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Leading From the Classroom: Suggestions for Teacher Leadership

Leadership_laneMaster Teacher Guest Blog Series
Part 5: Learning Is Social
Post 3 of 3



Welcome to the final installment of the Master Teacher guest blog series. What an informative and inspiring collection of posts we have published in just a few short months! If you are new to series, please look back at earlier posts from Master Teachers who make their teaching All about the Kids, who use data to Measure Progress, who see opportunity in setback and Fail Forward, and who grow professionally when they Reflect Honestly.

This last part of the series focuses on how Learning Is Social. This is true for students and equally true for teachers. The teaching profession can easily isolate us within the four walls of our classroom, but great teachers recognize the value of collaboration and seek out ways to break through the isolation. Today, Cassandra Joss offers her suggestions for teachers looking to take on more leadership roles, while at the same time remaining in the classroom. Enjoy!

In education, “moving up” the ranks is very different than the most other professions. Teachers go into education to inspire and help children. However, a “promotion” often takes teachers away from the daily, meaningful relationships with students and the actual teaching; the two things I enjoy most about my job. I have known from the beginning of my career that being a principal or working in the administration office is not for me, yet I wanted more out of my job. How was I supposed to fulfill the desire to be a leader in my profession, and still continue to teach at the same time?

In 2013, I received the direction I needed. I was chosen as an NEA BetterLesson Master Teacher. This set me on a path to fulfill the growth and leadership I was looking for. As a Master Teacher, I was able to build relationships with educators from around the country. The people I was meeting had all sorts of great skill sets, experiences, and stories. During my time as a Master Teacher, two things occurred to me. If I wanted leadership opportunities, I was going to have put myself in them, nobody was going to come to my classroom and do it for me. The second realization was that I needed to surround myself with positive, like-minded people.  

I began actively seeking more opportunities to grow as an educator, and contribute to my profession. Working on leadership projects outside of my classroom “fills my bucket”, yet still allows me to enjoy my first love of teaching. Here are a few suggestions for teachers looking to expand their opportunities and grow professionally:

  • When you receive an educational newsletter, read it from top to bottom and look for opportunities that are of interest to you. I learned that these opportunities are very often posted, but not many people read the publication or follow through on making a contact.  
  • When you go to conferences and workshops, walk right up and introduce yourself to the people you admire or find interesting. I have made a lot of inspiring and lasting connections this way.
  • Sign up to present at a conference on a subject area you are strong in. While there, use the opportunity to make professional connections.

Once I began actively seeking out leadership roles, they started coming. My favorite quote to live by is, “If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.”  The minute I start to get comfortable or complacent is a sign that I need to push myself. It’s time to exit that room, or change up the people in it. It can be very easy to become isolated and confined within the four walls of a classroom. Teaching doesn’t easily lend itself to professional networking.  

As mentioned previously, throughout my travels I have been blessed to meet some inspiring people in my profession. When I surround myself with people who are also passionate about teaching and being leaders in the profession, really great stuff happens! I have made some incredible friendships. Surrounding myself around others who are positive and driven pushes me to work harder. Keeping away from negative people, who resist change has been critical to my leadership journey.

It is possible to be a leader in our profession and still be a classroom teacher. It is amazing how one opportunity leads to another and another. Start small, and get the snowball rolling. We need to keep the best teachers in a classroom for the sake of our students!

Cassandra Joss is a 3rd-grade teacher in Utica Community Schools, located in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. In addition to serving as a member of the Common Core Leadership Cadre for the Michigan Education Association, she is a guest lecturer in math methods at Oakland University, and a member of BetterLesson’s Math Master Teacher Project. To see all of Cassandra’s Kindergarten math lessons, please click here.

Begin with the End in Mind

Welcome to the last installment of Website Wednesday, the weekly blog by a BetterLesson Master Teacher highlighting online resources.

Today, Master Teacher Mitchell Smith shares some ideas and resources for how he prepares students for assessments from the first day of school.


Teaching is a humbling profession. The techniques that work with one student population may not necessarily have the same results with another. Even for veteran teachers, new teaching challenges pop up year-to-year.

