Becoming a Consistent Teacher: Stares, Hand Signals, and Routines

My school year wrapped up and I might be happier than my students. It isn’t that I dislike my job or am burned out. It’s just that having a break is wonderful.

When I compare the end of this year with the end of last year, it is a world of difference. Last year, I was exhausted, burned out, and looking forward to summer break (for the purpose of getting away from work). This year, I am happy, have energy, and am looking forward to summer break (for the purpose of enjoying the break). The primary reason for this change is personal growth.

The primary areas I have grown is consistency in classroom management and classroom routines.

  1. Classroom Management

Having consistent classroom management procedures drastically improved my teaching and reduced my stress. My “secret” is so simple, it is a little ridiculous. 

“3, 2, 1, Stop.”

I hold one hand in the air and countdown with my hand and voice. At ‘stop’ my hand forms a fist and my voice rises in pitch.

That’s it. The beauty lies in the simplicity. The ‘countdown’ cues students to quickly come to a stopping point in their work/discussions. The ‘stop’ cues them to stop. The rise in pitch is yet another cue. If many students do not respond, I pose a rhetorical question, “When I say 3, 2, 1, Stop. What should you do?” This is generally enough to get most students to stop. But for those who require more assistance, I have found it effective to move into their proximity while giving them a teacher stare. 

The Teacher Stare

The teacher stare is not angry, happy, or blank. It clearly communicates displeasure and should always be accompanied/followed with a signal that directs the students towards proper behavior.

A few seconds have passed and, in all likelihood, you now have the misbehaving students’ attention. Once they are looking at you, you can use a hand signal to guide the students into proper behavior.

Pro Tip: If there are multiple students misbehaving across the room, you should give each group the teacher stare, moving towards the worst violators. At the same time, use hand signals to cue behaving students sitting near those misbehaving to get their attention. This could involve signaling the behaving students (near the misbehaving ones) to tap the misbehaving students on the shoulder and point towards the teacher.

Hand Signals

Hand signals work because they are clear and simple. They also work well for students who struggle with English because these students will already understand the concept of the signal (be quiet/open you book/write/etc), even if they do not understand the accompanying words. The key to hand signals, is being consistent. You must teach the signals before you use them and then you must use them regularly to ensure students remember what the signals mean (Teaching and reinforcing hand signals is a very quick process). You should find that regularly using hand signals improves student behavior and reduces the amount of time you spend correcting students.


Quiet Open your book/notebook You should be working (move your hand like you are writing, accompany with a look to imply, “get to work”)

Closed hands transition to open hands


The key to classroom management is being consistent and clear. Establishing simple routines and consistently applying/enforcing them is challenging at first because you are not used to it, and neither are your students. But it is worth it. You should persevere.

  1. Classroom Routines

The two types of classroom routines I have focused on building are procedural and transition routines. 

Procedural Routines

Procedural routines involve what students do once they have been given a task. It is easy to just have an inferred procedural routine, I gave “it” to you, so do “it”. But this is unnecessarily vague. Be intentional with your routines. Teach students how you want them to take notes. Organize your class to have the same overall structure each day. Have a few standardized formats for your worksheets. 

The purpose of this standardization in everything from lesson structure, notes, assignments is not for controlling students. The purpose of standardization is to allow for productive freedom. The standardization gives students the structure they need to be creative.

Transition Routines

Transition routines are imperative to build. But, if you observe an expert teacher they can seem to be naturally occurring. But they are not. Successful transitions are a result of careful planning and training. In order to grow in this area you must be intentional. Think about it, and try different setups and instructions in the classroom. Find one that works, and stick with it. 

What is the next step for students?

What do they need to bring?

Where do they need to go?

How should they go there?

What will students do when they get there?

Students will not naturally transition from one task or location to the next. Have a plan, train them. Praise them for their successes, even in something as small as a transition, because successful transitions are not small. A class that is full of successful transitions can easily save you 5 minutes each class. Those extra minutes add up very quickly.

