Instructional Practices

(An abridged version of the following essay appears as a chapter titled 'Delivering Excellence' written by the author in the book "Chalk and Challenges" published by Central Square Foundation and the Centre for Teacher Accreditation in India. The book is written by teachers for teachers and aims to speak directly to their needs by sharing practices that can be replicated in classrooms across the country.)

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A misty January morning found me with my 5th grade kids out on the school grounds. The children had their pens and notebooks out so it was clearly no games period! We were on an exploratory walk to apply the concept of tally marks to count the numerous trees that lined the boundary of our school. My students had a basic understanding of what a tally mark was and each of them prepared a simple table in their notebooks before heading out. They were expected to make a tally mark in the table each time they observed a tree and enter the total number of trees (using standard numbers) observed at the end of the exercise. There was a buzz in the air as my students saw a mathematical topic jump off the pages of their textbook and come alive in the real world.

On returning to class, we analysed our results and I encouraged my students to think about why we obtained such a range of number of trees even though we recorded observations in the same field. This led to statements such as “Not all of us might consider smaller plants as trees.”, “A tall bush I saw can be thought of as a tree so I counted it!”, “I was looking up while counting so I may have missed some smaller trees!” and so on. The lesson allowed my more restless children to move about while also catering to visual learners who grasp more when they can see a concept in action. The ensuing analysis of observations backed by reasons helped build critical thinking skills as well.

In this essay, I will focus on delivery of instruction by looking at three facets – instruction inside a regular classroom, instruction outside the classroom (after-school sessions) and the importance of classroom culture and frequent student feedback in fine-tuning lesson planning and delivery.

Instruction inside the classroom

During my first few months in class, I realised the importance and challenge of delivering an engaging and well-planned lesson. In my opinion, a strong teacher, who comes to class planned and with a sense of purpose, has the potential to be most powerful factor in deciding what a child learns and understands in school. Personally, I saw how high the stakes were for my children and how the odds were stacked against me – I got between 1.5 to 2 hours of actual instructional time with my students on a regular school day (not counting for extra classes post school). Reading levels were below average and math concepts that a 2nd grade child is expected to have mastered were alien to my 4th graders. And, as my kids were going to gradually move into higher grades and could not be detained as per government norms, it terrified me to think how they would cope with even more challenging content. These primary and middle school grades were a kind of make-or-break time for them and there were many days where the enormity of this fact weighed heavily on me. These are reasons why I believe that mastering effective content delivery is vital to becoming a successful teacher.

Teaching in under-resourced classrooms to children of varied reading and academic levels meant that I had think up innovative methods to reach out to each of my students. In my first year of teaching (my co-teacher and I were class teachers for grade 4), my class had a prior history of violence and bad behaviour. The average reading level of the class was about 0.5 meaning that most kids could not handle first grade content while they were in a fourth grade classroom. Thus, my students and I came up with a heterogeneous group system that would build teamwork and allow stronger students to help the weaker ones.

As I grew as a teacher and began to understand my students better, we evolved from a group system in grade 4 to a partner system in grade 5. I created six broad groups based on the students’ learning levels and kids from group 1 could choose who they wished to sit with in group 4, kids from group 2 with kids from group 5 and so on. This ensured that one partner in the pair could help the other without there being a wide gulf in learning levels. It also gave kids the right to vote and make decisions that would directly impact their learning. This tied in with my approach and belief that eleven year olds are young adults and enjoy being entrusted with responsibility.

When I first joined my classroom, my kids needed a lot of extrinsic motivation and rewards to even sit in a class with proper decorum – let alone proactively participate and learn! We had behaviour trackers for each team and individual trackers for each student – stars were given for good behaviour and warnings for bad conduct. Academics took a back seat as a lot of energy just went into disciplining and building an environment wherein learning could happen. Each lesson had to be frequently punctuated to either give praise and reinforce good behaviour or stop a fight that broke out in some corner of the class. The focus was largely on discussions, videos and reflections around different values that I hoped to inculcate in my students.

