For Administrators

To Be a Better Teacher, You Need to Have an Honest Conversation — With Yourself

By Brian Gatens May 12, 2014

Depending upon who you listen to, American schools are either leading the world in developing learners and innovating in the classroom, or we’re quickly falling behind nations whose schools are doing a better job.

It’s maddening to me that our nation’s schools do not have a single distinct, authoritative voice about performance, which leaves us somewhat adrift. What’s a teacher to do? Rather than casting about looking for more and more data to measure, you might be better off looking inward and having an honest conversation about the quality of your work. Here are a few ideas for getting the conversation started:

Dive deep into the rubric

Most American teachers’ training and assessments are based on complex, detailed performance rubrics designed to offer holistic and 360-degree understandings of classroom and professional performance.

A great place to start in building the quality of your teaching is to really invest yourself in understanding and assessing yourself against the rubric. Yes, it’s a dry clinical document, but it can be a mirror for the kind of instructional choices you are making in the classroom.

Another option is to partner with a trusted colleague and assess each other with honest and direct conversations. This is hard work that requires emotional depth, but you have to hold yourself up to a high standard if you want to self-assess honestly and accurately.

Make an appointment with Dr. Bloom

I’m a huge fan of Bloom’s Taxonomy, a classic scale that enables a teacher to rate classroom work on a spectrum starting with knowledge and moving upward through comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation, the highest level.

It’s been my experience that most teachers unintentionally spend an overwhelming amount of time with knowledge and comprehension and rarely get into the deeper work at the higher end of the scale. An excellent exercise is to take everything you do in the classroom (yes, every single thing) and write down where it falls on Bloom’s Taxonomy. If you really want to get deep into this topic, teach your students about the taxonomy so they know the type of work you’re having them complete.

Study the work of Kim Marshall

I’m also a fan of the work of Kim Marshall and his teacher-evaluation rubrics. Marshall’s work is based on the idea that teachers should be evaluated eight to 10 times per year in unannounced 15-minute visits with quick follow-up conversations. When conducting an observation, Marshall uses the acronym SOTEL to make a quick and accurate judgment of the classroom. Teachers can easily adopt the same standards:

  • Safety. Is the classroom physically, emotionally and academically safe for the students?
  • Objectives. Are the objectives for each class period posted easily for the students to see?
  • Teaching. Is the teacher actually teaching the class or merely supervising worksheets or other low-level tasks?
  • Evaluation. Is the teacher assessing, either formally or informally, the success of the students?
  • Learning. Is there learning taking place or is the classroom just a quiet and compliant place for students to be?

Posting that acronym and an explanation explicitly in your classroom, perhaps along with Bloom’s Taxonomy, would be a great visual reminder and work well to help keep yourself “honest.” Also, Marshall publishes a weekly newsletter for $50 per year that compiles eight to 10 high-interest education articles. I subscribe and recommend that you do also.

Look at international comparisons

Globalization and technology have worked together to make our world “flatter,” and as a result American students are no longer just competing against students from around the nation, but rather from around the world. This has been especially proved lately with Ivy League acceptance rates dipping as low as 5 percent, with most of the “new” students coming from around the world.

Take a look at the performance of other countries and see where your classroom and school measure up. A great place to start is Amanda Ripley’s excellent book, “The Smartest Kids in the World (and How They Got That Way).” She goes deep into the school systems of Finland, Poland and South Korea.

My largest point is that knowing the quality of your work, whether you are preparing your students for our brave, new world, or merely just killing time, can truly be known only by you. For the best teachers I know, my conversations with them about their performance only serve to confirm what they already know. Looking at the work of Bloom, Marshall and Ripley will help you do the same.

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