If you are anything like me, you recognize that every problem has a potential solution. Period. I don’t like to be told that I can’t do something. With teaching, however, I am not a solo artist, professional, or learner. Teaching and learning is a community process: students, families, teachers, administration, and support staff, among many others.

As I write this post, I am processing the scores of my students’ unit exams. But today is an extension of the first day of this unit, which is itself an extension of the first day of class. For me, I always begin with the end in mind. From the very start, I framed what I expect from my students, as evidenced by the class motto banner shown below.

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Every day I approach instruction and assessment through the lens of scholarship excellence. Therefore, how I prepare and execute in the classroom is a model of what I look for in students’ preparation and execution. Striving does not equate to achieving perfection. There are always areas for polish. That being said, results from today’s exam will lead me to identify how we can improve.

Instructional Models
I have found a few different instructional models helpful for framing the way in which I prepare a unit, from end to beginning.

The first is Understanding by Design (UbD). It is perhaps the most well-known model and one that I have implemented quite extensively. The three stage backward design model leads with the instructional goals and follows with the formative evidence and specific instructional details. Thus the end (Stage 1) is where the magic begins.

The second is the Architecture of Accomplished Teaching model, which comes from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. This one also begins with the desired end goals (2nd step) with the requisite formative checks along the way, ending with reflecting on student learning and establishing new goals.

Assessment Strategies
I spent time this past summer reading several teacher books trying to hone my skills. One book, Teach Like A Champion 2.0 by Doug Lemov, featured a number of great strategies organized into five thematic parts. One such strategy called “Plan for Error,” pushed me to consider how I can systematically anticipate errors before they crop up, thus allowing me to begin the lesson with possible ends in mind. As Mr. Lemov says, “If students make the mistakes you anticipate, you’re likely to have a terrific solution; if you’re wrong, you get to improve your level of insight about your students’ thinking by reflecting on the dissonance between the errors you anticipated and the mistakes that actually occurred.”

Professional Development
The idea of beginning with the end in mind is also evidenced in BetterLesson’s TeachCycle program. Teachers work virtually with a TeachCycle coach to identify a broad area of need for their students, and then teachers select a specific teaching challenge that falls under this student growth area. With the support of their coach, teachers select a strategy that targets the teaching challenge and measure its efficacy. Teachers continue to implement and measure new strategies rapidly, enabling them to quickly learn what works for their students and what doesn’t. When students have made adequate growth in one area, teachers select a different teaching challenge and the iterative process starts anew.

“Begin with the end in mind,” isn’t just a trendy catch-phrase. It is the mantra that guides my every move as I strive for excellence in teaching.  But if I don’t make proper preparations for what students need to know, understand, and be able to do, then it will be more difficult and unlikely that my students, in turn, will strive for excellence in their scholarship.

Mitchell Smith is a National Board Certified high school science teacher at Kentridge High School in Kent, Washington. An avid outdoorsman, Mitchell enjoys hiking, mountaineering, camping, canoeing, mountain biking, and running. To view all of Mitchell’s Biology lessons, please click here.

The Benefits of Working with a Dedicated Coach


Master Teacher Guest Blwriter-605764_1280og Series
Part 5: Learning Is Social
Post 2 of 3

When you want to improve an area of your work, a skilled and knowledgeable coach can support you to break through a performance plateau and help you to achieve more than you could have alone. They get to know your strengths and weaknesses, and they deftly push you to surpass your limits. A skilled coach can meet teachers wherever they are, from a first-year teacher fresh out of graduate school to a seasoned veteran, 30-years into his or her career.

BetterLesson’s personalized professional development, TeachCycle does exactly that. Our skilled coaches work with educators from across the country to support them to improve outcomes for students. After first identifying an area of student growth, teachers choose a specific teaching challenge for themselves and then work with their coach to select strategies targeted to address the challenge. In this way, TeachCycle coaching is truly collaborative work between teacher and coach, enabling the teacher’s learning to be social rather than isolated.

Today, Master Teacher Veronique Paquette discusses the benefits she experienced when she worked with a BetterLesson coach as part of the Master Teacher Project. Enjoy!

