures of college campuses, have discussions about the different schools, and talk about different facets of college life: What’s a dorm room? Do your parents go with you to college? What kinds of things can you study in college? What colleges would you like to go to? What kind of extracurricular activities can you do in high school, middle school, elementary school to prepare for college? We have our girls write “college essays” and “applications,” where they think about what kinds of contributions they want to make to their world and why they would be a good fit for a specific college.
[Editor’s note: Each of the school’s classrooms is also named after a college.]
The value of working with your colleagues. Collaboration is key to being a successful educator. One of the things that helped my first year was the co-teaching model at Uncommon Elementary Schools. In some classrooms, there will be a teacher who has taught a couple of years more than the co-teacher, and this person serves as a mentor. This enabled me to ask questions of my co-teacher/mentor and get on-the-spot feedback. It also allowed me to confide in someone when I was feeling I wasn’t doing my best and to seek encouragement.
To be able to have that exchange is so powerful, because once you are able to engage in that dialogue, you find that you are really able to create something greater than yourself, and in that way, we are really serving our students and giving them the best that we have collectively. It’s not just one teacher in one classroom, and you feel by yourself; you have a team of teachers all working toward the same goal.
Great educators are people who are passionate about learning, and not just learning in terms of what you are teaching your kids, but also in terms of learning yourself. They want to constantly improve and reflect on their teaching practice. They are relentless, and stop at nothing to support a child who is struggling or the student who needs to be pushed further. Teachers need to be creative.
It’s both innate and taught. Some people come to this work already with a passion for education, like myself. You may come to this work saying you want to be a teacher and have no idea what that means, and then once you are here and you see 29 sets of eyeballs on your face every day, and you’re getting a chance to talk to them about a text that is exciting, or you’re getting to give them their first experience with doing a science experiment, you see in those moments, “Oh! There it is!”
During a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, an impactful moment we all had as a school family was hearing the girls share their real-life dreams on stage. For example, Miriam stated she wants to be a teacher and teach children how to read. Serena said, “I have a dream that I will be a Vice President one day and help the President make good choices.” Samira said that one day, “I will be a doctor, and I will find a cure for cancer.” So you hear little girls, five to 10 years old, talking about what they know they will become, and I get emotional just thinking about it. Each one of our girls is a seed of potential, and you water them, nurture them, respect them, love them, encourage them, and with all of that, there’s no doubt that Samira is going to find a cure for cancer, and Serena is going to be Vice President or President. There is no doubt in my mind. It reminds me how critical teachers are, and how critical schools are, and how important these years of a child’s life are. They can build a child up, they can teach them the values in their life that they want to hold dear. They can teach them how to explore, be motivated, inspire themselves.
One of the biggest challenges is training. When you step inside of a classroom and you feel unprepared, it’s the worst feeling. I mentioned earlier that sometimes teaching can feel very isolating, and if you feel like you don’t have someone to go to to talk to about your lessons, that can make coming into your classroom challenging. Figuring out a way to be able to give educators the training and support that they need on a consistent basis is critical to making our school system strong.
Throughout the year, I work with families on getting our scholars to school on time, work with families to help support the schools with their “Life’s Work,” which is what we call homework. We talk about how this is practice and training for college, solidifying at home what they’re putting into practice at school.
It takes our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, teachers’ families, school leaders, sister schools. It takes our girls and our girls’ friends. The life of a child is a huge investment, so it takes everybody.
We have the co-teaching models, and all of our schools have the culture of data. Data is shared across classroom and grades, so that we are being attentive to the strengths and challenges of our scholars. We are thoughtful about the lessons that we teach, and assess our students in a many ways: tests, assessments of students in the moment, anecdotal observations, exit tickets [answers to a problem that students quickly solve and hand to the teacher on the way out of class to demonstrate understanding of the lesson], spiral reviews [curricula in which material is continually reintroduced in increasing depth]. You’ll see spiral review trackers in our classrooms, a poster that shows the different skills a class is working on, and the percentage of accuracy. You may see on Monday that on Question 1, which is talking about rounding up, the class got 75 percent on that goal. So tomorrow, we are going for 85, then 95, then by Friday we want to get as close to 100 percent as possible. Our girls are also goal-setting for themselves: “Oh, I want our class to reach our goal of 90 percent by the end of the week,” which motivates kids to work as a team.
I think it’s important for families to go into the school and watch instruction. I think it’s important to gauge the commitment that you want to have with the school. Are you going to be OK with an hour of homework every night? Are you going to be willing to commit to signing a reading log every night?
The work that educators do is rewarding and inspiring. When you are considering whether or not to be an educator, remember that the work that you are doing is going to impact the lives of countless students, and come to work each day remembering that what we do is a huge responsibility and a gift at the same time. So, make sure you are prepared, make sure you are well-rested. And remember that every single student you come across is a seed of potential. The work that you do and the energy you put into your scholars is going to come out in the end.
As a teacher, you fail sometimes. And you might fail again and again. But those failures can be the reasons we succeed. We have to learn from our past experiences and continue to grow.