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10.24.16Joaquin Hernandez: The Moves That Build a Culture of High Expectations in Sean Healey’s Classroom

151003-upchs-1489When our team watches footage of teachers in action, we often find ourselves observing classrooms that are in full bloom. Expectations have been internalized, procedures have become routines, and the room is already abuzz with the sounds of learning. This kind of footage is great for illustrating what classrooms can look like when a culture of learning is fully established, but it doesn’t always provide a window into the “how” of getting there. That’s why this clip of math teacher Sean Healey from Uncommon Preparatory Charter High School is so helpful.  As Joaquin Hernandez, my co-author on the Teach Like a Champion 2.0 Field Guide describes in this post, the clip pulls the curtain back on what teachers do to build strong academic cultures from the ground up—or in this case, on just the second day of school. 


One of the most powerful beliefs that we as educators hope to instill in students and build into our classroom culture is that persistence pays off—that sticking with a tough question or challenging task is often a precursor to success. But if we want students to embrace this mindset, they must see themselves trying and succeeding at worthy academic tasks they didn’t initially think they could do. In this clip, we’ll see Sean Healey do just that.


EA.NOO.GR9.Healey.’Try it now.’Clip2584 from Uncommon Schools on Vimeo.

As the clip opens, Sean is about to review the answer to a question from some independent work students just completed (“Is the algebraic expression ‘x-squared – 20’ a perfect square?”). He then encounters a familiar scenario that can be challenging for teachers: he calls on a scholar who has been quiet in class and she doesn’t have an answer. Hesitating, she mutters, “I didn’t get to that one.”

In critical moments like this, a lot can go through our minds. We feel that familiar flush of anxiety. Our blood pressure rises. And then the internal monologue starts. Have I unfairly put the student on the spot? Am I losing the rest of the class? By trying to get this student more involved, have I just made things worse? Naturally, we can feel tempted to move on to another student, give away the answer, or whatever else helps us relieve the stuck scholar from the uncomfortable glare of the spotlight.

But what Sean does next goes against our natural instincts: he stays with the student and confidently invites her to “Try it out now.” The language of “try” gives this scholar permission to get it wrong, so long as she gives it her best effort. On the flip side, it also reveals Sean’s confidence that she can get the answer—and maybe even on the spot.

As the seconds tick by, a few hands spring up from a different corner. Instead of taking the easy out and calling on one of those students, Sean gently asks students to put their hands down, and instead adds reassuringly, “She’s got it.” By doing so, Sean protects the scholar’s—and by extension everyone else’s—right to a quiet space to think without the distraction of competing hands or others calling out answers. His patience and warmth show students that No Opt Out is intended to help students get to the answer, not penalize them for not knowing it. Sean then tilts his head to the side expectantly, as if he sees her success just around the bend. His calm confidence and attentiveness reminds the class that he hasn’t given up on this student, and that they shouldn’t either.

When the student laments that she “still doesn’t know,” Sean doesn’t reveal a trace of disappointment or frustration. Instead, he eagerly jumps in to help by breaking his original question (“Is this expression a perfect square?”) into smaller parts: “Is it a difference? Are there two terms? So then is it a perfect square?” By doling it out in parts, Sean guides the scholar’s thinking without doing too much of the work, enabling her to experience the satisfaction that comes from achieving authentic success. Breaking it Down in this way also helps Sean help the student efficiently so he doesn’t lose the attention of the class.

Perhaps best of all is how it ends. When the student ultimately gets it right, Sean doesn’t gush effusive praise because he’s pleased but not shocked by the outcome. Instead, he honors the student’s thinking by asking the class a follow-up question that requires them to build on it. Once this sequence ends, everyone is seen jotting down what they’ve learned from it. As is often the case with No Opt Out, Sean’s refusal to allow one scholar to opt out of a question results in everyone learning more.

By continually sticking with a student who couldn’t initially answer his question, Sean communicates several powerful messages that shape the academic ethos of his class. Namely, he shows students that in his class there’s no reward or incentive for not trying. If they don’t have the answer to a question, they know Sean will support them in getting to it. It’s not a matter of whether they’ll answer it, but whether they’ll do so with or without some help. Moreover, this No Opt Out sequence—which begins with struggle and ends in success—provides further evidence that stick-to-it-iveness pays off. And perhaps less obvious but just as important, his steady and compassionate response models for students how they might want to respond to their own academic challenges: with humility, optimism, and persistence.

Although No Opt Out can be powerful, one sequence alone can’t shape the academic culture of a class. To make it stick, students must see the technique play out again and again. Fortunately, No Opt Out can be used and adapted to fit a variety of situations and scenarios. Over time and with repeated use, students will see that they can accomplish more than they thought possible.

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2 Responses to “Joaquin Hernandez: The Moves That Build a Culture of High Expectations in Sean Healey’s Classroom”

  1. October 28, 2016 at 9:57 am

    Great post Doug, very useful. This approach is ultimately about high expectations and creating a dynamic classroom climate.

    Dylan your comment recalls Bjork’s notion of ‘desirable difficulties’ – things that feel frustrating in the short term but lead to better learning in the longer term:

  2. Drew Fryar
    March 9, 2018 at 3:23 pm

    I loved this clip. My favorite part was the classroom management. How do you get silence and interest. I can usually get one or the other.

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