What Teachers Are

Image from BoredTeachers.com

I had a conversation with a family member recently about teachers and education. I’m always a little leery going into these conversations because, as Martinez and Stanger (2013) pointed out in their book Invent to Learn, “Everyone is an expert on school, having been a firsthand participant for at least 12 years” (p. 187)”. My family member believed they had the answer to my overloaded work schedule while I was writing new curriculum: “I don’t understand why every teacher in the country doesn’t have the same exact book to teach things out of. Shouldn’t they just hand you a book when you get hired with what you’re supposed to do and say?”

I tried to tell my loved one that teaching is much more complicated than that, that every class of students is completely different, that teachers are artists as well as scientists, and most of all, that if teaching were just giving students information, we may as well close down schools and let them use Google for all educational pursuits. I think my family member started to understand after that.

If you happened upon this blog as a non-educator, keep reading! It may come as a surprise to you just how dynamic teaching is! If you are an educator, I’ll outline what you already know about your career. Maybe it’ll help you with future conversations.

Teachers are Chameleons  

Estes and Mintz (2016) wrote a chapter in their book Instruction: A Models Approach about what a good teacher looks like. In their section about teachers being leaders, they address the need for balance: “being caring, funny, concerned, and nurturing while being firm, unrelenting, clear, and consistent. Often, teachers need to be both warm and strict at the same time” (p. 291). This sounds like a nearly impossible task, but teachers are trained leaders, and they do this everyday!

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Teachers are Risk Takers

Heifetz and Linsky (2017) outline the risk of leadership in their book Leadership on the Line as “dangerous”. Teachers are risk takers because they are required to do much more than “just teach” (see the hats comic above). Heifetz and Linsky (2017) write: “To act outside the narrow confines of your job description when progress requires it lies close to the heart of leadership and to its danger” (p. 24). On paper, a teacher’s job is to impart knowledge and keep students safe. In reality, a teacher’s job is much more vulnerable (“dangerous”) than that.

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Teachers are Detectives

If a student isn’t “getting it”, a teacher is there to figure out why. If a lesson didn’t go as planned, a teacher must make the adjustments in the curriculum. Teachers must learn about each individual student to help them be successful. Lee S. Shulman (1999) of The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards puts it this way: “Accomplished teachers know much more about their students, such as where they call home, what their families are like, how they performed academically in the past, and who they want to become in the future” (p. 13). Teachers know this is essential to academic success.

Teachers, I see you. I see the many hats you wear. I see the passion that burns in your soul. I see your endless commitment to students and your frequent lack of appreciation and support from the outside. I see that everyone seems to think they’ve got your job figured out because they’ve sat in a classroom when knowing what you truly do would be like discovering an entire new continent. You do what you do because it matters, and its complexity only makes your job more exciting. Thank you for what you sacrifice for this dynamic career!

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash


Estes, T., & Mintz, S. (2016). Instruction: A Models Approach 7th Edition. Boston, MA: Pearson. ISBN-13: 978-0-13-398558-0

Heifetz, R. A., & Linsky, M. (2017). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Martinez, S., & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. Torrance, CAL Constructing Modern Knowledge Press. ISBN: 978-0-98-915110-8

Shulman, L. S. (1999). What teachers should know and be able to do. Michigan: NBPTS.   


Keep it Moving: The Secret to Student Engagement

Image courtesy of drillster.zendesk.com

I don’t know about you, but when I look at my schedule and notice a day of introducing a new concept, I feel a little bit of dread. I know that when I introduce something new, it typically means that I have to talk a lot, and students have to sit and listen. Depending on the day of the week, the weather outside, or any other number of factors, this “sit and listen” instruction is fragile, but often necessary.

Student engagement is a difficult subject to tackle because of daily interferences teachers and students face, but also because every grade level and every student (and every teacher!) is so different. Through some research, and my own classroom experience, I have found a common theme that helps students the most in remaining engaged: keep it moving! I’ve broken down three different ways that teachers can keep it moving to increase student engagement, no matter the lesson or grade level.

Keep It Moving: Pace

Image by Cole Stivers from Pixabay

Impact Teachers (2018) put this nicely:

“Instruction that moves along too slowly will likely result in bored students who quickly stop paying attention. When students become bored, they are often easily distracted and begin to misbehave. Likewise, when instruction moves along too quickly, many students fail to understand what you are teaching, become discouraged and frustrated and again can begin to misbehave.”