I am certainly not done learning in these two areas, but the progress I made in classroom management and routines seems to have had an out sized impact on both my students’ learning and my quality of life. 


Effective Inquiry in Science Class

Science, as a discipline is intrinsically inquiry based. This is not up for debate. After all, the only way to discover something new is to ask new questions and seek new answers, to inquire. The scientific method, which provides the intellectual framework of science is also a method of inquiry.

Real scientists use inquiry, but they all, always rely on a wealth of background knowledge to make their inquiry productive. So when we as teachers have our students think like scientists we need to be very careful because our students are not scientists and therefor they do not have a wealth of background knowledge to draw from.

While inquiry will always be an important part of science, I believe we have deified it. Think about it. Scientists will often go to conferences or seminars to be lectured at. Why? To learn. To save time. Why take the time to rediscover what your colleagues at another school already discovered? Just listen to them explain it. So, even though scientists are experts in their fields, they still rely heavily on traditional methods (being told).

To be clear, I firmly believe that there should be room for inquiry in all science classrooms and that teaching students how to use inquiry based strategies like the scientific method is of paramount importance. However, I also believe that if we spend less time on inquiry based instruction, and more time on explicit instruction then our students will benefit because they will have developed more background knowledge to apply in novel situations. One way this benefit will be made manifest is in higher rates of success when we do an inquiry based activity.

When should teachers utilize inquiry based instruction?

  • Towards the end of a unit

How should teachers utilize inquiry based instruction?

  • To encourage students to make, recall, and extend connections between facts/topics/concepts they have already learned

Teachers should regularly use inquiry based instruction especially towards the end of a unit. This can be done in a way that encourages students to make connections between the various topics they have been learning about. For example, in a Biology course a student may learn about life-cycles, nutrient transfer and environmental conditions. The teacher could create an inquiry based activity with algae that requires students to make connections between the above topics.

The students would need to create and test a hypothesis (inquiry) applying what they have already learned through the teacher’s explicit instruction.

The teacher could just tell students these connections and save a lot of time but the purpose of allowing students to form and test their hypothesis is two-fold.

Benefit one: It gets the students using the scientific method.

Benefit two: It forces them to retrieve previously learned information and elaborate on it. The act of retrieval and elaboration help to strengthen and organizer student knowledge, which is the first step towards making knowledge flexible (applicable to varying contexts).

Note: Teachers should be making the relationships between various facts/topics/concepts clear throughout the course of a unit. So, most labs will, in a sense, simply be a test on if students can retrieve and apply previously learned information to a novel context.

So put this into practice. When you use inquiry in your science class, make it productive.

Be Clear. Be Concise.

Teachers need to be clear in all forms of instruction. Saying this much is obvious, but how to actually be clear is less so. We must first take our audience into account, our students. How old are they? Are they native speakers? How much do they already know?

Once we have a working knowledge of this, we have the hope of being clear.

Planning brings clarity.

Plan out your instructions/procedures beforehand. Do not plan the activity and neglect to plan the how-to.

Routines bring clarity.

Develop routines for daily tasks. Routines are especially helpful during transition times. When routines are established, students can instantly know what to do just by observing a teacher’s hand motion.

Teachers must be concise. Being concise helps to bring clarity because it is easier for students to remember a short set of instructions than a long set.

Editing brings conciseness. Look over your plan, cut out what you do not need. Remember, to base your cuts on your students’ background knowledge.

Start with clear and detailed explanations and then fade the explanations out over time to help your students master the content. “To tie an overhand knot we will first…then…and finally…”

Overhand Knot Tying Example
Novice Expert
Image result for overhand knot

(with teacher demonstrations and assistance)

  1. Tie an overhand knot.

For concise explanations, start with the goal. “We will tie an overhand knot.”

This helps your students follow the instructions because they know the end/goal at the beginning.

Cut what you say. Do you like, um, you know, use filler words? Be cognizant of how you speak and actively work to reduce how often you use unneeded words.

