How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.
Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary in the Cherry Creek School District, used to hang flags and posters to represent all the different cultures represented by her students. Then she decided that wasn’t enough.
She wanted her students to know they were in a safe place regardless of their background or opinions. She worked with them to create a classroom built on acceptance and civility — even when viewpoints diverge.
Fitzgerald is one of 15 teachers who were selected for the inaugural Colorado Teaching Policy Fellowship operated by the national nonprofit Teach Plus. The nine-month program aims to involve teacher leaders in state-level education policy discussions, including how the state responds to the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Why did you become a teacher?
I always wanted to do something important and that made the world a better place. I see education as one of the very few universal human experiences, and so it has always struck me as a place where we, as a society, can make the most impact. If we can guarantee that every person has access to an excellent educational experience with highly effective teachers, I think we can create a lot of change in our country and our world. I wanted to be part of that!
What does your classroom look like?
I spent the first four years of my career in a school where most of my students rarely ventured outside of their neighborhood. My students lived five miles from downtown, yet many of them had never been there. I wanted to find a way to bring the world to them and introduce my students to life beyond their neighborhood. I started decorating my library with travel posters, I hung up flags from countries that represented my students’ backgrounds, and I started incorporating ideas, traditions, and stories from all around the world into my curriculum.
As I grew past my second year of teaching, I realized that hanging up flags and posters of students’ cultures was only one piece of celebrating who they are and encouraging them to explore new ways of thinking. I wanted the classroom to be more than superficially welcoming but emotionally safe as well. So today, my classroom still has many of these artifacts, but we also write and hang agreements of how we will treat one another. We refer back to these agreements on our rough days and celebrate them on our good days. We have words and phrases on the walls that help us share our truths but also consider the perspective of others. I hope that this creates a safe and welcoming space yet also stretches all of us to grow.
What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?
One aspect of my master’s program was learning and utilizing the Seven Norms of Collaboration. As I practiced these norms in working with adults, I realized that my students were capable of using them too. Instead of a classroom management system that takes away points, recess, or stamps, I decided to approach this year differently. I adapted the Seven Norms of Collaboration to meet the needs of my students, and then I spent the first weeks of school teaching my students our norms and expectations of working together.
Today, if you walk into my classroom, you see students setting social and academic goals for themselves, collaborating in groups, and monitoring progress toward their goals. Our discipline problems have been minimal — the occasional spat at recess — and I feel like our classroom community is built on deep respect. My students are comfortable living in a state of cognitive dissonance, and we have guidelines for how we disagree respectfully with one another. I cannot imagine teaching any other way, and most importantly, I hope that these are skills that stick with them for the rest of their lives.
How do you plan your lessons?
Every lesson begins with the evaluation of my students’ current level of understanding. Sometimes this is a formal process of pre-assessment, while other times it consists of analyzing patterns of student performance. Either way, I try to be very thoughtful in the objective that I am trying to teach, how to adjust for students who may struggle, and how to extend the lesson for students who quickly master the material. I work with my grade-level team and my English Language co-teacher to determine where each lesson fits into our curriculum maps as well as best practices for teaching.
I use the workshop model in every subject, so I try to keep my mini-lesson at approximately 15-20 minutes and allow for 30-50 minutes of student work time. This large chunk of time allows me to conference with students one-on-one or in small groups and really modify or extend the lesson as needed. Similarly, it allows students to spend the majority of time doing what they need the most — practicing and engaging in their own learning!
What qualities make an ideal lesson?
The words of my first principal echo in my head — “Intro, model, check, release” — and I still think those are the four most important parts: engage students in a lesson, model the skill, check student progress on the skill, and release students to work. But my favorite lessons are the ones where students take the lead, make connections to a previous concept, or take over the conversation. I LOVE watching my students engage in respectful disagreements among themselves and arrive at new learning in a natural way.
How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I love the workshop model because it allows me to meet the needs of all my students. During that large period of student work time, I can meet one-on-one with students, modify or provide support as necessary, and ultimately help that child reach the objective. I try to stay very calm and patient, validate the student’s hard work, and hold the same high expectation. I want students to feel comfortable asking for help and empowered that they can achieve.
What is your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?
I think it is so important to remember that no one can have their best day every day. When a student has lost focus, I try to keep this in mind. Part of our classroom is the expectation to “Pay Attention to Yourself,” monitor your emotions, and make deliberate choices when you notice something is off.
When students are having a rough day, I remind them of this expectation and work with them to determine appropriate next steps. Knowing my students really helps with this. I know that some of them need to be coached into a minute of physical activity, others need one minute to doodle, while others may need to take a quick lap around our school.
How do you maintain communication with the parents?
I send an email every Monday with classroom celebrations, a detailed schedule of our week (special events, homework…etc), upcoming notes or events, and questions for families to discuss with their students at home. These questions include everything from probes about our classroom content to reflections about what was challenging for students. My hope is that by including specific questions, parents feel more connected to what happens in our classroom and can have meaningful conversations about our classroom at home!
I also complete rounds of family check-ins every few weeks. During these check-ins, I call every parent in my classroom and share student progress, anecdotes, and any concerns I have. This time also allows me to hear what is on the minds of parents and make sure that no frustration, concern, or question goes unheard. I have found that these check-ins help develop my relationship with each parent and our trust in each other.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
I’ve always loved historical fiction, and I have been enjoying a few new titles thanks to our school staff’s book club. Recently we read When the Moon Was Low, which is the story of a family fleeing Afghanistan, which gave us a lot of perspective on the experiences of many of our families and community members. We also have read Yellow Crocus about a white woman growing up with a black wet nurse and their very different searches for freedom.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
The summer before my first year of teaching, I read a book titled Teaching with Love and Logic. The authors wrote that a student “will do anything for a teacher that they love, even things they wouldn’t do for themselves.” I believe so much in the power of building a positive, meaningful relationship with every student, and that it can be the difference-maker in a classroom. Even on my frustrated days, I remind students that in this classroom they are loved, they are believed in, and they matter, and if nothing else, I hope they take that with them at the end of the day.