Sounds like Goldilocks, right? Pace is critical, and teachers need to find the “just right” balance to keep students interested. Teachers have their own tricks for pacing, but if you’re worried about going too slowly or too quickly for the group, try a few suggestions from Rebecca Alber (2012) of Edutopia, including providing visual instructions, checking for understanding, and even setting a timer to “create a sense of urgency”.

Keep It Moving: Change it Up

Image by andros1234 from Pixabay

A group of researchers from the University of Michigan (2018) conducted a study on physical activity breaks in lessons for a group of third and fourth graders. They found over 12 weeks that students who had 10 minutes of physical activity implemented into the lesson (called “Energizers”) “displayed more on task behaviors post-Energizer treatment” (p.2)

Teachers know that students of all ages can only sit quietly for so long before their minds start to drift. Offering several kinds of learning techniques such as partner work, small group discussion, even a review game or a water break can help students refresh and focus.

Keep it Moving: Give Them a Challenge

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Every student has their own strengths and weaknesses, but all students can benefit from a little “push”. Teachers who strive to differentiate their lessons for each readiness level in a class give their students the intrigue of a challenge. Carol Ann Tomlinson (2017) wrote in her book How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms “The goal of the teacher in a differentiated classroom is to ensure, as often as possible, that each student has to work a little too hard, and to ensure that the student will find a support system that will assist with and support continuing growth” (p.79). When students feel supported in their risks and cultivate a mindset for “continuing growth”, their engagement in class inevitably increases. Teachers can help students practice this excitement for challenge by creating clear learning goals with them.

Image by Steve Riot from Pixabay

Last but not least, teacher enthusiasm goes a long way with students. So, if you find yourself dreading a day of direct instruction, it helps to remember your own passion for the subject and give your lesson an extra boost of excitement! Students will respond positively to your positivity as you continue to create that safe learning environment and keep it moving.


Alber, R. (2012, December 17). Instructional Pacing: How Do Your Lessons Flow? Retrieved June 11, 2019, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/instructional-pacing-tips-rebecca-alber

Buchele Harris, H., Cortina, K. S., Templin, T., Colabianchi, N., & Chen, W. (2018). Impact of Coordinated-Bilateral Physical Activities on Attention and Concentration in School-Aged Children. BioMed Research International, 2018, 1–7. https://doi-org.lili.idm.oclc.org/10.1155/2018/2539748

Impact Teachers. (2018, April 21). Pacing. Retrieved June 11, 2019, from https://www.impactteachers.com/pace-2/teacher-tips

Marzano, R. J. (2019). Tips From Dr. Marzano. Retrieved June 11, 2019, from https://www.marzanoresearch.com/resources/tips/hec_tips_archive

Tomlinson, C. A. (2017). How to differentiate instruction in academically diverse classrooms(3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

My First Year with a Problem-Based Learning Class

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by Julie Thimmig

The demand for a technical theatre course was high in the spring semester of 2018. My principal encouraged it, my students wanted it, and I was excited to have it. The approval went through, and I looked forward to building a curriculum before the fall semester started. I quickly realized that this class was to be set up differently than my other classes: this was my first year with a problem-based learning (PBL) class.

What is Problem-Based Learning?

Cornell University (2019) defines problem-based learning as “a student-centered approach in which students learn about a subject by working in groups to solve an open-ended problem. This problem is what drives the motivation and the learning.” Problem solving skills and group communication skills are tested and sharpened in this approach, which works well for the purposes I had in mind for this technical theatre course. Dr. Louis E. Catron (2019) of Appalachian State University wrote about special advantages that theatre students have, and “creative problem solving abilities” is one of the top: “The point here is that your creative ability, what you’ve learned about using creative processes to solve problems, can be directly applicable to virtually any job you may have.” The importance of this kind of work does not just reach into the theatre community, but in just about any field a student may go into.

How it Worked

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Luckily for me, technical theatre (or Stagecraft, as the class is called) lends itself exactly to a PBL mindset. The technical parts of a theatre production include sound, light, set, costume, and props, so putting students into groups was easy and allowed for differentiation (yes!). Every time we had a new problem, students were able to choose which department they would be in.

David L. (2014) of LearningTheories.com stated in his key concepts of PBL that “teachers adopt the role as facilitators of learning, guiding the learning process and promoting an environment of inquiry” so I began most class periods by stating a problem and giving a few vague details.  For example: “Alright, class. Today, we need to design the set for the spring play Anne of Green Gables. It needs three rooms, a set of stairs, and two couches. We also need flats [walls] to cover the backstage area. What is it going to look like?”

