March 2019
Volume XVI Issue III


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                  If I Could Do It Over Again


Bruce Oliver

Bruce Oliver, the author of Just for the ASKing!, lives in Burke, Virginia. He uses the knowledge, skills, and experience he acquired as a teacher, professional developer, mentor, and middle school principal as he works with school districts across the nation. Bruce has written more than 150 issues of Just for the ASKing!  He is the author of Points to Ponder and co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning: Your Guide to PLCs and More.

As an avid reader of all things educational, my mind occasionally wanders as I am reading about an idea or a concept that is new to me. While reading, I picture the classroom, the students, many of whom I still remember, and recall the adventures we had together.  Many learning experiences were well received by these early adolescents, and overall we had a fruitful and productive time together.

I wonder what I would do differently if I could do it over again. Although I feel positive about my early teaching experiences, some decisions would have been different, not because what I did was ineffective, but because I know so much more now. As poet Maya Angelou has written, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” 

As I reflected on my past, I compartmentalized the ways I would be a different teacher. Below you will see the categories I identified. I think my learners would be pleased if we could go back in time.

Clarify Learning Outcomes
As I reflect back on the past, I realize that I did not plan my lessons with clear learning outcomes. I was, without a doubt, an activity-oriented teacher.  I wanted my students to be excited, and even intrigued, when they came into the classroom.  They might often see desks in small circular groups, or desks in one large circle, or even desks against the classroom walls.  I enjoyed seeing their surprised faces with their “Oh boy!” looks. What I failed to do “back in the day” was to ensure that lessons had clear purposes other than student intrigue and fascination. Today I would plan lesson outcomes so that my students would know how they would be different and what they were supposed to learn. I would also allow them to do more quiet reflections about their learning experiences. I have a feeling that their learning would not just be content-oriented but also in line with today’s 21st century skills such as cooperation, critical thinking and communication.

Listen More, Talk Less
Admittedly, I am a talker. I often remind myself in my work with educators today to listen to the comments of workshop participants since they often provide powerful insights. If I could have do-overs with my students, I would definitely do a great deal more listening to my students whether it is in small group settings, during full class discussions, or in one-in-one interactions. I would prepare thought-provoking questions and listen to students’ responses more closely. In my work as a consultant, I once said, “Talking is not teaching and listening is not learning.”  I would put my money where my mouth was and consciously give the students more opportunities to think, react, respond, and interact with one another. And I would be the interested bystander who would be inspired by how their adolescent minds worked!

Expand Assessment Ideas
From the outset of my teaching career, I always felt that failure could be a devastating experience for young people. It was almost a subconscious decision on my part to create experiences where everyone could be successful as well as challenges that were reachable by as many learners as possible. If students struggled, I would find alternative approaches that would enable them to make progress. Today, I would think about assessing students in many different ways. I would ensure that students knew how their learning would be assessed from the get-go by creating my formative and summative assessments during my planning process. Thus, my day-to-day lessons would set students up for success when their learning was assessed. I would also be explicit about how students should prepare for tests by telling them how to use their time studying i.e., taking the mystery out of mastery. My guiding principle would be that all students should have the opportunity to reach mastery level learning through re-testing; therefore, my kids would have more than one chance to reach this goal on any given assessment.

Assign with a Purpose
On occasion, I would give my students a reading assignment to prepare for the next day’s class, or an in-class silent reading activity before involving them in a full class activity. While it seems so logical in hindsight, I did not regularly tell my students the purpose of the reading assignment. I clearly recall my time as a student attempting to complete a homework assignment by “reading the next chapter,” and often feeling frustrated and confused because I did not know what I was supposed to be watching for or emphasizing as I read. They were just words on the page.  As I relive my past, I find it perplexing how a teacher can repeat the same “mistake” that their teacher made without remembering how frustrating the experience was. I eventually came to my senses. I should have known better from the very beginning.

Learn through Collaboration
Conversations with fellow teachers about pedagogy or instructional strategies were rare, or for the most part, non-existent. The tendency was for each of us to go into our own classrooms, close the door, and work with our classes. Department meetings were almost exclusively about updates related to school/district initiatives. In hindsight, as I think about my colleagues, I feel we missed a great opportunity. In the passing informal conversations, we had, I am now assured that there had to be many interesting ideas that were well worth sharing including methodology, pacing, time management and perhaps, creativity. Collaboration was not a common practice at the time but if I had the chance to relive the past, I would very much like to participate in more dialogues about teaching and learning; we would all have been better teachers and our students would have reaped the benefits.

