Teacher effectiveness rubrics, teacher evaluation systems, multiple books, and many professional development workshops attempt to answer the question: What makes an effective teacher? The recent push in the US to evaluate teachers based on strict rubrics and student results on standardized test scores has challenged me to think differently about the answers to this question.
In my home state of Colorado, the educator evaluation system rates teachers according to their performance on an effectiveness rubric (50%) and their students’ results on standardized testing (50%). Their results on a complex number of criteria as determined by their evaluator are calculated in mathematical formula to determine if the teacher is proficient. I’m concerned that this attempt to quantify the ‘art and science’ of teaching still misses the heart of what makes an effective teacher! While each of the standards on the evaluation rubric are valuable and laudable goals for teachers, attempting to quantify many of these qualities has created teachers who focus on receiving the check in required box rather than fueling a child’s desire to learn.
Recently I observed a teacher performing well on all measurable criteria on the teacher effectiveness rubric. She announced her objectives at the beginning of the lesson, made sure students understood what they were learning, modeled new skills, asked students to work in groups and in partners, randomly called on students to share their thoughts after working in teams, and provided feedback. She clearly followed a well planned lesson that gave students the opportunity for practice and differentiated for those who needed more support or challenge. Although all of the pieces of ‘effective instruction’ were in place, I sensed that something was missing. I observed the well-behaved students and noticed that some of them seemed especially enthusiastic about the topic of the text: the reintroduction of wolves into the wilderness in Colorado. They clearly wanted to share their personal connections with hunting and ranching and the impact wolves would have on their lives. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be time in the lesson to really engage these students and their ‘side conversations’ were quickly redirected to focus on the skill of the reading lesson: finding text evidence to support answers. Although this teacher was “proficient”, I’m concerned that her students weren’t proficiently developing a love of learning.
In contrast to this well-executed lesson, I think of one of my own reading lessons with English Language Learners. If an administrator had observed that class, I’m sure I would not have received high marks in many of the categories on the rubric, but I’m convinced I made a positive impact on students’ lives. When the students came to class emotionally charged from an event at recess, I knew they were too distracted by the conflict they witnessed to be able to focus on an unrelated topic. Instead of announcing the objectives for the lesson, I decided to direct a discussion about the bullying event they witnessed and quickly found a text related to bullying. Because I didn’t have copies of this text, I projected it on the white board to read and discuss together. The students made immediate connections to the informational article on the role of the innocent bystanders and began to brainstorm how they could have acted differently. Because I had not seen the event, I asked probing questions and asked them how the information in the text could make a difference to them, the bully and the victim. At the end of class, I asked them to write a personal statement about what they had learned about bullying and how they personally planned to act, if they saw another incident.
Although the lesson didn’t follow my plans, I did manage to address many of the learning targets and use effective instructional practices. As in the first example, my students still had to find text evidence to support their ideas, but the focus was on the real issue, not the skill. Like the other teacher, my students discussed their ideas with partners, but the questions they discussed came from them, not a prescribed textbook or curriculum. I asked students to support their ideas, listen to each other, and write an assessment of their learning by the end of the lesson. The lesson may not have met all the criteria for effectiveness, but the students’ responses brought tears to my eyes. Of course, all lessons can’t be spontaneous or completely directed by the students’ moods, but I believe more of the learning should connect to their lives.
Teachers make thousands of decisions every day. I made the decision to scrap the planned lesson in order to meet the immediate needs of my students; the other teacher made the decision to redirect her students in order to keep the lesson on pace. For every decision we make, there are consequences to students’ learning and love of learning. I hope to consistently make decisions that will inspire, challenge, engage, and value students.
Thank you, Dave Burgess, for inspiring me to write this post.