Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Simple and Effective Ways To Improve Your Teaching: A Book Review of Rushton Hurley's "Making Your Teaching Something Special: 50 Simple Ways to Become a Better Teacher"

(purchase from EdTechTeam Press or Amazon)

*After reading, if you’re inspired to share, please offer an idea (or more!) to this padlet.

Rushton Hurley has given us a witty, thought-provoking, and inspiring book for all educators. Teachers, administrators, and I would also suggest parents, would all benefit from reading this incredibly entertaining, and remarkably insightful book.

If you’ve been looking for a no-nonsense book with practical ideas to improve your teaching practice, then Making Your teaching Something Special is a must read. In fact, if you’re in the field of education, this book is a must-read. For the new educator, it will inspire you to think more deliberately and plan the habits you want to develop your craft around. For the veteran teacher, the ideas, suggestions, and real-life anecdotes will reinforce the great things you are already doing, as well as remind you of the essential practices you’ve for some reason “let slide”. Additionally, you will leave each chapter energized, and with a determination to add something new to your teaching habits.

Making Your teaching Something Special is divided into five 'Areas', each with short chapters, which makes the book a nice pick up, put down, ponder, and plan - a bonus that you don’t often see in books for educators. At the end of each 'Area' there is a series of questions for educators to discuss and explore, be it for a staff meeting, a study group, or an administrative team meeting.

In this post, we’ll look at the five 'Areas' that Hurley outlines, while keeping in mind my comments here only scratch the surface of what is in the book. When you finish reading (or now), have a look at Hurley’s non-profit nextvista.org and get your students involved in creating high-quality learning resources that can be used by others.

In Area 1 Hurley discusses rapport with students. I imagine any educator would agree that building positive (yet professional) relationships with students is critical to student success. How do we quickly learn names and deal with feeling embarrassed about forgetting? Are we really aware of how we address our students when talking in one-on-one or with an entire class? Hurley discusses strategies to build that positive relationship with individual students, but in a way that allows that trust to echo throughout your classes. (ultimately building a positive reputation for yourself) How do we deal with student discipline, work with parents, and build communities within our classrooms? The chapters in this segment also offer advice to the teacher for how to deal with our own misgivings and the inevitable situations that arise in an environment in which we work with a lot of people - and varied personalities - each day. 

Area 2 explores the world of assessment, and overall deals with the question ‘Are our assessments effective?’. Are we really pushing our students to be fascinating? Are we giving them pathways that foster intrinsic motivation and genuine curiosity? Something in this section that struck me is an area I’ve been pursuing in my own teaching - are we guiding students to understanding how to ask a good question? An important point in this ‘Area’ suggests that we offer more opportunities to evaluate the work of others, an exercise that helps students consider what a quality and creative piece of work really looks like.

In sum, beyond the great ideas, Rushton Hurley is clear about one thing: education is a ‘people business’ and the person has to be at the center. Not all strategies may work for your context, but they can be modified as such. And yes, there is work involved, but with rewards that will benefit everyone involved. Hurley also discusses his past strategies of using pre-tests. (which are easier with digital tools such as Google Forms, Quizlet, and other survey-generating software) Ultimately, for myself, the reflection on assessments we give is an critical takeaway. Are we really thinking about the purpose of an assessment before we give it? It sounds obvious, but busy teachers often try to keep their heads above water and I would argue that meaningful assessment is one area that can suffer early on. 

Although I don’t buy into the antiquated ‘sage on the stage’ approach to teaching, Area 3 addresses a critical skill every teacher should develop: delivery. How much do we vary our review and introduction of a new topic to a class? Are our methods varied and engaging? Hurley provides several great approaches to beginning a class in such a way that students are curious, thinking, and engaged for the beginning - setting the tone for the rest of the lesson. His advice is actually quite simple. Be unpredictable. Rushton Hurley, remember, is a veteran teacher, and as such addresses other considerations like getting the attention of students, setting them up for interest rather than boredom, and using language that implies all learning in the course is valuable. Yet another area where I feel teachers can fail is modeling academic honesty. As a teacher of History and Individuals and Societies I feel an inherent responsibility to show my sources. How can I expect my students to do if I don’t? Again, obvious, but it took time for me to develop this important habit. (Chrome extensions and online citation tools don’t allow for excuses anymore: see these tutorials) Another great takeaway from this section is a reminder to ask engaging questions, and provide strategies that allow for all students to answer questions in a comfortable manner. (without having to stand out) Hurley reminds us that it’s a good thing to have students come up with ideas that we didn’t - and celebrate them! We don’t have to be complete masters of our subjects. (even when we strive to be) Finally, know when to stop helping. 

