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Can We Quantify Great Teaching?

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Before desktop and laptop computers, the Internet, smart phones, digital books, and tablets there were great teachers. They taught lessons, both exciting and boring, stood in the front of the room, assigned homework from textbooks, and gave multiple-choice tests.  They had classrooms with blackboards and chalk. And, from their classrooms, graduated doctors, nurses, writers, directors, filmmakers, business owners and executives, politicians, engineers, architects...and teachers, principals, and superintendents.  There were great teachers.

Now with the emphasis on 21st century learning, the integration of technology into the classroom, digital resources, STEM, and academy design for high schools, it may be a pitfall to believe those changes alone are the ones to make a difference. It will not be those changes alone that will close the achievement gap and create college and career ready graduates. Nor will stringent accountability and evaluation processes do it. Fundamentally, we still need great teachers.

Those called to the profession, then and now, are "trained" to teach. In the beginning teachers went to training schools, now they accumulate degrees and professional development. The differences in the teacher preparation now include data and technologies and diversity and we have a wealth of research about best practices. We know more about how children learn and what may prevent them from learning. That, too, is included in teacher preparation. Now, we also have more standardized evaluation tools designed to help teachers focus on sets of skills that are said to be the basis for good teaching. 

Colleges tinker with the preparation courses and create new tests and certifications. States and districts tinker with the curriculum, assessments, and evaluation tools. And, each day, the students arrive deserving great teachers.

Most carefully designed teacher evaluation performance standards do address the behaviors of great teachers. They examine the manner in which teachers plan, design, and implement curriculum, units, themes, and lessons.  They include data utilization, technology, student engagement, the relationship with families, the way teachers communicate with children and colleagues, whether or not they continue their professional development, etc.  But can they define a great teacher?  Do they open a path toward greatness?  Or, is that invisible, intangible element of teaching left behind?

We are focused on trying to collect evidence of behaviors valued in these new systems and so, we have systematically broken down behaviors that can be observed and measured.  For many, this is a good thing. The tools do provide the stepping-stones to improved teaching and that is a good thing. Moving along the rubrics or checklists toward a more highly effective rating, the words point to the behaviors expected. The words also serve to establish a platform of common language for all involved to use.

But, what of those great teachers, the ones who always were there, no matter which century it was?  How do we keep that invisible dynamic that makes one teacher stand out from all the rest in our memory...how do we keep that ethereal quality from getting lost in the desire to quantify all things?  We'd do well to keep ourselves from getting lost in the "to do" list and remember that to develop people, and ourselves, it isn't simply about getting things done, it is, also, about how we get things done. Who teachers are to the students, their parents, and their colleagues may be next to impossible to measure, but, truly, is the most important part of this equation. 

A great teacher cares about giving every student the best education possible.  They teach with high standards, encourage confidence, and the courage to learn. They  encourage risk taking so students can safely try harder. They engage their students in the school and its activities. And, they see and know each student because they care deeply.  Let us not allow these documents that break down behaviors that are truly important to teaching and learning, distract us from applauding the important work of developing and maintaining environments in which teachers become great. Memorable teachers were great because they, themselves, kept growing in their passion for learning and for teaching children.

Shifting the use of digital resources into the curriculum is important. Learning the value of flipping a classroom is important.Remaining focused on developing and maintaining relationships with families is important.  Continuing to learn about new information in our field is important.  Learning new teaching techniques is important. These all are measured in teacher evaluation tools. There are those among us who are not as good as others. That is true in all professions. And in some cases, the need for the leadership to address those individuals in a different way may be indicated. But, on the whole, those who remain in teaching want to be great teachers. A safe environment that encourages confidence, courage, and allows for experimentation and yes, even failure, is an environment in which there is room for teachers to grow and become better at loving their work, loving their students, and becoming the great teacher that lies within them. 

Yes, we finally came to that word ....great teaching is an act of love, passionate, exciting, and life affirming. Great teachers take us on an exhilarating ride from a place we know into an unknown place where we can see ourselves newly.  How do we quantify that?

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