The 10 Commandments to become a SMART Teacher

Sheba Thapar

Headmistress, St. Xavier's High School, Gurgaon

Teaching is hard! As teachers, our whole career is about providing the best education for students that we can. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this goal is by becoming a, ‘SMART’ teacher. And because it’s so important, we push ourselves–and are pushed by others–to be as close as we can be to perfect.This is a tragically limited view of knowledge, societal trends, and human potential, but let’s just accept that in 2019, that’s just where and what education ‘is’; to argue against this definition the work of innovation and progressive thinking and clean-sheet learning design, and that’s not what this article is about.It’s all about the 10 Commandments to become a SMART teacher.

1. Take Care of Yourself

Your students need you to be healthy. Make sure to schedule time to relax, decompress, and take care of yourself so that you can stay healthy, happy, and at the top of your game. Neglecting yourself will only set you up for getting sick, and it can even lead to burnout. Don’t let this happen!

2. Stop Focusing on Your Weaknesses.

There are certain things you do well–some even exceptionally well. Use those to drive your teaching. Whether you’re creative, energetic, charismatic, forward-thinking, organized, effortlessly collaborative, hip, intellectual–whatever you are, use it.By all means, if you’re not strong with technology or classroom management or assessment or data, work to bolster those weaknesses. But as you plan your own teaching and the growth of your career, work backwards from your strengths as you shift from working harder to working smarter.

3. Create a System and Schedule for School and Home.

Sometimes you need to bring work home, and sometimes you’ll need to bring home to work. That’s part of being a human being. But smart teaching requires a system and a schedule–some way to organize your priorities and workflow. Rules for grading (e.g., everything is graded within 48 hours or we grade it as a class or use self-assessment), rules for using your planning period, or rules for what work you let yourself take home (e.g., consider refinement of unit plans based on what you’re seeing in class as ‘okay’ to do at home while ‘grading papers’ not)–anything that creates a kind of system you can depend on and refine as you go along that keeps you from unchecked inefficiency and long nights staring bleary-eyed at papers.

4. Make it Your Job to be Inspired.

Being inspired and curious and enthusiastic and full of wonder are prep-requisites for excellence in most ‘fields’ and domains. Protecting your inspiration and your gifts and your little guilty pleasures as a teacher is as critical as being able to quiet a noisy classroom or extract takeaways from data.

5. Say ‘No.’

You have to be selective here, of course. Don’t tell that student that needs you ‘no,’ or your principal when they ask for documentation for something. But set clear boundaries for yourself and your time that make great teaching sustainable for you. You’re not good to students if you burn yourself out.

6. Delegate, Share, Empower.

These are classic ‘save yourself time’ strategies. If not done well, they can end up costing you more time than they save; even done intelligently there can be an implementation dip. But get them right and stick with them, and others can grow alongside you as a teacher.

By delegating the right tasks to the right people, you can save time and increase the capacity of students. Delegate the creation of study cards, the creation and ongoing updating of a ‘homework’ folder for students that miss class, the editing and uploading and tagging of video for a flipped classroom, maintenance of the class website, use of class social media–what would actually help here depends on your classroom, but the lesson remains: spread the burden–and opportunity–of the day-to-day operation of your classroom.

You can share, too. Share lessons with other teachers. Share data — or share the administrating of data-giving fluency probes or mini-assessments. Share the responsibility for maintaining the bulletin board down at the end of the hall. Empowering those around you can make for smarter teaching, too. This is a lot like ‘delegating,’ but with more freedom. Instead of delegating a specific task, you can empower a student with autonomy for a specific purpose so that they can identify necessary tasks, then complete them and revise needs accordingly. For example, instead of delegating the changing of pictures for the proverbial bulletin board down the hall, you empower them to use the board entirely at their own discretion. They decide what it’s used for and how, then make it happen. Oversight is necessary, but by delegating your workload as a teacher is reduced.And that’s smart.

7. Use Technology Effectively.

Tech, done well, can save you an extraordinary amount of time. Seeing patterns in student errors through data analysis. Giving voice feedback to student writing. Creating quizzes that grade themselves. Empowering students for self-directed learning through carefully curated resources and networks. Automatic curation of select project-based learning artifacts. Notifications sent home. Sharing student work with parents with the push of a button.Learn what tech does what, and start experimenting.

8. Prioritize.

Know what’s most important, and do more of that. Identify what’s less important, and do less of that. Prioritization isn’t rocket science, you’ve just got to have the courage to do it.

9.  Use Emotion Intentionally.

Emotion is what drives us as human beings. Affection, curiosity, insecurity, hope. Love. ‘How’ to use emotion to teacher smarter is probably a little esoteric, and this post is already almost 2000 words so I’ll just stop short and say that emotion is what energizes you — and is also what fatigues you and your students. Know what kinds of thoughts and activities and projects and grouping activities and patterns cause what sorts of emotions, and you can begin to master the art of teaching.

10. Accentuate the Positive

The Affective Filter is a real issue. Your students will perform better when they are less stressed, and they feel like they have a chance at success. Make sure you praise students for good behavior, hard work, and high success.

Sheba Thapar

Headmistress, St. Xavier's High School, Gurgaon