The meaning of clarity and conciseness is obvious, but actually being clear and concise is difficult. You should intentionally work at it.

My Philosophy of Education

Consider this an introduction to what will be a much longer manifesto. Based on my morals, and what I know about education, this is how schooling should be, this is the start of my philosophy of education.

  1. Teachers must love their students.
  2. Teaching can be a good career and even a calling, but it is a primarily a JOB.
  3. Every student learns in roughly the same manner.
  4. Teachers should show their students the truth as far as possible while building their students’ knowledge of the world.
  5. Knowledge truly is power.


  1. Teachers must love their students.

My manifesto starts with controversy. Love, you say? Inappropriate. However, you are wrong. In the case of a teacher, love for students simply means wanting the best for them. You may argue that I should just drop the word love and go with “Teachers must want the best for their students”. I disagree with that because the word love is more powerful and brings weightier connotations. I want this statement to have that weight and those connotations.

Education is a service industry and its aims are best achieved when teachers seek to serve their students. I believe that this service is best provided not simply out of duty or even affection, but out of love.

  1. Teaching can be a good career and even a calling, but it is a primarily a JOB.

This line in my manifesto is important for two reasons, teachers and society. Society will tell teachers that they should do more with less, because times are hard and the budget is short, you should do it for the students. And so teachers give more for their students. However, many teachers give until they are empty and then their minds and/or bodies give out. It is important that teachers remind themselves, “While teaching may have fundamental importance both for society and the individuals involved, it is simply a job, there will be others if I need it.”

  1. Every student learns in roughly the same manner.

The above words are essentially seen as fighting words in the world of education. However, I believe they are words worth fighting about. We know that in order to learn, it takes multiple exposures spaced over time to learn the material (Spaced Repetition). We know retrieval practice, calling something to mind strengthens the brain’s connections, regardless of whether those connections are right or wrong. This is why it is so important for students to practice accurately. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes more permanent.

Teachers should teach with the understanding that all students who will be in their classes essentially learn in the same ways. This will free them from endless differentiation and allow them to focus on the structure of the lesson and delivery of the content to the benefit of all students.

  1. Teachers should show their students the truth as far as possible while building their students’ knowledge of the world.

There is objective truth and a large purpose of schooling is to reveal it to students. This is most clear in math and parts of the sciences. For example, 2+3=5. This is an objective truth. Or the law of universal gravitation. The “as far as possible” is included because in some subjects, truth is not the primary focus. For example, while there are certainly truths about the language arts that students must know (decoding, phonics, punctuation), showing students the truth when analyzing Shakespeare becomes harder. Because, often times this literature is subjective and about societal or individual preferences or moral and about what is ultimately good or evil.

In these cases, teachers should expand students knowledge of the world while acknowledging the challenges of parsing ethical decisions of characters in plays or people in history.

  1. Knowledge truly is power.

The importance of knowledge has not diminished in the internet age. In fact, at the very least, it has maintained its level of importance. Think simply. While going to the bathroom is a skill, when you break it down, it becomes apparent that even a rudimentary skill is built upon knowledge. A child must know what a bathroom is and how it is used before they can hope to apply the skill of successfully using it.

This rings all the clearer when we make the skill academic. Think about writing an essay. You first must know all the letters and how they work together. Then you must know the vocabulary and relevant grammar rules. But you still cannot hope to write an essay until you have learned about that topic. Even if you have the skills needed to write, you can only write well if you deeply understand the topic you will write about.

We will give one last example to bring the importance of knowledge home. The skill of decoding (sounding out words) is absolutely useless without comprehension. You can only comprehend words that you know. It may be the 21st Century, but knowledge is still king.

Concept Based Teaching: A Partial Embrace

Part 1
Part 2

Implementing a concept based curriculum can be a challenge because curriculum has traditionally been based around topics, not concepts (Erickson, 2011). Erickson contrasts topic based curriculum and concept based curriculum in the following manner.