Provide Better Feedback
Like many teachers at the time, the concept of giving growth-producing feedback to my students about their work was not a deliberate undertaking. I graded assignments and tests and recorded the grades in the grade book. What students saw was a grade or a numerical score at the top of the work they had submitted. On a rare occasion, I might have a side conversation with an individual about the quality of their work, or the preparation they had undertaken before an assessment.  The comments I made were along the lines of “You can do better,” but I did not provide specific steps the student should take to lead to improved learning. If I were in the classroom today, I would make the time to have more deliberate conversations with students about their work. They would then have the opportunity to improve upon their performance.  We know so much more about the necessity of providing feedback, thanks to pundits such as Grant Wiggins. I just wish I had had the insights I now know about many years ago.

End the Right Way
Another practice that makes so much sense in today’s classroom is the inclusion of a summarizing activity at the end of a lesson. I had structure in my classes and one important routine was that I dismissed my students and not the bell! But I missed the boat by not taking the last few minutes of class time to allow my students to summarize their thoughts about the day’s lesson. This very logical practice would have allowed the students to takes a few minutes to better understand what they had learned and would also have provided me with valuable data about the effectiveness of the day’s lesson. Today’s teachers have at their disposal a multitude of summarizing strategies that can have such a positive effect on student learning.  If only I had known….

Expand My Repertoire
During my days in the classroom I kept my eyes and ears open for fresh ideas I could put in place in my classroom. I was thirsty for techniques or innovations that would excite, stimulate and intrigue my middle schoolers. I recall one instance when the assistant principal was holding forth in the teachers’ lounge about a new idea called “stations” that he had learned about at a meeting. As he gave a brief overview, I immediately began planning my next unit in my head (and then on paper). What a refreshing option! I set up different stations around my classroom with specific directions on poster board and more details taped to desks. I previewed each station before any work began; I also explained to each class that students had choices about which station to choose. Some of the exercises were more complex than others and I realized that some of my students would be intrigued by the station title and take on the challenge. Certainly there were a few glitches along the way, but overall stations were a success both from my perspective as well as the students’ point of view. “Can we do this again?” was an often-heard refrain from my kids. The stations freed me up to move about the room and interact with students who required more support. As I think about my stations experience, I realize that I was the type of teacher who would latch on to new ideas. I never feared change but actually embraced it. I wish I had known about such concepts as learning styles, multiple intelligences or project-based learning as I surely would have included them in my teaching repertoires. I would have had a smorgasbord of ideas at my disposal and thus be able to determine which ideas helped students learn better.

Focus on Individual Needs
At the outset of my teacher career, I was undeniably a “one size fits all” teacher. In my course work leading up to my first job, there were no other approaches even addressed. The concept of differentiation was still in its prenatal stage.  Over time, however, it became evident that some students were struggling more than others; they needed something more. My awareness resulted in seeing my students as individuals and not simply a class.  Although I did not begin planning units with differences in mind, I began providing different ways for students to demonstrate what they had learned. In short, I opened my mind up to new ways of thinking about assessment.  Some students took traditional tests while others could sit with me and explain their understanding of the content. As time went on, I added even more approaches; some students wrote paragraphs, while others expressed their learning through graphic organizers (even though the concept had yet to emerge into the mainstream).  One student in particular stands out in my memory.  He was clearly dyslexic, a term I had yet to learn about. I understood his words/answers and gave him full credit for his work.  What had looked like gibberish to some made sense to Jon and me. Today he is a very successful doctor. 

Address the Whole Child
My classroom was a safe place for learners. As I have a good sense of humor, I found ways for my students to enjoy themselves while learning. Laughter was a consistent occurrence; my examples and storytelling helped students feel comfortable and enabled them to remember content. What I was not realizing at the time is that I had established a classroom culture that reflected “social belonging and emotional safety.” As a classroom teacher today, I would be even more conscious of the importance of focusing on specific competencies students could experience such as self-awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making so that they would be more prepared to function in the workplace and community of their future. Learning would definitely transcend course content.

During my early years as teacher, I realized that many of my colleagues embraced the status quo. Innovations were scary and unpredictable to them. I found departures and modifications intriguing, and I was always searching for some concept/approach I had never heard of that would appeal to a young mind in previously unexplored ways. I was also restless and dissatisfied if I found myself planning in the same way and not really being challenged. I remember thinking about my next unit and hoping I would be influenced in some singular or unfamiliar way that would enable me to break new ground with my learners, and establish more learning-centered environments.

My message to today’s teachers is to be open-minded and undaunted when you hear about different options. Take chances. Put yourself in the places of your students and think about how motivated they would be with new ways of learning. 

For me, my days as a classroom teacher are in the past. But I still have my imagination, coupled with all that I have learned over my very long career. I can still envision my young charges experiencing new ways of thinking, and exploring new ideas in exciting and unforeseen ways. I will always be able to get lost in my daydreams imagining how things would be if I could do it over again.



Instruction for All Students


Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “If I Could Do It Over Again.”  Just for the ASKing! February 2019. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development. © 2019. All rights reserved. Available at