Students were not used to this method at first, but it caught on like wildfire. After a problem was presented, I gave students time to brainstorm as a class and in departments. They would feverishly do research, fight their case, draw designs, measure out the space, inventory supplies, etc. until the group was able to present a detailed plan and idea to me for approval. I will never forget a student saying to me as we walked to the auditorium one day during our brainstorming: “I love this class because we don’t just talk about getting something done; we actually get up and do something about it. It makes me proud!”

That pride magnified as students actually built what they planned. Walls went up, paint went on, platforms were secured, and my stagecraft students could look at the finished product with ownership though many of them hadn’t done this kind of work before.

Two of my Stagecraft students with the set for Anne of Green Gables

I’m thrilled to continue the PBL approach in Stagecraft this next school year. Students took charge, and I was able to “create and facilitate powerful, productive contexts for learning” (Martinez & Stager, 2013, p. 70) by giving them space to problem solve.

(Want to know more? Check out John Spencer’s YouTube Video about Problem-Based Learning!)


Catron, L. E. (2019, May 20). 25 Special Advantages the Theatre Major Has – (and may not even know!). Retrieved June 6, 2019, from https://theatreanddance.appstate.edu/students/prospective-students/25-life-skills-learned-theatre

David L, “Problem-Based Learning (PBL),” in Learning Theories, July 23, 2014, https://www.learning-theories.com/problem-based-learning-pbl.html.

Martinez, S., & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. Torrance, CAL Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.

University, C. (n.d.). Problem-Based Learning: Teaching Resources. Retrieved June 6, 2019, from https://teaching.cornell.edu/teaching-resources/engaging-students/problem-based-learning

Three Lifelong Skills Students Gain from Cooperative Learning

by Julie Thimmig

Photo courtesy of Inside Higher Ed.

Most educators have likely encountered this situation: it’s time to introduce a group project,  and the room erupts with various groans, cheers, and questions. “Do we get to pick our group?” “Do we have to do it in a group?” “Are we graded as a group or just the work we do?” “How many people are in each group?” A quick glance around the room tells a teacher almost all they need to know about how each student is feeling, and the instruction for the project continues.

These highly emotional responses happen for a variety of reasons. Many students consider group projects to be a lot less work while other students (typically the high achieving ones) become nervous and frustrated that their perfect grade will be at risk unless they themselves do everything. Some students are scared to work with their peers, and others think it’s just a great time to socialize as long as they can make it look like they’re working when the teacher walks by.

This heightened emotion over cooperative learning doesn’t make an educators job easier per se, so, why do educators keep doing it? What are students benefiting from this instructional style?

Active Learning

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Kaptan and Korkmaz, professors at Hacettepe University, defined the importance of cooperative learning. They said, “Cooperative learning, involves children in the active exchange of ideas rather than passive learning” (Kaptan & Korkmaz, 1995, p. 1). Students have the opportunity in these cooperative learning situations to take charge of learning in their own way. Groups can discuss, debate, and delegate. Students can explain concepts to others in the group as well as research their own ideas. Frank Avella’s Youtube video on the subject states that “cooperative learning is a great strategy because it’s all about the student…the students are actually the center of learning, not the teacher” (Avella, 2015). This could not be more true; students in cooperative learning situations see their teacher as a guide for the project rather than the source. Students are no longer merely sponges that soak information in, but rather explorers that seek information out.


Photo courtesy of Flickr.com

Educators are familiar with Benjamin Bloom’s framework known as “Bloom’s Taxonomy”. The final level of the taxonomy is “create”, and Christine Persaud explains why in her article: “In the final level of Bloom’s taxonomy, the student demonstrates full knowledge by applying what they’ve learned, analyzed and evaluated, and building something, either tangible or conceptual” (Persaud, 2018). Being able to create shows full understanding, and cooperative learning has its basis in creating. Kaptan & Korkmaz further solidify this in their research, “Research has demonstrated the potential of cooperative problem solving for enhancing children’s cognitive development, creativity and learning” (Kaptan & Korkmaz, 1995). Simply put, when students are asked to create, they have a chance to be creative problem solvers and think about subjects uniquely. These skills will help them in future educational and career opportunities.

Social Skills

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Avella said it right in his YouTube video on cooperative learning: “Cooperative learning is a key component of 21st century life skills. Ultimately, we are smarter together as a group than we are as individuals” (Avella, 2015). Students who are reluctant or nervous to join group projects can sometimes lack the skills needed to work effectively with others. Socializing for the purpose of completing a task comes naturally to some while others will need practice. Cooperative learning provides the situation and environment to teach students these skills.

