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Advice From 2016-17 Milken Educators: How to Create a Successful Classroom

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Forget a golden statue.

The Milken Educator Award, often called the "Oscars of Teaching," recognizes a handful of K-12 educators annually for their excellent work in U.S. schools. The awards are chosen by the Milken Family Foundation with the help of panels appointed by state departments of education. More than 2,700 educators have won the $25,000 prize, which also comes with professional development opportunities, in the last 30 years.  

A group of up to 35 early- and mid-career teachers and principals in states across the country will receive the award on a rolling basis through February. The teachers will be honored in a prominent announcement at schoolwide assemblies for their teaching, contributions to student growth and motivation, school leadership and improvement, family and community engagement, and promising potential for future contributions to the education field.

Education Week Teacher reached out to a few of this year's awardees by email to ask: What advice would you offer K-12 teachers and leaders for how to create a successful classroom?

The range of responses make clear that an emphasis on student relationships in their classrooms and schools are important for environments where mutual respect and learning flourish.

Amara Alexander, 6th grade science teacher, Horizon Elementary School, Madison, Ala.:

A successful classroom has management that works. Begin the year with setting the tone for your classroom by establishing routines, procedures, and expectations for all students, including the teacher. Students respect the teacher that respects them. With those standards in place, any teacher will have a successful school year. 

Stephanie Conklin, principal, Brougham Elementary School, Olathe, Kan.:

Taking time and being intentional about building a positive and productive learning environment is essential to any successful classroom.  Relationships are key!  Strong connections between student and teacher, as well as student and peers, provide a strong foundation for growth in social, emotional, and academic learning.

Eric Crouch, 5th grade teacher, Double Churches Elementary School, Columbus, Ga.:

Be patient—children will not get to mastery at the same time. Be flexible—know that students learn in different ways, just like we travel in different ways (some people fly and some people ride bikes). Listen—students have a difficult time expressing themselves as it is. Allow yourself an opportunity to hear them (such as through journaling). Love them—showing up at events or giving them a fist bump or a high-five in the hall are ways to let students know that you love them and notice them. 

Kara Davis, 4th grade teacher, Joe Mathias Elementary School, Rogers, Ark.:

In my classroom, I first work to create a classroom community in which I develop relationships with the kids and help the kids develop relationships with each other. We look at it through the lens of "We are a family in this classroom." A teacher can develop the best lessons and have a variety of amazing ways to deliver it, but when a child knows you care about them, they will work beyond what they think they can for you. Relationships with students are THE key to having a successful classroom.  

Thomas Dennison, 5th grade teacher, Havre De Grace Elementary, Havre De Grace, Md.:

Successful classrooms are built around magic, routines, and relationships.  A classroom should be an exciting place where students think anything can happen.  The difference between excitement and chaos are your consistent routines for everything from putting away homework to getting the class' attention to how students' desks are organized.  None of that is possible, however, if the classroom is missing the most important thing:  genuine love and personality from you.  A hug, a smile, and a note, are powerful tools.

Lindsay Frevert, 2nd grade teacher, Van Derveer Elementary School, Somerville, N.J.:

A successful classroom has a teacher who believes in every student and instills that belief in each one of them.  This room invites risk-tasking, problem-solving, community-building, a place in which everyone works together to achieve each person's goals.  A successful classroom also has a teacher that learns everything he or she can about a student and utilizes that information to create lessons that are engaging and inspiring to all.

Catherine Randall, 3rd grade teacher, Joseph J. Davies Elementary, Meraux, La.:

In order to create a successful classroom, your students must feel loved.  No matter what age level you teach, build relationships with them to show you care.  Spend some time getting to know your students and take an interest in their lives.  Once they feel you genuinely care about them, they aim to please you and learning will take place.

Amanda Robertson, 4th grade math teacher, Jones Intermediate School, Mount Airy, N.C.:

What makes a successful classroom are the relationships that a teacher can form with students.  There has to be that foundation to ensure that your students "buy in" to what you are telling them, and ensure that they value your thoughts and opinions.  Kids will do anything for someone who believes in them and puts value into who they are as people.

Aimee Schade, TAP master teacher, West Goshen Elementary School, Goshen, Ind.:

Build relationships with your students and show them that you truly care about them as people and students. When a classroom foundation starts with respect from the teacher for all students, the students in turn respect the teacher and are more willing to put forth effort and make gains in their achievement. 

Vanessa Torres, Spanish teacher, Nursery Road Elementary School, Columbia, S.C.:

For a successful elementary classroom, there must be clear expectations with consistent consequences, because classroom management has been proven to be the No. 1 predictor of learning outcomes.  Children must know they are loved and cared for, but also held to high expectations as any good parent would do—tough love!  Finally, instruction should be rooted in what is important to children. Activities should be highly engaging and appropriate to their varying ability levels—less is more.  As much as possible, let students lead! 

Devon Willis-Jones, principal, Jeanerette Elementary School, Jeanerette, La.:

The elements of any successful classroom include a teacher that is constantly reflecting on his/her craft.  When a reflective teacher evaluates his/her daily instructional practices, he/she can quickly diagnosis strengths and weaknesses within the students' work. By focusing on the areas of need in the students' work, he/she can develop an individual plan based on the needs of students. This leads to gradual improvement in student achievement—the ultimate goal for ALL teachers.

Manny Zaldivar, 1st grade teacher, Smalley Academy, New Britain, Conn.:

A successful classroom is one where teachers and students respect and trust each other, one where the teacher believes that students have the ability to achieve and students always do their best work. It is a place where we feel safe and welcoming, with a strong sense of community. 

The responses have been edited for clarity.

Photo credit: Students recognize awardee Amara Alexander at Horizon Elementary School in Madison, Ala., Milken Family Foundation 

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