Don’t Accept The Default: Suggestions to Ensure Success in Teaching

This post is part of a speech I gave for the Kappa Delta Pi Induction Ceremony at Molloy College on March 14, 2016.

I originally compiled this list of statements to offer new teachers advice as they entered their first year of teaching. However, many of the members in my PLN have reminded me that these suggestions have value for all teachers regardless of their years of experience in the classroom.

Sage on the StagetoGuide on the Side-2

  1. Don’t accept the DEFAULT, seek out an option that will be BETTER for students:
  • ALWAYS find a BETTER way!
  • Make it your mission to fight “We’ve always done it this way” thinking.


  • Be a disruptor and shake things up. Create an epic classroom!


  • Classroom design EMPOWERS students. NO more ROWS of desks!


  • Create the change you wish to see in your school.


2.  Be so GOOD they can’t ignore you:

  • Do MORE than the default – Arrive early and stay late.
  • Create your OWN lesson content – Ditch the textbooks and worksheets.
  • Be AVAILABLE during your lunch hour – Hold review sessions, play board games with students, treat them to lunch occasionally and allow them to work on projects.
  • Volunteer for everything – Start a drama club, be a student government advisor, go to PTA meetings, and/or join the site-based management team.
  • Read Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You for more inspiration.

3.  Establish a strong PERSONAL CONNECTION with your students:

  • My college professors told me, “Don’t smile until Christmas.” This is total bullshit! Laugh with your students, give them high-fives, jump on your desk to make a point, and above all show students that learning is FUN.
  • Share family stories with your class – Include your spouse, your children, and your pets. Describe how things were in school when you were a kid.
  • Share your writing folder – Read stories you wrote when you were their age. Show them your horrible handwriting.
  • Get to know your students – Provide ample opportunities for them to share verbally and in writing – start a class blog. Go to your students’ soccer games, dance recitals and drama shows. They will never forget this!



  • Establish clear and simple standards of behavior and stick to them. Students need to feel loved, and they all want limits (although they may not realize it).
  •  Flexibility is a key factor to success in your first year. Every student is not at the same instructional level and has different social and emotional needs. For example, I had a student in my first class who was a genius. He absorbed knowledge like a sponge, but his desk was a mess inside and out. Rather than scold him repeatedly about his disorganization, I allowed him to “take over” an empty desk next to him so that he would have more room to put his things.


  • Be a KID!! Alicia, a student in my first class, made this card for me in 1989. She thanked me “for being a teacher and a kid at the same time.” I try to remember this when I get overwhelmed with state mandated assessments and curriculum.
  • “I’ll never forget the FUN I had in 5th grade. My teacher, Mrs. Weiner, made each learning task a joyful experience. We played game shows like Password to review material, created our own videos and filmstrips (cutting-edge technology in the 1970’s), wrote extensively and read voraciously. We participated in a Gong Show talent contest, dressed up as our favorite book character and played kickball in her class. Content was being created on a daily basis and it made for an unforgettable experience. I credit Mrs. Weiner as a primary influence on my desire to become a teacher. And I’ve made sure to incorporate fun activities like these into my lessons every year regardless of grade level. My students come back to tell me how they will always remember the Ancient History News programs they created and filmed live in front of the class.
  • Take the ‘EW’ out of REVIEW with Game-Based Learning applications like Kahoot! and Quizlet Live.

Continuum of Choice

5.  Make a daily effort to be a “GUIDE ON THE RIDE” rather than a “Sage on the Stage.”

  • Move from a teacher-centered to a LEARNER-DRIVEN classroom.
  • Plan group work activities into every lesson – Play Breakout EDU!
  • Allow students to explore curiously and innovate.  – Do passion-based, student-directed Genius Hour projects.

Adobe Spark

  • Incorporate student CHOICE into most learning tasks – Think-Tac-Toe.

tic tac toe


  • Assess prior knowledge as soon as the lesson begins with Socrative, Nearpod, Padlet, Poll Everywhere, Google Forms or plain old pencil and paper.
  • Then group students accordingly for that lesson (Flexible Skills Grouping).
  • Offer multiple project options for students to create evidence of learning. Be sure to include choices that reflect various learning styles. Refrain from assigning “cookie-cutter” projects where every student creates the same exact thing.

classroom walk

7.  Get students MOVING in the classroom.

  • Take your class on “Learning Walks” inside AND outside the school building.
  • Switch up the seats and your classroom configuration often.
  • Use GoNoodle, a fun, interactive way to get kids moving.
  • Don’t spend more than 30 minutes at a time engaging in seat work.


8.  Don’t overwhelm students with too much homework:

  • HW takes the joy out of learning for many kids.
  • “There is no evidence that any amount of HW improves the academic performance of elementary students.” Harris Cooper of Duke University
  • Families across America battle over HW nightly. Parents nag, cajole and often end up doing assignments for their children.

Create a Digital Tattoo

9. Establish a POSITIVE and PROFESSIONAL digital presence for yourself and your class:

  • Understand that your digital tattoo is permanent and you have total control over the content you put out there. So keep it positive!
  • Provide multiple pathways for students and parents to remotely access learning materials outside the classroom.
  • Create a class website/digital flyer with a web-based app like SMORE.
  • Model and demonstrate that “Learning Doesn’t Stop at 3 O’Clock.”

It's ok to date new technology

10. Don’t try to keep up with EVERYTHING in education technology:

  • You can’t, nobody can.
  • Curate your resources for quick and easy access using tools like: Padlet, Pearltrees, Pintrest, Smore or Symbaloo.
  • Ask your students what’s new in technology and social media.
  • Test-drive a new tech tool this year.


