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If we divide up the work of teaching, who watches the whole kid?

By Greg Gunn

In our brief about different ways of dividing up the work of teaching across multiple people and roles, an important question naturally comes up: in such a system, who in the educational process maintains a view of the whole student--their academic growth across all subjects, their evolving motivational and emotional states, and their personal growth?

Of course this is not a new problem; high school students, for instance, usually have many different teachers teaching different subjects, each with an isolated view of that student's growth. New differentiated models force this issue further, but also offer new ways for the educational team to keep a holistic view of a learner.

This role of watching and supporting the whole student consistently over time--a step beyond a traditional advisory or homeroom teacher role--must be explicitly assigned by the teaching team to ensure that it is done for every student. It can be assigned to an individual or to the team itself, but it has to be owned and understood.

Some schools have relied upon guidance counselors to keep the whole-student view. This can be effective, but unfortunately in many cases these counselors are spread too thin to build real relationships with most students, are not actively involved in students' day to day lives, and don't have ready access to most information about the student. Instructors are in the best position to understand the student--but the challenge becomes how to enable them to have a whole view.

One of my most instructive experiences on this front was working as teaching assistant to a wonderful team of middle school teachers many years ago in Stamford, Connecticut. One of this team's best practices was the weekly student focus meeting, in which we selected a handful of students to discuss as a team. For each student, each teacher would provide his or her own perspective on how that student was doing. If we had a concern in any area that we felt needed to be addressed with the student or the student's family, the team member with the best relationship with the student at that moment would volunteer to have that conversation. This flexible approach proved to be extremely effective at heading off problems, keeping students on track, and making each student feel like the whole teaching team was committed to their success.

While this team-based approach is becoming more widely used (sometimes as a general practice, sometimes in the context of response-to-intervention or other targeted approaches), it is not the only way to do this work. For instance, in schools where students spend a lot of instructional time with tutors individually or in small groups (like the MATCH School or schools using the Blue Engine model), tutors can develop an extremely strong relationship with students and provide an excellent view of the student that complements the perspectives of classroom teachers.

Whether it is an individual or a team taking responsibility for the whole view of a student, a number of tools can help do this work more efficiently and reliably. Some of these include:

  • Lightweight case-management tools. These tools allow a team to make sure they discuss every student on a regular basis, decide on follow-up action items, assign items to specific team members, and ensure that item are completed.
  • Aggregated data reports about a student. Pulling teacher notes, student portfolios, assessment data, and attendance and behavior records into one place can save lots of time and make it easier to see important patterns about the student.
  • Email in place of meetings. Since it is often difficult to assemble the whole teaching team in a meeting to discuss a student, email or other communication tools can allow rapid collection of the whole team's perspectives and opinions efficiently.
  • Automated alerts. Some data systems are emerging that can send out automatic alerts to the teaching team when certain patterns emerge that an individual instructor might not see, such as poor attendance in only certain classes, or sudden student difficulty across multiple subject areas.
  • Web-based resources. Better search engines can allow whoever is watching the whole student to rapidly access information, resources, and new ideas and opportunities for that student given an identified need.

By formally defining and assigning the role of watching out for the whole student, and providing this role with the right time and tools, teaching teams can make sure that no student falls through the cracks no matter how the work of instruction is divided.


Greg M. Gunn is a venture partner at City Light Capital, a New York City-based impact-investing firm, and co-founded Wireless Generation.

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