Most writers work in quiet solitude; planning and plotting the twists and turns in their latest story, research or project. Writers will work for long periods of time, without ever asking for anyone’s opinions or advice towards their writing. Teacher writers are the opposite of this; they do not work in isolation. For educators, writing is a social event.

In my twenty-eight years as an educator, I have had many opportunities to write: grants, speeches, newspaper and magazine articles, a Master Thesis, and National Board portfolios. Each writing style had a different audience, but the purpose was always the same: to share my knowledge of a particular subject in teaching. In many of those situations, I worked with the support of a good friend, a mentor I respected or colleagues who willingly read my work and critiqued it for me. Some writing projects were easier to tackle than others, yet each type of writing left me with new learning. I was always proud of my writing, but more so because I knew how much blood, sweat and sometimes tears had gone into my work.

Lesson writing for Better Lesson was a whole new challenge. It was more than just creating and designing fabulous lessons. It was about writing those lessons in a way that met the needs of all teachers, from the experienced teacher to the new teacher just entering the profession.

Writing lessons for Better Lesson was never a solitary endeavor. When you become a Master Teacher in any of the projects, you are instantly given the support of a Coach. For me, I had no idea that my coach would become one of my closest and dearest connections to understanding my own teaching and writing styles. Moreover, that I would come to love and enjoy writing lessons as much as I did. I lay all the credit of this discovery on the shoulders of my coach.

In the beginning of the Project, I worked through my lessons and struggled to find the perfect format to share my ideas and work. I must have changed my formatting a hundred times. My coach patiently held my “cyber” hand and coaxed me through the process. She never gave up. We had a great system, developed by the folks in the Project, using the Google platform. We wrote our lessons and submitted them through Google Docs, and then coaches read the lessons and resubmitted them back to teachers with suggestions.

Struggling through the formatting made it difficult in the beginning, but my coach was always ready to discuss it with me. When I begged her for a format, she kindly explained to me that the philosophy of Better Lesson was not to tell the teachers how to write our lessons. They wanted each of us to shine in our own way. I so appreciated that they cared so much about preserving each of our special styles of teaching and writing to allow us that freedom.

My coach continued to keep our conversations going; Google Hangouts and email became our best methods. She was ready at a moment’s notice. As the year of lessons developed and came to life, my lesson writing improved each time I submitted through the process. I celebrated when lessons were returned with very little to revise. Better yet, I would do a little happy dance when a lesson was submitted the first time and was accepted without any needed revisions. Those lessons did not happen often, but they sure felt good when they did.

One thing I believe that helped my coach to be such an effective facilitator was her knowledge of the standards, including all the elements (Science and Engineering Process or Crosscutting Concept). Through our discussions, she would help me to see clearly when my writing was strong or missing something. She knew when lessons addressed standards and when they were stretching. Thank goodness for that!

Typically, Better Lesson coaches carry a large load of work. They read endless amounts of lessons, encourage their teams, and are teachers themselves. I cannot imagine being a part of the Master Science Teacher Project without my coach. She taught me many lessons during our year of work, but none so valuable as the love I discovered I had of sharing my writing with others. Becoming a Master Science Teacher meant I would share my skills with other teachers, but ultimately, I became a learner as well. I learned I love to write!

Veronique Paquette is a 2nd-grade teacher at Kenroy Elementary School in East Wenatchee, Washington. She has taught early elementary students for 28 years and loves finding ways to bring the outside world into the four walls of her classroom. To see all of Veronique’s science lessons, please click here.

If you’d like to learn more about working with a dedicated TeachCycle coach next year, please click here.

7 Tips For Collaborating In Schools

Master Teacher Guest Blog Series

Part 5: Learning Is Social

Post 1 of 3

Despite being surrounded by students all day, teaching can feel isolating sometimes, even lonely. If there aren’t specific expectations for collaborating with colleagues, it is easy to view collaboration as more effort than it’s worth.

Here at BetterLesson, however, we view collaboration as essential to a teacher’s development. Whether collaborating with a TeachCycle coach in virtual meetings, collaborating with digital teammates in our online workflow tool, or collaborating with a team of teachers face-to-face in your own school, we want to support teachers to learn from each other because learning is social!

