What is the most important teaching skill to have as a modern educator in the digital age? It’s a tough question that deserves some consideration. Confidence? Empathy? Organization? Collaboration? Creative thinking? All these are contenders. We’re talking about the one among them all that any teacher can’t do without.

Throughout my 10+ year career, I’ve worked on this skill. I continue to work on it in my life outside of teaching. This skill will serve you (and your students) in many aspects of life. It’s certainly indispensable in the field of teaching, where stress abounds. So I’m about to tell you what I feel is the one teaching skill that all teachers need.

That skill is: the ability to turn things around.

That problem student? You need to be able to reach him. That bad day? You’ll need to recover from it and carry on the next. Unit plans not effective? You’ll need to change direction. It begins with your mindset. You start by knowing that failure is an opportunity to turn things around. 

The Art of Turning It Around

I can remember an instance in my formative years as a teacher when I had to turn things around by recognizing my own failure, then change direction. As a beginning teacher, I didn’t believe in planning. I felt that master teachers simply knew how to improvise their way through a lesson because they knew their material. I wanted to be that.

In the beginning, I was winging it. Maybe I was just lazy. Maybe I simply overestimated my own teaching skill. I just couldn’t bother to get lesson plans written down beforehand. I knew what needed to be covered; I just couldn’t figure out how I was going to do it until last minute.

Last minute inspiration was my modus operandi. Most of the time it worked. A lot of times, it didn’t.

That was okay for me, for awhile. Then my eyes were opened by my group’s test scores and mediocre performances in competitions. I thought I had been teaching. And I was.

But thing is, they weren’t learning.

I learned a harsh lesson. More often than I want to remember, I had been doing crisis intervention, when lessons didn’t go well because of ‘shortsightedness.’ I had been doing short term planning, not long-term planning.

I knew that if I was going to increase the times where my lessons worked (they learned), and reduce those times that it didn’t (i taught), I was going to need to turn things around.

The Power of Planning

I decided to commit to planning regularly. To do this, I had to rethink what ‘planning’ meant. I realized that planning was not “writing in stone.” It was about putting a plan in place, with your best idea as to what’s most effective. If it wasn’t working, I could call on my improvising skill to change direction on the spot.

What I also had to start doing was to jot notes at the end of my lesson plan on what went well and what didn’t – what I needed to change for the next plan. Further, my lessons needed to be based on the larger plan.

By turning things around, I also acquired a new skill which I will now incorporate into my previously-stated most important skill: to be committed to the plan yet be flexible enough to change directions; to turn things around at will.

Globalization and information overwhelm are new pieces of the puzzle. We teachers have to adapt and stay current. Turn things around. We have so many tools now which help us plan and implement more efficiently.

Tools like the Solution Fluency Activity Planner help you do this. This system helps you identify the driving question of your problem-based unit and takes you through the thought processes needed to accomplish your goals. For the modern teacher, I’m finding that I’m using this more and more.

Other Teaching Skills

We talked about planning and flexibility. Committing to a plan, but being flexible when needed. Here are a few others:

Master “Sticky Learning.”

This is about making learning relevant to students’ lives. If students can’t connect subject matter to their own lives, right here, right now, it will not stay in their memory. You have to find a way to connect concepts with their lives as kids. That which has meaning will ‘stick’ better.

Know what came before.

Students come with all kinds of knowledge. If you assume everyone’s at the same level, you lose chances for allowing kids to show you what they might already know. When you pre-assess for prior knowledge (either what you have taught before, or what they have learned in the past from elsewhere), you can be more of a facilitator and mentor, honoring students’ innate abilities. Honouring what kids know already gives them a ‘success’ right off the bat.

Embrace repetition.

Re-teaching must be worked into your planning. Kids need to examine things from different angles in order to understand something. Don’t just repeat. Try different things.

Master frequent, instant feedback.

The quicker and more often, the better. Formative assessment is that assessment which occurs in order to plan further steps, not for a grade. We owe it to our kids to let them know how they are doing at any given time.

Walking the Right Path

Time and time again, as new teachers enter the field, everyone wants to know how to master the art of teaching and connect with their students in the most meaningful ways. The modern teacher utilizes planning tools to guide their students’ paths.

At the same time, lessons can organically change, as long as they are relevant and meaningful. The students can drive the lesson from their own interests.


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