Topic Based Curriculum Concept Based Curriculum
Coverage Centered Idea Centered
Intellectually shallow Intellectual depth
Fails to allow for transfer Concepts and generalizations transfer
Fails to meet the intellectual demands of the 21st century Develops the intellect to handle a world of increasing complexity and accelerating change

While this was taken from a powerpoint (above link) and therefore the text must be brief, I am not happy with her comparisons here. It is simply saying the old is bad, but my way, my way is the way forward, my way is good. It is intellectually lazy. However, a bad presentation does not necessary make the idea (concept based teaching) bad.

To actually implement concept based teaching, you need to focus on a concept, not a topic. For example, traditionally, I would teach my 6th grade students about various topics such as river erosion, glacial erosion, wave erosion, and wind erosion. In a concept based teaching approach, my “big idea” would be Forces that shape Earth’s Surface and the concept would be Weathering and Erosion. My students must know about weathering and erosion in various situations (river, glacial, wave, wind) if they are to understand how and why weathering and erosion help shape the Earth’s surface. I would continue teaching in much the same way, but with the key difference being that I would actively work to link the topics together in my students’ minds. This is where I see the biggest positives from this approach. Teaching for conceptual understanding forces teachers to intentionally show their students the connections and relationships between different topics.

So in this example, I would teach students how the water cycle is driven by the sun. And that the sun creates winds. And then the water cycle and winds interact with Earth’s surface structures which formed via plate tectonics (Another concept with various topics to link back and connect with).

The idea is for a “big idea” of teaching for conceptual understanding is to force synergistic interplay, which, according to H. Lynn Erickson involves students shifting between factual and conceptual levels within the structure of knowledge. And, to be honest, I do not like the term synergistic interplay. There are already terms for this (schema), why did she feel the need to invent a brand new one?

Regardless, let’s look into how the designers of conceptual understanding say you should implement their system.

Rachel French, “For a teacher new to [concept-based instruction], I recommend that you begin by thinking about the kinds of questions that you ask in the class. Aim to ask a mix of factual and conceptual questions to guide students to deeper understanding.”

This sounds great to me and lines up with what research shows. We should teach students facts, but not facts in isolation.

Ms. French goes on to say,  “Try an inductive approach for your next unit. Instead of telling the students the understanding at the beginning, use your factual and conceptual questions and let them do the thinking to come up with the understandings themselves.”

This is part that I cannot go along with. This method is simply too time consuming to be effective.

After students have mastered the concept in one situation, I would be fine with giving them the pieces and having them make connections themselves. For example, I have taught my 6th grade students about weathering and erosion. After going over the necessary terms, we then immediately apply them to a scenario. There are 2 hills, Hill A and Hill B. Both hills are in a rainy environment and are the same height and slope. But Hill A is covered with thick vegetation, while Hill B is bare. We then work together to explain which hill will undergo less erosion and why. As we do this, I am making explicit each part of the “erosion formula” (amount of water/water speed, slope, soil type, plant coverage). Next, I might give students more independent work in a similar scenario but where students compare and contrast erosion rates on two rivers by going through our “erosion formula”. At this point, depending on how the class is doing, we may move to other scenarios that would involve further transfer. Such as wind erosion in deserts/grasslands.

I may have irresolvable philosophical conflicts with how the creators of Conceptual Understanding say it should be implemented. Based on my research, H. Lynn Erickson and Rachel French are advocating for an inquiry based approach where students “come up with understandings” themselves. By using this type of inquiry approach, we may be leading students to make false connections and as a result, students may be building inaccurate concepts by learning something that is untrue.

I think that this approach can also easily lead to advantaging the advantaged and disadvantaging those who are already disadvantaged. This happens because the advantaged students who already have a wealth of background knowledge/academic language would be more likely to make correct connections/understandings whereas the disadvantaged students would be more likely to make incorrect connections/understandings and then they would fall further behind.