Today, Master Teacher Regan Aymett argues that collaborating with colleagues is critical to both her growth as a teacher and the growth of her students. She outlines seven tips for making the most of whatever collaborative time you have. Enjoy!



Collaborating as a team is probably the most beneficial thing I do to help my students learn. By sharing mistakes and achievements, my team can become stronger in our instruction. As our instruction improves, we can improve learning outcomes for our students, which is the focus of our collaborative team.

I have distilled what I believe are the seven practices that enable efficient collaboration and allow it to be a catalyst for both improved student outcomes and teacher development:

  1. Establish a Consistent Time and Place


To ensure that collaboration remains a priority, it is necessary to devote dedicated time to working together. Depending on your school’s schedule and the schedules of your particular team, this time may be daily, weekly, monthly, or even by quarter. What is most important is to establish a time that works for everyone involved and to stick to it. For example, our grade level team meets every Tuesday, in my room from 10:00 to 10:40. If we do not get everything accomplished on our agenda, we schedule another meeting that week.

  1.   Set Behavioral Expectations

Prior to the meeting, we set norms that we generate as a school in a professional development. We outline specific expectations for ourselves early in the year, reference them at each subsequent meeting, and adjust them as needed. Most of the norms seem like common sense, but it is essential to set a standard for behavior expectations. Since we create our norms, we are more likely to honor them and hold each other accountable for adhering to our expectations.

  1.   Set Roles

After establishing our norms, we establish roles for our team members. For our meetings, we have a leader, timekeeper, recorder, and a person to keep us on task. These roles help our meetings flow smoothly and allow everyone to contribute. We find that it is best to rotate responsibilities from time to time so that everyone has a chance to serve in each role.

  1.   Send an Agenda in Advance and Stick to It

As the team leader, I send out our agenda for the weekly meeting in advance. Typically, this agenda consists of the standards we will be teaching in the upcoming week. It is helpful if everyone comes to the meeting prepared to discuss specific standards and share their ideas on lessons that would support these standards. Once we agree upon what the standard really requires at our grade, we begin designing a common formative assessment. Having a common formative assessment sets a standard of rigor for our entire grade, which ensures all students are going to be held to the same level of proficiency.

  1.   Analyze Data

After we have all taught the skills and assessed our students, we look at our data as a team. Based on the data from all of the students in our entire grade, we have a conversation around trends in student achievement. If one teacher has a group of students that did exceptionally well on a skill and others did not, we ask the successful teacher to share their strategies. This creates an opportunity for our grade to learn from each other.

  1.   Plan Instruction

As a grade level, we look at our data and plan remediation activities for our students that were not proficient on the assessment. We also plan extensions for those who were proficient. Our instruction for remediation and extension may include centers, stations, homework, or small group activities. Collaborating as a team allows us to break up the task of planning so many different activities and ensure that each plan is appropriate, thorough, and standards-aligned.

  1. Grade as a Team

Our team often grades writing task as a team because the rubric is quite detailed. It is helpful to collaborate and focus on analyzing student work. After we have analyzed the work and collectively decided areas of weakness in our grade, we begin planning new writing activities to help our students grow.

The conversion to team collaboration can be an adjustment for teachers accustomed to working alone. In my experience, however, I have found collaboration time to be invaluable to my growth as a teacher and the growth of my students.


Regan Aymett is a 1st and 2nd-grade teacher in Shelbyville, Tennessee. She holds a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction and was a member of BetterLesson’s ELA Master Teacher Project and Science Master Teacher Project. Please click to access her ELA curriculum and her science curriculum.  

TeachCycle Mindset – Learning is Social


Learning is SocialWelcome back to the Master Teacher blog series, a collection of posts written by Master Teachers and organized around the key mindsets of TeachCycle, BetterLesson’s innovative professional development offering.

So far, we’ve learned how Master Teachers make their teaching “All About the Kids,” how they “Measure Progress” in their classrooms, how they “Fail Forward” by taking risks and learning from the results, and how they “Reflect Honestly” by pushing themselves to be questioning, self-reflective, practitioners.

