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5 Teaching Habits to Break Right Now


We all have bad habits, like staying up later than we should to stream the latest Netflix series and then resorting to drinking far too much caffeine the following day. While some of us vow to change our ways, it can be difficult to engage in a behavior shift without a true commitment to doing better each day with consistency. In teaching, there are so many habits that are easy to accumulate without realizing it. While some serve students and instructional practice well, there are other habits that work against progress and stymie growth. It might feel insurmountable to turn around years of action in one fell swoop, but it’s possible to pick one less than ideal habit at a time to change, both intentionally and gradually. 

Habit 1: Cold Calling

Teachers expect students to be listening in class, so it can be frustrating when some kids remain inattentive. One of the age-old methods of determining whether anyone is listening is to play “gotcha” by calling on students without warning, especially those we suspect of being disengaged. Known as “cold calling,” this practice increases anxiety to the point of trauma for many students, and it is also not the best way of determining how students are doing.

Instead, it is wiser to develop a warm calling method that is built on creating a safe academic space where students grow increasingly comfortable letting their voices be heard. One way to experiment with this new habit is to pose a question and pre-alert the class that some students will be randomly called upon to respond in a few minutes. First, let students talk to a partner for a few minutes to process ideas. Then it is fair to do a random call that has options such as “phone a friend” or “request a lifeline,” which normalizes not knowing something. The intent behind calling on students with this method becomes completely different than catching them out, and instead places focus on what everyone understands so the teacher can see how the learning is going.

Habit 2: Task-Driven Planning

“What are we doing next week?” As teachers sit and plan lessons collaboratively, the focus is too often geared toward completing one task after another to keep kids busy, which I also refer to as “survival mode.” The problem with gearing instruction toward activities is that the overarching learning objective is obscured, as is the process for how we measure student success toward an overall goal. 

Instead, the process of backward design provides focus and clarity that both teachers and students need to continuously define how success is defined in any given unit of study. In this model, teachers plan their lesson objective first. Then, they determine what evidence students must produce to demonstrate their achievement of the objective. Finally, classroom instruction is planned to meet the desired outcome. It should also be noted that students benefit when teachers frame the learning by explaining not just what the objective is, but why that learning focus is important. When students understand the activities they do in relation to that overall goal, they are far more likely to be successful with a visible target. 

Habit 3: Over Grading

Anyone who teaches can relate to the dreaded stack of papers that seems impossible to grade with any kind of timely attention, if ever. It’s also not hard to over assign work, which then leads to that large pile that stretches into infinity. Finding a way to be released from such a stressful workload takes careful thinking around what it means to provide feedback on work as opposed to evaluating (i.e., grading) everything students complete. It also means that assignments are never given to promote better behavior or compliance, and are always intended to measure student progress toward a measurable outcome.

To get a sense of what the distinction between grades and feedback looks like, imagine that a teacher is trying to determine whether the class has fully understood a content standard. Before giving a higher stakes test or even a detailed formative assessment, it makes sense to do a quicker check for understanding in the form of an exit ticket. The class can be divided holistically into those who are meeting the standard and those who qualify as “not yet,” and it’s also helpful to take some notes about where patterns emerge with student struggle. Then, rather than grade the exit ticket, the teacher can use the data to plan next instructional steps and help the kids who need more support before giving an assessment. Not every assignment needs a grade, as long as we think about the purpose of everything students do. It should also be noted that in the interest of less is more, we might want to generally hand out fewer assignments. 

Habit 4: Lack of Boundaries

When do we work, and when do we relax? Those lines have become increasingly blurred, especially over the past few years. It’s hard to ignore the constant “ping” of emails after hours, turn down a late Zoom meeting, disregard the piles of work we have to do, or shut off the voice in our heads that worries about our students long after they walk out of our classrooms each day. However, to remain mentally and emotionally fit to teach, sharpening blurred lines around our availability is essential for establishing and maintaining the boundary between a personal and professional life. 

The methods that promote a better work-life balance might seem obvious, but we rarely wish to commit to them. They involve not checking email past a certain hour of the day, turning off notifications (or even the phone itself) during personal time, leaving weekends largely free of work commitments, and generally learning to say “no” nicely, but firmly. Boundaries should also be established within the context of the school day, whether that means protecting a lunch hour at least a few days a week or being unavailable to meet with a parent who shows up without an appointment. Some of these limits might seem rigid at the outset, but having no rules about when we can be accessed creates the kind of weariness that leads to burnout. 

Habit 5: Talking Too Much

I once knew a teacher who would tell students that the reason he was at the front of the room was because he knew more than they did. Maybe that was true in the limited scope of his content area (and maybe it wasn’t), but it still wasn’t okay to say to kids. Furthermore, it led him to talk way too much as the ultimate authority in the room, leaving students with hardly any chance to get a word in edgewise. This teacher probably enjoyed his own class quite a bit, but had no way to know whether students were learning much of anything.  

For anyone who is interested in creating more student-centered classrooms, one of the wisest tenets is to talk less and listen more. To ensure that this behavior occurs, a first step is to create a structured time for student conversation by letting the class know that for a predetermined time (starting with 10 or 15 minutes, perhaps), the teacher will not be talking at all, but listening to discourse. There may be some uncomfortable silences at first, but as students realize their job is to facilitate conversation, they will begin speaking. As this habit becomes more ingrained, it also helps to promote equity by creating rules around how many times each person should contribute, perhaps by creating index cards that represent how many comments each student has. When someone speaks, they throw a card down, and then it’s another person’s turn. Practices like this that promote voice and equity also build habits that ultimately result in student growth.

Promises might not be made to be broken, but bad habits are. As the months and years pass, it’s easy to fall prey to complacency. Looking at some areas of classroom instruction that could be stronger, challenging them, and making changes that support both kids and ourselves is a necessary component of remaining effective in this profession. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less, Lead Like a Teacher and Writing Their Future Selves. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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