Darryl Williams is TLAC’s Senior Fellow for School Leadership. He helps organizations use our tools more effectively within their schools to help teachers–and therefore students–succeed. His eye for instruction is honed through years spent as a teacher, principal and senior district leader. He loved a clip we watched recently and thought it would be especially useful to a wide variety of schools so I asked him to share his insights below.
Throughout my first year in the classroom, I often pondered, “How can I successfully establish high expectations and operate with urgency while also exuding calm confidence?” and “Can a teacher really cultivate a classroom culture that is warm, positive and nurturing but unapologetically demanding?”
I was thinking about that while watching 6th grade ELA teacher Allison Dungey at Williamsburg Collegiate recently because her use of an apparently very simple technique—What to Do—is so effective in helping her achieve what so many of us find incredibly difficult – to have high expectations but do everything we can to help scholars navigate those demands successfully, and to do so while maintaining a sense of calm, measured urgency.
We define What to Do, of course, as giving concrete, observable directions to students so they know very clearly how to be successful.
Here’s a video showing a series of Allison’s “What to Do” interactions with students followed by a few observations about them.
What to Do for Confident Composure
Every minute matters in Allison’s classroom, yet it doesn’t feel rushed or frantic. In cuts 1 and 4, we see her deliver her What to Do directions (cut 1: “Pencils down, pick up your blue highlighter”; cut 4: “Pencils down, eyes to me”) in an even tone, using economy of language to focus scholars on the actions that matters most within her directions.
In both these cuts, she incorporates a calm countdown that communicates her confidence and faith in their follow-through. These moments are critical for maintaining pace and ensuring scholars are best positioned to hear what’s coming next. Her emotional constancy is immensely valuable here.
Did you notice how she leveraged What to Do when supporting a scholar needing a reminder for executing an academic task in cut 3? I love that her What to Do directions aren’t limited to behavioral expectations.
Again, using a neutral instructional tone, Allison says, “Skim, annotate for the effect of being in an age group,” to focus this scholar on the academic tasks necessary to complete the assignment. Again by using fewer words she’s able t focus her student on what’s most important. She then calmly walks away again showing her confidence that her scholar will follow-through now that the directions have been clarified. No unnecessary questions about why the scholar wasn’t working or frustrating glances, just calm and effective support in the form of What to Do directions.
In cut 2, scholars are revising their classmates’ written work and she is careful to sequence her directions and pause briefly between the steps so scholars can successfully meet the expectations. “Give your partner a score out of 3… put it in the first box… and when you’re done, meet me at the multiple choice.” Did you notice the absence of the countdown here? These directions require additional time so Allison refrains from using a countdown. Honoring her scholars’ maturity and their consistent follow through builds trust and communicates her faith in their commitment to follow through. She’s essentially saying, “Yes, I’m confident you will meet me at the multiple choice when you’re done, so take a little more time to complete this task accurately.”
All in all there’s a beautiful clarity to her directions—she’s so disciplined in focusing on her own role in helping students always be able to follow directions. No wonder she’s smiling.
What to Do for Measured Urgency
While there is a clear sense of calm in this classroom, Ms. Dungey still maintains a sense of urgency and accountability by reinforcing her What to Do directions with either a scan for follow-through or a short countdown. In cut 1, after delivering her What to Do directions, she scans intently, looking across her classroom for follow through from scholars throughout the countdown. Ms. Dungey makes it clear she’s watching for follow through and because scholars see her looking, they comply. In cut 4, Ms. Dungey backstops her What to Do directions by immediately narrating the students who are following through to build momentum and accelerate the class’ execution of the directions.
What to Do is Warm and Positive
Her scan, smile and nod in cut 4 not only creates a warm and positive tone, but also affirms that expectations are universal – we meet them as a matter of habit in this classroom. Additionally, her directions consistently focus students on what they should do next as opposed to telling students what they aren’t doing or what they shouldn’t do. Did you catch how Ms. Dungey combined her What to Do directions in clip 1 with a non-verbal gesture for pencils down and a gesture to pick up the blue highlighter? Scholars know exactly what her directions require so they can experience success in her classroom.
She’s so intentional about doing her part to make sure scholars always know how to be successful. No wonder she’s smiling.