All of that to say, I am all for the goals of conceptual understanding and find the structure provided by H. Lynn Erickson to be tremendously helpful. (image below)

structure of knowledge

I will take aspects of conceptual understanding and apply it to my own teaching and I am confident that borrowing aspects of Conceptual Understanding will improve my teaching and help my students to understand how different concepts are related and interact.

Concept Based Education: The Structure of Knowledge

H. Lynn Erickson has developed a model for the structure of knowledge where multiple facts fit inside a topic. From the topic, at least one larger concept arises. Then, from the concepts, a broad, generalizable principal can be found. From this principle, one can create an accurate theory.

There are researchers who refer to both facts and concepts as knowledge, but Erickson finds it to be helpful to separate factual knowledge from conceptual understanding. The basic idea being that there are different types of knowledge. This would seem to make sense to me after all, we already distinguish between declarative and procedural knowledge. I also like that the foundation to Erickson’s model is facts. I feel strongly that knowing facts (memorization) is incredibly important for students to actually learn and apply concepts. So, while some researchers may quibble over certain definitions, I do like the diagram and find it to be useful.

structure of knowledgeThe next step is to understand each stage in the framework of knowledge.

Facts: statements that are true

Topics: collections of related facts

Concepts: mental abstracts that are abstract, timeless, and universal (Erickson & Lanning, 2014, p.33)

Principle Generalization: The relationship between 2 or more concepts (conceptual relationships)

The goal of Erickson’s structure of learning is to make explicit the goal of concept based teaching, transfer. All teachers want students to apply what they are learning to their lives. Doing so inevitably involves some amount of transfer. The basic idea behind concept based teaching is that facts and topics, in and of themselves are non transferable, but concepts are.

Whenever we apply our knowledge from one situation to another, we are always abstracting to a conceptual level. We are taking specific knowledge and generalizing into a broader form until it fits the new situation.

It is important to note, facts are important. You cannot get to the conceptual level if you lack facts. If you lack facts, you do not have any content to generalize or transfer. So, you must have facts, and you must teach facts. But you must not stop at a “fact” level. Go beyond facts. Have students apply them and generalize.

In my next post I will explore how we can teach for conceptual understanding. I am still unsure about teaching for “conceptual understanding” as I mentioned in my last post because it seems to be creating new, unnecessary vocabulary. That said, I am all for its aims. I want my students to know stuff and be able to apply it to a wide variety of circumstances. The more I read, the more positive towards concept based teaching I am becoming.

Part 3

The content for this post was largely from a free chapter in the book, “Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Secondary: Designing Lessons and Assessments for Deep Learning

Concept Based Instruction/Teaching

My school is looking into moving towards concept based instruction as a way to help students understand each subject’s “big idea” better. This sounds good. Who wouldn’t want students to understand the “big ideas” of math/science/English/social studies?

However, I am not sure what this approach practically entails. This blog post is my first exploration into concept based instruction, my attempt to understand its “big ideas”.

Concept Based Teaching is “driven by “big ideas” rather than subject specific content (Erickson, 2008).

Teachers apply this method by “leading students to consider the context in which they will use their understanding, concept-based learning brings “real world” meaning to content knowledge and skills. Students become critical thinkers which is essential to their ability to creatively solve problems in the 21st century.”

The “big idea” of concept based instruction is finding ways to help students become able to transfer their knowledge to new situations. Transfer is great, and I am all for it.

What are concepts? topics vs concepts.PNG

So far, I am largely liking what I am reading regarding concept based teaching. The initial definition gave me some pause with “leading students to consider the context”. Why lead them when I can just tell them and then get them to apply it? But I was comforted by Josh and Joanne Edwards statement, “As we present it, concept-based instruction must begin with content skills and knowledge established by local standards and curriculum guides.”

I am going to end this article here for two reasons. One, I am finding the vocabulary of concept based teaching very difficult. I need to do a lot more reading before I can understand it (It seems like concept based instruction is just trying to build student schemas deliberately. I am not sure why they don’t use the established language for this and invented “new” terms.) Two, I am tired.

Part 2
Part 3