This week, we move into the fifth and final key mindset of TeachCycle: Learning is Social

The TeachCycle process is all about learning what works for your students as quickly as possible so that your improvement as a teacher is purposeful and driven by your students’ needs in the moment. TeachCycle teachers identify a particular area of student growth then try strategies targeted to address a specific teaching challenge. Teachers measure the effectiveness of each strategy immediately then iterate on the strategy quickly, learning what worked and what didn’t, always working toward their goal of student achievement.

Collaboration with fellow teachers either remotely through the online workflow tool or in face-to-face team meetings is a powerful component of the TeachCycle process. Collaboration allows a teacher’s individual learning to be shared by colleagues, thereby accelerating the learning process for all. The other key mindsets of TeachCycle, All About the Kids, Measure Progress, Fail Forward, and Reflect Honestly all culminate in the social learning that takes place through collaboration.

The upcoming series of three blogs highlight some ways that you can make learning social in your own school, by creating opportunities to share and learn with your colleagues. From Regan Aymett we’ll hear tips for running collaborative meetings, Veronique Paquette shares the benefits of collaborating with a coach, and Cassandra Joss reflects on her experience as a teacher leader, working collaboratively with other teachers.

Tackling Engineering and Design in The Science Curriculum

Welcome back to Website Wednesday, the weekly installment that shows you how the BetterLesson site can support you with ideas, resources, and even full, standards-aligned lessons for your classroom.

Today, Master Teacher Joyce Baumann describes her experience teaching engineering and design to lower elementary students, and how the BetterLesson site can help any teacher looking to incorporate more engineering into their lessons. Enjoy!

Baumann1During my work with the BetterLesson Master Teacher Project, I worked with a mentor to create science lessons aligned with the NGSS standards. One day, my mentor noted that I had yet to create any lessons that addressed the NGSS Engineering and Design Standards.

I laughed. I could not imagine how kindergarteners could engage in engineering. She had to be kidding! She wasn’t. However, she did offer support as I set out on a journey to bring engineering and design into my classroom.

After looking over the kindergarten standards, I decided to integrate engineering into my kindergarten science unit that addresses the sun. I planned to have my students design and construct a structure that would shelter an ice cube from melting. I gathered my supplies and prepared to take the plunge.

I gave the students time to plan their structures. They had the opportunity to look at the materials available and think about how they would use them. They sketched their designs on paper and then jumped into building. It was a hot mess. Yards of masking tape and a forest of popsicle sticks gave their lives for these flimsy structures. There were arguments and disagreements and a few airborne popsicle sticks. After more than a half hour of building, some of the structures failed to even stand on their own. I saw the lesson to its end, by taking the students outside to test their structures. The structures were somewhat effective in protecting the ice cube, but they did not function the way I hoped they would. Here is what a few of the structures looked like:


That evening I debriefed with my Master Teacher mentor, sharing my frustrations. She said I needed to go back and try it again. What? Try it again? That was just crazy talk. But after some discussion, I discovered an inner courage I didn’t know I had, and I decided to have the students make another attempt, trying to improve their structures. I decided to teach a lesson about the difference in light absorption with black and white paper before the next attempt to give the students some additional background knowledge to help guide their decision making when designing their new structure.

So we embarked upon design and engineering, attempt two. As I launched the planning part of the lesson, I noticed a remarkable change. The students were really conversing about the shortcomings of their first designs and how they could improve upon them. When the students starting constructing their structures, their work was very focused. The consumption of masking tape was greatly reduced as well!

When it was time to test the structures, the results were impressive, showing an improved performance for all student work groups. Notice the difference in their structures from their original designs:


The students were so proud of their work and they truly experienced the engineering and design cycle by making improvements on their first structure. They also used the knowledge they gained from the lesson on light absorption, changing the color of the paper they used for their structures from black to white.

So, does science and engineering have a place in the kindergarten classroom? That is an enthusiastic, “Yes!” It may have been a bit “messy”, but the learning that happened was just amazing. I would encourage all teachers to explore the BetterLesson site to find inspiration for incorporating NGSS Science and Engineering Standards into science instruction. There are hundreds of lessons for Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School, and High School.