A few of my own resources (feel free to copy and/or share):
Area 4, Collegiality and Professionalism, is aimed at how we can engage our teaching communities more effectively, locally, nationally and globally. Hurley gives us many strategies to step out of our four classroom walls and seek learning opportunities. Although a teacher of 20 years, having started at a new school last August I found I was faced with some of the challenges discussed in the book. I needed help navigating how the school functions, not to mention some good conversation in my subject area. Had some of the suggestions in Making Your Teaching Something Special been in place, it may have been that much easier. Regardless of your situation, he suggests, it’s on us to seek those professional discussions. (and perhaps create them through organizing an Edcamp or CoffeeEDU) (I’ll add attending a Google Educator Group event - or starting your own GEG) These kinds of events are usually half to one day, or in the case of CoffeeEDU, just an hour. You decide. These kinds of events are invaluable to expand your PLN. (professional learning network)

Taking advantage of the internet age is seeking out ideas online - using or adapting the zillions of great ideas already out there. (don’t forget to cite your source!) There is a tremendous economy of sharing online, and if you don’t tap into it you’re making a mistake. Stretch your thinking to use the resources beyond teaching content, but also to develop skills. Hurley also suggests using student-created material to drive some of your professional conversations. What did you like, dislike, or would change if you were to give the same assessment? A lot of learning can come from such a discussion. (check out Hurley’s select list of select list of nextvista.org videos for this purpose) This section also emphasizes the need to question old processes. In one anecdote he discusses how a student could benefit from using the same assignment in two classes, but develop different skills. A very important chapter here is dealing with mediocrity - getting professional selves out of the doldrums and continuing to learn and improve, and maintain an awareness of the attitudes, words, and body language we put out there for the whole world to see. 

Logistics is the fifth and final Area. Rushton Hurley can’t stress enough (and neither can I) how important it is to know all of the people that make your school move. The first faces most of us see after an interview are the staff in the main office; without them doing their jobs we can’t do ours. It’s that simple. We’re all working together. Hurley’s comments go far beyond this in the book, noting the connection these people make between faculty, students and parents. He notes gaining an understanding of the community resources available that may help with certain unforeseen circumstances that can arise. Also in this final area, Hurley discusses preparation for working with parents. It will always pay off to keep records of information on students and communication, and he gives examples and strategies that will help teachers develop positive and productive relationships with parents.

Finally, access Rushton Hurley’s website, and more specifically the 5-Day Teacher Challenge, to find practical strategies to improve your teaching!

Other topics of discussion you will find in the book:
  • Offering (meaningful) extra credit 
  • Ready to go activities
  • Tying service to learning activities
  • Maintaining a good balance of comfort/discomfort in your journey to be your best
  • Trying new things that other teachers do without comparing yourself
  • Dealing with disagreement, debate (and sometimes arguments)
  • Developing professional habits when you may not agree with school protocols
  • The benefits of clearly identifying your classroom needs
  • Working with organizations outside of the school that you can benefit from (or assist!)
  • Finding inspiration!

Happy teaching! (and don't forget the Padlet!)

Making Your Teaching Something Special: 50 Simple Ways to Become a Better Teacher (2017)
by Rushton Hurley

EdTechTeam Press, Amazon or search via ISBN:
ISBN-10: 194516736X
ISBN-13: 978-1945167362


  1. Nathan, would like to use an abbreviated review of the book in the ET Journal spring issue. Could you shorten to 700 words + or -? Bill Oldread, EARCOS

    1. Hi Bill.

      Yes, I would love to! I'll get working on it this weekend and pass it along. Thank you! (I used to be an EARCOS Rep! - please say hello to the team for me!)