ACSI — Vol 17.3
Purpose-Driven Instruction Building Fences
Robert Frost poetically declared, “Good fences make good neighbours” (“Mending Wall”). In the world of education, good fences make good preparation for great teaching. The purpose-driven teacher accomplishes much before teaching a lesson takes place. Just as a farmer prepares fertile soil in order to plant seed that will produce abundant crops, the purpose-driven teacher prepares the “instructional ground” by erecting solid fences to clarify, define, and focus the learning.
Fence One: Strong Beginnings
The very first fence to erect is that of a strong beginning to the school year (Morrish 2003; Marzano, Marzano, and Pickering 2003). The beginning of the school year only comes once. It is a time when students are paying the most attention. The teacher who begins the first day brimming with inner authority and a detailed discipline plan is the teacher most likely to succeed. Having a strong beginning and an understanding of discipline and its purpose is crucial. The word discipline has, unfortunately, been seen by many to be synonymous with punishment; consequences are but a part of discipline. Discipline is much more comprehensive than merely classroom management (Morrish 2003). Its root is the word disciple, and the role of the Christian school should be to develop disciples, or learning followers, of Jesus. Classroom management does not make an impact on the heart of the student. A purposeful discipline plan has the potential to do just that. Of all the important things we teach, the teaching of discipline and the proper role of authority will benefit our students most, and it starts on day one.
Be ready with practical methods to reinforce positive behaviors, consequences for negative behaviors, and specific actions to ensure positive relationships. The plan is not secret. Input from students into certain aspects can be effective (Marzano, Marzano, and Pickering 2003). Teach and reinforce the plan, and do it creatively. The beginning of the year is the time to major in discipline and minor in academics. The teacher should resist the pressure to jump into academics without the fence of a strong beginning emphasis on discipline. This emphasis will more than pay off later when effective learning abounds. The discipline plan is always crucial, but never as much as in the beginning.
Fence Two: Procedures
Planning to teach without fencing your instruction within procedures is planning to fail. And yet, many teachers spend an inordinate amount of time planning exciting lessons to spark amazing high-level critical thinking in the minds of their students compared with the time they devote to planning and teaching procedures. Lesson planning is crucial, and its importance has rightly been ingrained into the minds of teachers. However, no matter how solid the lesson planning, without the fence of procedures, it is precious time wasted.
Teaching procedures and enforcing them consistently enables teachers to maintain their high expectations for both academic performance and behavior. Research has confirmed that implementing procedures has a “profound impact” on student behavior (Marzano, Marzano, and Pickering 2003). Examples of a few necessary procedures would include the turning in of student work, participation in classroom discussion, entering and exiting the classroom, transitions, and so on. Also important is how and when procedures are taught. Expectations must be clear. Consistent implementation will mean prevention of negative behaviors. This very crucial fence also promotes routine.
The fence of procedures keeps inappropriate behavior from ever crossing the threshold of the classroom and prepares the way for those creative, dynamic lessons. This concept of firm boundaries, which protect and also allow for freedom within, is reminiscent of the Lord’s boundary-setting in the lives of His followers so that His purposes can be accomplished.
Fence Three: Relationships
A third fence for the enhancement of instruction falls outside the cognitive realm and deals more with the social and emotional connection the teacher makes with students. John Maxwell says, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” (2005). This aptly applies to the classroom as well. Research has shown that relationships matter, and teachers who foster close, positive, and supportive relationships with their students can increase their achievement, foster learning, and conversely, reduce negative behavior issues that may slow down learning (Brophy and Good 1984; Darling-Hammond 2004).
As teachers working in Christian schools, the expectation of right relationships with our students is commanded and modeled by Jesus. The Master Teacher warmly welcomed children, drew them to his lap, and lavished his love on them. Surrounded by children, Jesus used a teachable moment to warn those who interact with children that they need to do everything they can to encourage and foster spiritual growth. If they cause any of the children to stumble, “it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6, NIV). As teachers we need to heed these strong words that show Jesus’ commitment to the spiritual growth of children. Each day do we treat the students in our care as children of God, demonstrating His great love for them?
If relationships are not there, the rest of what we do does not matter. We need to use both verbal and nonverbal avenues to demonstrate affection for our students. Ask yourself if you are doing these things on a regular basis:
• Complimenting your students
• Engaging in informal conversations not related to academics
• Using positive physical signs of encouragement like smiles and nods to create a warm, safe environment for learning
• Using humor appropriately to encourage a sense of community in your classroom
• Showing interest in students’ lives outside of the classroom
• Showing your enjoyment and pleasure in your students
Fence Four: High Expectations
Another part of a teacher’s responsibility is to demonstrate belief that all students are capable of learning and achieving. All teachers function out of a personal belief system that is tacit and often supported by unconsciously held assumptions about students, classrooms, and academic material. As a result, the instructional choices they make and the classroom environment they create stem from those beliefs and expectations. Students who perceive teachers as creating a caring, well-structured learning environment in which expectations are high, clear, and fair are more likely to excel at higher levels.
Dona Kagan identifies teacher behaviors that demonstrate high expectations for all students as (a) using praise rather than criticism, (b) persisting with low achieving students and accepting them, (c) experimenting with new curriculum and materials, and (d) changing instructional strategies (1992). These types of behaviors have been found to directly make an impact on student achievement levels and result in students believing in their own ability to excel.
Finally, there comes a time when the teacher’s attention must be given actual instruction, but not before purposely fencing in the learning environment with a strong beginning, consistent procedures, positive student-teacher relationships, and high expectations. Once the purpose-driven teacher erects these vital fences around the rich, fertile ground where the seeds of learning are planted, learning will flourish without the weeds of disorganization, chaos, and disrespect. The true joy of the Lord’s calling to teach can now be experienced within these four key protective fences.
Susan Alford, PhD, is the chair of the Teacher Education Department at Grace University in Omaha, Nebraska. Dr. Alford was a special education teacher before joining the faculty at Grace University. Her current area of research is in the field of curriculum and instruction for English language learners. She has taught and administrated for 35 years, and she enjoys speaking and writing about instructional improvement and teacher preparation.
Dr. Michelle Lundgren, EdD, is a professor, certification officer, and Graduate Program director in the Teacher Education Department of Grace University in Omaha, Nebraska. Formerly a superintendent, Dr. Lundgren taught and administrated in a K–12 Christian school for many years. She speaks and writes on issues related to education, teacher preparation, and parenting, and she leads the women’s ministry at her church.