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Learning Your Roles: How to be a Composer and a Conductor in the Classroom

In my early years as a teacher, there were times that I measured my success by how clean my hands were at the end of the day. I knew I had a rough day when I lost my whiteboard eraser and, in the interest of the lesson, I used my hands to erase the board. Those were the dark ages.

Today, I’m in my sixth year teaching. During those six years, I have taught all of middle school math, and I have been an Algebra I teacher at Sci Academy for the last three and a half years. During my transition from “rookie math teacher” to sixth-year teacher, I’ve relied on a few major guiding principles that have shaped my development.

*Failure is an accelerant to change. *Seek out those who know more than you. *Work really, really hard. *Find a thought partner. *Get a dog (My dog’s name is Frank – he’s great). *Keep reading teacher training books (Top picks: Tools for Teaching, Teach Like A Champion) *Most importantly: know your roles.

The shift that had the biggest impact on the performance of my students and my own satisfaction as a teacher was when I began to recognize the roles I play in the classroom. This recognition came when I realized that teachers don’t just “wear many hats,” as the saying goes. Instead, they must master two very specific roles:

1. The Composer: Plan, and then respond to academic data.

I could be wrong, but I feel like most teachers I know tend to hit the ground running as composers. Upon learning about backwards design, five-step lessons, and data driven instruction, they see some sort of light and get sucked in. I know I did.

As a rookie teacher, I flourished in the role of the composer. I shined in my ability to use data to drive instruction, create interim assessments, build out scopes and sequences, design meaningful classwork, and respond to data by re-teaching, tutoring, spiraling content, and modifying classwork.

As time passed, I realized something was missing, although I didn’t immediately know what or why. I’d look at my data tracker and continuously see red (literally, it’s the color we use to note objectives that kids have not yet mastered). Tech-inclined and armed with spreadsheets, I sought out patterns in the data. None emerged! One of my top performers, who routinely scored a 100%, bombed this objective while a scholar who struggled all year nailed it. Looking at student work, I couldn’t glean any misconceptions or major errors that would have predicted such scores.

Suddenly, it clicked. I realized that while my data tracker captured mastery data, it illuminated very little about what went on during class with my actual kids. I had been relying on my skills as a composer, but I completely missed one critical component of being a teacher: emotional data. I realized that I had been neglecting to look at kid-level data, the thing that is beneath all of the content gaps and misconceptions that go into teaching and learning.

2. The Conductor: Watch, listen, and then respond to the kids (emotional data).

I’m no magician. Inevitably, there are times when kids walk into class grumpy, excited, lethargic, timid, emotionally tenuous, or feeling like they’re on top of the world. To better prepare kids for their futures, I realized it was crucial to acknowledge and respond to this emotional data: to view myself as the conductor of my classroom.

Prior to class, I’d compose my curriculum and lesson materials that I planned to work through with my kids. During class, though, it was time to play into my second role as a conductor – using finesse and presence to coach kids to the emotional state that best fits learning: happy, productive, hardworking. Here are a few examples of what this looks like in practice in my room:

Weak eye contact at threshold? Fist-bump, a you okay statement and follow up later, ideally when that scholar is doing the right thing.

Poor posture during the do now? Circulate, praise for correct work, remind scholar of the expectations, then move on.
Kids sharing excitement and positivity about content and class? Assign points to the class for enthusiasm, spotlight or shout out an individual.

Scholar takes a risk and gets a question wrong? Halt the class, recognize effort, and come back to them for the next question.
Class feeling unsuccessful due to challenging work? Talk aspirations and get kids excited about where they’re headed. Remind kids that they can do this, and manufacture small, content aligned tasks that generate positive energy and momentum.

As a teacher, you don’t wear hats. Instead, you play two specific roles. Teaching is hard. The roles of conductor and composer are intertwined – you can’t just take one on and ignore the other. You could compose the most beautiful lesson imaginable, but, without skill in conducting, that lesson could sound shrill and off-beat. On the other hand, you could be a top-notch conductor, but, without an excellent score, your kids could be off-track toward their end of year goals. An educator plans and responds to academic data, all the while watching, listening, and responding to their kids.

Evan Stoudt teaches Algebra I to freshmen at Sci Academy. For the last three years, Evan’s students have earned top scores in the school district. This year, Evan is piloting blended learning strategies in his classroom by infusing video instruction and online resources to the dynamic CA Algebra I curriculum. In addition to teaching, Evan serves as Freshman Dean at Sci Academy, where he supports teachers, advisors, and scholars to develop and maintain a positive, challenging, and joyous academic experience. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing from Loyola University of New Orleans in 2009.

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