11.  Foster a GROWTH MINDSET in your students:

  • Teach students that failure is an important part of learning.
  • Promote the power of positive self-talk. Change your words; Change your mindset.
  • Give examples of famous people who failed multiple times before achieving success.IMG_4783 For example, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, and Michael Jordan all overcame many obstacles before becoming famous.


12.  Don’t EVER stop learning:

  • Embark on self-directed, passion-based professional development.
  • Curate and share content with colleagues.
  • Listen to podcasts, view webinars, and READ whatever you can get your hands on.
  • Become and expert in your field at your own blistering speed. “The standard pace is for chumps.” Kimo Williams






13.  GET connected:

  • Discover the VIBRANT community of AMAZING educators on Twitter. Follow #edchat hashtags! This has been a true GAME-CHANGER for me! I’ve learned more on Twitter in a few months than in years of traditional PD.
  • Grow your PLN (Personal/Professional Learning Network).
  • Go to Edcamps, conferences and workshops (the topic matters less than the people you connect with).


14.  SHARE your WORK:

  • Brag about your lessons, your students and your school on social media.
  • Use apps like Remind to send home positive messages and pictures of students in action.
  • Create a class blog, a digital newsletter or a YouTube channel to spread the word.
  • Don’t hold back because you worry that it’s not good enough or original enough. “To be original, you don’t have to be FIRST, you just have to be DIFFERENT and BETTER.” ~Adam Grant
  • As a teacher in the new millennium, you are your own personal brand. Therefore, it’s in your best interest to promote yourself.
  • Read Austin Kleon’s book, Show Your Work for more inspiration.



  • Keep a teaching journal and or blog about your successes and failures in the classroom.
  • Take pictures, make “Best of” slide shows, and share your work.
  • Keep a digital portfolio of everything you do with your students.
  • Digitize your resume using an app like Smore and continually update it.


I’d like to emphasize that teaching is a difficult job, but it’s the MOST REWARDING profession there is. I had a friend who owned his own business and he asked, “Isn’t it boring teaching the same grade/subject each and every year?” and my immediate response was, “No, it NEVER gets boring because each year you are challenged with a new and vastly different  group of students.”

EMBRACE CHANGE and you will rarely be disappointed!





Instructional Coaches Make a Huge Impact

Instructional coaches are the unsung heroes of the education profession. They nimbly navigate the line between administrator and teacher as they strive to make an impact across multiple grade levels and school sites. Instructional coaches have a unique vantage point – they see things happening at the ground level and are able to offer a perspective that few educators have.


One of the biggest issues confronting schools today is how to provide continuous, high-quality professional development to teachers and staff. District budgets are not what they used to be and education leaders must come up with creative and cost-effective ways to continue to provide this level of training in their schools. One innovative way of doing this is to create the role of an instructional coach in their district by hiring a teacher leader from within. Many districts call these specialists TOSAs (Teachers On Special Assignment). Other districts call them coordinators, but they serve the same purpose: providing perpetual PD in a non-evaluative, non-judgemental environment. These “thought partners” work collaboratively with teachers by asking them what they need and showing them how it can be deployed.

My Instructional Coaches Quote

Instructional Coaches/TOSAs do many awesome things. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. Provide job-embedded professional development.
  2. Model and demonstrate highly-effective best practices.
  3. Offer non-evaluative, objective feedback on a regular basis.
  4. Create an environment where student needs drive professional development.
  5. Offer guidance and feedback at the exact time teachers need it most – in the classroom.
  6. Inspire teachers to try new learning strategies and tools.
  7. Facilitate the transition from teacher-centered to learner-driven classrooms.
  8. Are site-based teacher leaders who support both students and their teachers.
  9. Collaborate with teachers in order to engage students in innovative ways.
  10. Help to close the digital use divide by ensuring that all students understand how to use technology to create content.


Click the image below to view my Instructional Coaches Smore digital flyer which includes links to a collection of resources I’ve curated. 


Passion-Driven Learning For Educators: The Genius Hour Model For Powerful PD

Follow Your Bliss

I’ve been doing Genius Hour projects with my sixth graders for the last three years and the student response has been extremely positive. The children say it’s the best project they have ever done in school and they absolutely love how they get to choose their own topics; researching things they are most interested in by following their bliss proving that passion-driven learning truly makes a difference. One enthusiastic student recently blogged about her experience with this exciting project here:

Genius Hour Experience by Amy S.

The student topics chosen get more interesting and entertaining each year. 2015 examples include a study of accidental inventions, a step-by-step guide to video editing and an exploration of the Bermuda Triangle. I’ve collected a few examples in a beautiful Smore online flyer that can be accessed by clicking the image below:


What If The Genius Hour Model Was Used For Professional Development?

I began to think about this essential question as the student enthusiasm for this project continued to grow. Could this model work to facilitate passion-driven learning for educators in an informal setting? I began to visualize the successful application of my idea:

I imagined teachers excitedly embarking on pedagogical explorations this summer and beginning the school year super-charged with new instructional strategies to utilize with their new students.

I envisioned teachers of all subject areas and levels using powerful tools like Twitter to personalize their PD.

I contemplated educators collaborating online as they pursued similar pedagogical passions – sharing “web gems” and “twitter treasures”

I began to formulate a plan for Passion-Driven Learning for educators using the Genius Hour model I described here:

Plato Would Have Loved Genius Hour

This is what I came up with. Click the image below to view it.