About the author...

Dr. Laura Palka was an assistant principal, elementary school principal, and high school principal for ten years before becoming the principal of Edward Town Middle School in Sanborn, New York. She holds a B.S. in Education from Miami University, an M.S. in Administration from Xavier University, and a Ph.D. in Literacy and Administration from the State University of New York at Buffalo.


Ten Smart Moves to Create a School of Thoughtful Educators

By Dr. Laura Palka - Principal, Edward Town Middle School Sanborn, New York

The Thoughtful Classroom has been a cornerstone of our improvement at Edward Town Middle School, focusing our attention and energy on student learning like never before. Over the course of our four-year journey, our entire faculty has dedicated itself to reaching our students in the most positive and effective ways possible, and together we have emerged as more thoughtful educators and leaders. Here are ten of the most important lessons we’ve learned at Edward Town Middle School over these four critical years.

  1. Build a library, Make sure every teacher receives top publications for his or her own professional library so that the message is clearly sent that The Thoughtful Classroom is for everyone. A good Thoughtful Classroom library starts with core texts like Tools for Promoting Active, In-Depth Learning and The Strategic Teacher: Selecting the Right Research-Based Strategy for Every Lesson.
  2. Staff development takes time (and planning).Provide planned, intentional, and sustained staff development that supports the overarching school purpose. Be prepared to layer deeper learning each year, empowering teachers to become leaders who guide and support colleagues. Use school district dollars to focus staff development around a comprehensive program and stop sending small groups of teachers to multiple and disconnected workshops.
  3. Focus your team’s efforts. Focus on a limited number of key strategies by introducing no more than three strategies a year. It is important for teachers to build a repertoire of effective instructional strategies, but it is also important to allow them time to collaboratively plan, implement, and refine new strategies using student work and peer observation to focus discussion. The Thoughtful Classroom Portfolio Series™ is a great way to guide meaningful discussion and to reinforce the idea that school improvement resides with each educator.
  4. Target the learning of styles of students and teachers. Make sure everyone understands the concept of style and how style influences the way in which we learn and teach. To identify students’ and teachers’ predominant styles (as well as weaker styles), we administer both the Learning Style Inventory for Students and the Teaching Style Inventory. Teachers use the information from these instruments to create large, colorful display boards in their classrooms where students write their names and draw pictures to represent their preferred style of learning.
  5. Start early; plan ahead. Start developing a format and schedule for instructional faculty meetings over the summer, and then plan these meetings for the entire upcoming school year. These meetings allow presenters to model key strategies while providing sufficient time for review specific training.
  6. Build a team. Develop a strong School Improvement Team that operates solely for the purpose of improving student learning. Initially, the principal must be the leader of this team; however, once the focus is clearly established, teacher-leaders should then work with the principal as co-facilitators. To sustain high levels of commitment from the staff, meetings must be results oriented. Teachers want to accomplish goals that have a significant impact on student learning throughout the year.
  7. Insist on meaningful and collegial collaboration. In order for teachers to truly collaborate, they must have time to work with colleagues, focus on a clear and specific purpose, and incorporate what they are learning into their classroom instruction. Do not waste your teachers’ time. If teachers have the opportunity to work together, then their work and subsequent discussions will be more meaningful, deeper, and more reflective.
  8. Timing is everything. Set aside time and organize opportunities for Teacher Rounds, Book Clubs, in-house training, and data collection that enhance instructional practice and deepen the Professional Learning Community. Principals and teacher-leader must be aware of staff (and student) stress levels and recognize the most demanding times of any given school year, balancing when to challenge teachers and when to provide time for teacher reflection.
  9. Praise publicly, but critique privately. Consistently give attention to those educators who are helping move the building forward. Keep everyone in the instructional loop as to what good teaching looks like, sounds like, and so forth. Praise teachers publicly! Give private, specific advice and feedback to teachers on what they need to improve and how it can be done.
  10. Shuffle your team’s lineup. As soon as your school has a small army of effective teacher-leaders, allow these leaders to move to other teams and work in new situations. Changing groupings and teams facilitates continuous learning. Nothing creates more success than educators sharing their expertise with one another, designing instruction together, examining student work, and remaining focused on the goal of improving student learning.

Here are Dr. Palka's thoughts on The Thoughful Classroom:
Teachers want to learn, plan, and implement instructional strategies with positive results. The Thoughtful Classroom has allowed Edward Town Middle School to focus our efforts by creating both the means and the opportunity to become a school of thoughtful educators. In four short years, our statewide test scores in English/Language Arts alone have risen from 43% proficiency to over 70% proficiency. While we have not yet reached our full potential, we are clearly on solid ground and moving forward in the right direction together with a deeper understanding of both the learning process and the diversity of all our learners.

What an adventure!”