Joyce Baumann is a Kindergarten teacher in Cold Spring, Minnesota. In her 20-year career, she has been a finalist for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year, received the NEA Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence, and served on the Minnesota Board of Teaching. Joyce was a member of both BetterLesson’s Science Master Teacher Project and the Math Master Teacher Project. To view all of Joyce’s great lessons, please click here.


But Why Do We Do What We Do?

Master Teacher Guest Blog Series

Part 4: Reflect Honestly

Post 4 of 4

Merriam-Webster defines self-reflection as “careful thought about your own behavior and beliefs.” As such, self-reflection can be a lonely experience. In the context of teaching, you’re turning the focus inward and assessing not your students, but yourself. What did you do to make this lesson successful? What could you do better next time?

Typically, there are no shortcuts to self-reflection, no way for someone else to be self-reflective for you. However, through their commitment to reflecting on each and every lesson on the site, BetterLesson’s Master Teachers give you a head start to this reflective process!

Today, Caroline Courter describes the process that she and other BetterLesson Master Teachers use when reflecting on their lessons and offers tips on how readers can use these reflections to inform their own teaching. Enjoy!


courterHonest reflection is an integral practice for a person’s development. This is true professionally, personally, and academically. It is even true for students! From kindergarten through high school, the Engineering strand of Next Generation Science Standards specifically outlines the ways in which students should be reflecting on their experiences and understanding of the world and proposing solutions to solve the problems they identify.

  • At the lower elementary level students are required to “…define a simple problem that can be solved through the development of a new or improved object or tool.”
  • In upper elementary this standard expands, requiring students to “…identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.”
  • By middle school, students are expected to “develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.”

We are requiring students to be reflective problem solvers who question the world around them and seek to make improvements. As teachers, we need to be engaging in honest reflection as well!

The barrier to honest reflection as a teacher is real: it takes time. With all of our other responsibilities, time is at a premium. In my experience, however, the time I spent reflecting on my lessons paid off enormously down the road. I am no stranger to reflection – as a Master Teacher for BetterLesson, I provided at least one reflection on every single lesson I wrote. The benefits of all this reflection are two-fold:

First, as the Master Teacher, I slid into a routine of reflection and came to anticipate what I would write up. I found myself analyzing the lesson even before I taught it, which was great because I was able to improve my lessons based on what I thought may become an area of improvement.

Second, it benefits teachers who use my lessons because as you (the reader) view a lesson and the reflection, you can see areas that I would change or areas that worked well for my class. It provides you with an analysis before you teach the lesson, enabling you to change or adapt the lesson as necessary to meet the needs of your students. For example, at the beginning of my unit on Soil and Water, I wrote this reflection about the benefits of administering a pre-assessment before diving into the lesson.

In addition to the reflections, another aspect that is incredibly helpful about Master Teacher lessons is the inclusion of the “why” behind choices made in the classroom. Instead of the typical online lesson plans that only provide the materials and procedure, Master Teachers include their rationale behind the choices they make. For example, in the Preparation section of my lesson on Living Organisms in the Rainforest, I explain what my students have already covered before I teach this lesson. This helps you, as the reader, to understand how I have developed background knowledge before this lesson so that you can either teach similar background knowledge or adjust the lesson to meet your needs.

In the Think section of my lesson on Investigating Balance, I describe why modeling the expectations before beginning the activity is vital to the success of the lesson. This is intended to provide another layer of explanation for you before teaching the lesson. By including the ‘why’ behind our choices, Master Teachers want you to be able to see that every move in a classroom can be used as an important instructional decision. Ultimately, by providing reflections and rationale for instructional choices, the BetterLesson Master Teacher lessons can become a helpful way for you to make more purposeful choices in your own classroom and maximize student learning!


Dr. Caroline Courter is an AIG (Academically and Intellectually Gifted) specialist for K-5 students at the New Hanover County Schools in Wilmington, North Carolina. She holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction Supervision, both from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. A veteran teacher, Caroline has brought her passion for STEM to North Carolina students in Kindergarten, first, second, and fifth grades.


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