To reach out to all kids inside a classroom with varied learning levels is a challenge. Videos and technology proved to be a useful leveller is such a scenario. I accompanied many of my lessons with videos shown through a portable projector system to engage my students and enhance their understanding through visual means. For instance, my grade 5 students had a lesson in English called “Animals and their shells” – thus, I showed them videos on turtles, snails and crabs that demonstrated how they use their shells and other interesting features such as the colourful patterns on the shells of different turtles. When I was introducing trigonometry to my kids in grade 9, I played a video that showcased how trigonometry is used by architects and builders and also how sailors in olden times made use of a branch of trigonometry called spherical trigonometry to navigate by means of the position of stars. These videos prompt discussions that plant seeds of interest in the minds of the kids and make them want to learn the topic.

For many of the kids considered “below average” or “weak” in terms of marks, kinaesthetic, hands-on activities can work wonders in helping them visualise and understand mathematical concepts. For example, having my fifth graders measure actual objects using a scale brought the concept of length to life. Asking them to observe different angles inside the classroom helped them cement acute, right and obtuse angles. Leading my ninth graders to draw circles of varying diameters with their compass and estimate the different circumferences using thread helped them unearth the mystery of π through methods adopted by ancient Greek mathematicians. Bringing in pencil boxes and footpath tiles to class and asking students to trace them in their books and calculate their areas connected two-dimensional drawings with three-dimensional familiar objects.

My learnings from my first year of teaching shaped the way I began to look at delivering content inside the classroom. During my second year, I began writing the “Agenda For The Day” on the board 15 minutes prior to school starting. This was a timed agenda with details of the subjects. Below is a sample agenda that gives a flavour of a typical school day of mine. The left most column was used to progressively tick different subjects as and when completed.



7:30 a.m.

8:00 a.m.

8:30 a.m.

9:00 a.m.
English Reading

9:30 a.m.

10:00 a.m.

10:20 a.m.

10:50 a.m.
Social Science

11:20 a.m.

12:05 p.m.
Daily Reflection

When my kids came in from assembly, they would look at the board and have a clear sense of how the day was going to be. This led to them self-regulating, getting ready for the next class by keeping books out and generally being more urgent and enthusiastic regarding their own learning.

Within my mathematics classes, I used to have a simple outline – first 5 minutes was for a recap of previous content, next 10-15 minutes was for the new objective, next 15-20 minutes was dedicated to practicing problems and the last 5 minutes was for what we called a “Maths Drill”. The drill was a short assessment of the objective covered that day and kids used to solve them with full concentration and they genuinely wanted to score well and get back their corrected papers with good marks. These short quizzes helped kids know how well they grasped the concept and allowed me to look for breakdowns in learning and plan next day’s lessons more effectively. Of course, all of this involved correcting the drills daily, creating new drills by hand each evening for next day’s class and cycling to a Xerox shop for copies! So, a clear drawback is the time intensive nature of the process – it might not work for all teachers who have other commitments post school.

In my third year of teaching (which was in a new school environment with students in grades 8, 9 and 10), I was a subject teacher without the responsibilities of a class teacher. Thus, the practice of putting up an agenda at the start of the day was no longer necessary. However, seeing the effectiveness of agendas over my first two years, I began each individual lesson of mine by putting up a timed plan for the class on one side of the board and periodically checking off the items as and when they were completed. Below is a sample from my 8th grade double period English class.


Word Of The Day
5 minutes

Homework Discussion
10 minutes

Reading Time
20 minutes

Critical Thinking Questions
35 minutes

Newspaper Article Discussion
15 minutes

2 minutes

This kind of clear agenda worked wonders in keeping kids engaged as they were keen on doing their best in each part of the lesson and seeing the different points on the agenda get ticked off – a sense of completion and satisfaction for them! Such agendas can only work if the teacher has thoroughly planned his/her lesson, is aware what he/she and the students are doing during each part of the class and knows his/her students’ strengths and weaknesses. There is also effort involved in designing thought-provoking homework and identifying solid newspaper articles for kids to read and getting copies of them made. Of course, there are days when homework discussion might take longer than anticipated so it’s the teacher’s call as to how to redistribute the time while the session is on without compromising on quality. There have definitely been days when my students and I were not able to see through the full agenda and that’s alright! Having it up on the board is like a beacon that guides the lesson in the right direction and gives clarity to both the teacher and students.

Instruction outside the classroom (after-school sessions)

At my first school, the instructional time I got with my students proved to be grossly insufficient keeping in mind the levels of my students that I touched upon earlier in the essay. Thus, I supplemented regular classes with extra classes in mathematics and English after school where we would go over the topics covered during the day and also spend time on tips for understanding the daily homework so that it did not appear as something impossible for them to tackle at home.