Educators needn’t fear the dramatic, emotional responses of their pupils when cooperative learning is introduced. With practice, students will also see the multitude of benefits that come from working together to accomplish a task and will be better life long learners for it.


Avella, F. [Teachings In Education]. (2017, October 5). Cooperative Learning Model: Strategies & Examples. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnkKHL_dyGE

Kaptan, F., & Korkmaz, H. (1995). The effect of cooperative problem solving approach on creativity in science course. Retrieved May 29, 2019, from https://www.academia.edu/3014437/The_effects_of_cooperative_problem_solving_approach_on_creativity_in_science_course.

Persaud, C. (2019, March 22). Bloom’s Taxonomy: The Ultimate Guide. Retrieved May 29, 2019, from https://tophat.com/blog/blooms-taxonomy-ultimate-guide/

Teenagers Who Play in School Stay in School

by Julie Thimmig

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Educators have heard about the “war on recess” for a few years now. Frustrated parents have fought for even “20 minute of free play per day” at elementary schools across the country (Pendleton, 2016) and frequently win the battle.

But, who is fighting for the teenager’s time to play?

Hilary G. Conklin’s article on Time.com describes this problem:“One of the casualties of current education reform efforts has been the erosion of play, creativity, and joy from teenagers’ classrooms and lives, with devastating effects.” (2015) In her article, she cites the rise of mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, matching the decline of opportunities for play (Conklin, 2015). On top of this, teachers in the classroom remain frustrated with the lack of student engagement at school. In fact, research has shown that by high school, “40% to 60% of students become chronically disengaged from school.” (Klem & Connell, 2004).

Here’s the secret that outside parties tend to forget: opportunities to play create opportunities to learn skills that will lead students to success, even in teenagers. Here are two crucial things teenagers gain from an allowance of play time at school.

Photo by Kobe Michael from Pexels

Confidence (and more!)

In the article “How Improv Can Open Up the Mind to Learning in the Classroom and Beyond”, Deana Criess, director of ImprovBoston’s National Touring Company offers the four c’s of this type of off-the-top-of-your-head story creating: “creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication” (Flanagan, 2015). Students have the opportunity to learn these skills through playing and imagination. Improv is not limited to the “dramatic types”; improv comes in multiple forms and can fit into any subject or discipline as a “brain break”, a review, or a team building exercise. Since the first rule of improvisation is “never say no”, students learn to think big, take risks, and support every participant’s ideas. Students who participate in improv also gain enthusiasm for the subject thanks to increased confidence through game playing (Flanagan, 2015). For ideas on how to use improv in your classroom, click here!)

Meaningful Relationships

Adena Klem and James Connell conducted a study in 2004 that found a strong correlation between teacher and student relationships and engagement in the classroom. When students perceive adults to be caring, interested, and passionate, student engagement soars (Klem & Connell, 2004). One way to help create these relationships is through student chosen electives.

Students who participate in elective courses during the school day create a bond with teachers and students with similar passions: “because they are highly engaging, electives play a role in keeping our students on campus—especially those reluctant learners and ones who struggle academically.” (Wolpert-Gawron, 2018).  Frequently first on the chopping block for the sake of budgets, elective courses offer students an important outlet for play the way that they choose to.

By supporting teenagers through in class play and electives, parents and educators give them more than a reason to stay engaged at school: they give students the opportunities to develop important skills that will lead them to success throughout their lives.


Flanagan, L. (2015, February 25). How Improv Can Open Up the Mind to Learning in the Classroom and Beyond. Retrieved May 23, 2019, from https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/39108/how-improv-can-open-up-the-mind-to-learning-in-the-classroom-and-beyond

Klem, A. M., & Connell, J. P. (2004). Relationships matter: Linking teacher support to student engagement and achievement. Journal of School Health, 74, 262-273.

Pendleton, K. (2016, August 27). Parents Across America Are Taking on Schools’ War Against Recess — And Winning | IJR %. Retrieved from https://ijr.com/parents-are-fighting-against-schools-in-a-war-against-recess-and-winning/

West-Rosenthal, L. B. (2017, July 05). 5 Brilliant Ways Anyone Can Use Improv in the Classroom. Retrieved May 26, 2019, from https://www.weareteachers.com/improv-in-the-classroom/

Wolpert-Gawron, H. (2018, June 27). The Case for Electives in Schools. Retrieved May 26, 2019, from https://www.edutopia.org/article/case-electives-schools