Our extra classes together gradually evolved into sessions that children looked forward to and stayed back for with enthusiasm. I had three differentiated extra classes set up – Mondays/Tuesdays for students struggling with English and mathematics, Thursday/Fridays with average students and Wednesdays/Saturdays with my stronger students. With my weaker students, I focused on basics like phonics, character traits, subtraction, multiplication and so on in the hope of narrowing the gulf that existed between their current academic levels and those expected of a grade 5 child. With my average kids, we covered a Roald Dahl book called “Fantastic Mr. Fox” with critical questions and also practiced math problems aligned to the chapter going on in class to reinforce concepts learned during the week. With my high performing kids, we analysed a book called “James and the Giant Peach” (again by Roald Dahl) and covered higher level problems in math beyond the scope of regular classroom requirements. This allowed all the children who attended extra class to benefit from learning content relevant to them and at their level.

There were some drawbacks of this system. Firstly, some of my kids came from as far as 8-10 kilometres away and staying for extra classes after school was not an option for them. Thus, I was only able to reach out to about 60% of my kids this way. Secondly, this reduced the time that I had available for community visits as I got done with class by about 3:30 p.m. and had to manage my own lunch and planning for next day’s classes. But, the positives that came out of extra classes outweighed the negatives so I meticulously followed the schedule through the academic year.

Feedback and classroom culture

I strongly believe in the value and power of respect. This was the most commonly used word in class and I made a point to emphasise it at every opportunity. If a child was drawing on his desk, was he “respecting” property and his surroundings? If a child spoke rudely to another child, was she “respecting” her classmate? If a child decided to play the fool and disturb others, was he/she “respecting” himself/herself or the class? Basically, I wanted them to realise that having respect govern their every action would make them better human beings and that was far more important than scoring the highest marks on a test. I rarely raised my voice in class and believed that my children could self-regulate themselves and get back on task without assistance from my side. After all, I knew that my Teach For India fellowship would end in a few months and my kids would need to look out for themselves and behave well without me monitoring them.

I treated my students (my 4th/5th graders as well and my 8th/9th graders) as young adults and valued their opinions. Most of the classroom decisions were made together and I regularly took feedback from them and made a constant effort to implement the suggestions they gave me. Their comments helped me enhance the way I deliver a lesson and definitely helped me grow as a teacher. Below is a sample of a feedback form that I created and gave to my ninth grade students.

The kids had a dedicated time slot in which they could leisurely fill out their responses. I went over each of them in detail, shared some of the more insightful observations with the class as a whole and came up with action points that I displayed on the class walls so as to emphasise my accountability to my children. Their pointers changed how I delivered certain aspects of my lessons; for example, some students said that I speak too fast at times so I began to make a conscious effort to speak more slowly and repeat important points for emphasis. Another child shared how he felt a little discouraged by drills and tests and this led to us sitting down together and coming up with a plan on how he could work on his weaknesses in math. I also told my children that I was always taking tests and evaluating them through marks; here was their chance to evaluate me as strictly as they could! I stressed on them giving constructive feedback as opposed to simply saying “Bhaiya teaches nicely.” and was thus able to create an environment that promoted open and honest feedback which flowed both ways.


To conclude this chapter on effective delivery of content, I would like to state that I believe that each teacher is special, unique and must discover his/her own teaching style. A teacher who likes structures might find the idea of an agenda appealing while it might prove to be restrictive for some teachers who feel it will cramp their creativity. Factors such as academic levels of students, amount of instructional hours and face time that the teacher has with his/her students and subject matter being covered strongly define how the lesson will flow.

I think of lesson execution as performing a play in front of an audience. For me to have the confidence to speak in front of a crowd, I would need to assiduously prepare behind the scenes for many hours. Similarly, a great lesson inside a classroom can only be pulled off if the teacher has a clear plan in place and knows the direction in which he/she wants the lesson to proceed in. Nowadays, technology has ensured that lessons can be livened up through interesting videos and high resolution visuals. Modern textbooks are colourful and have a fund of engaging activities that teachers and students can try out together. It is up to the teacher to create a culture in the classroom that promotes learning for the sake of understanding and gaining knowledge; not simply to get marks and pass exams. The strategies outlined in this chapter are meant to plant seeds and ideas in the minds of teachers on ways to structure lessons and content in a manner to reach out to as many students as possible.