But now you get asked "What makes Mrs. Smith a great Math teacher?". What do you say?
What really makes a 'great' teacher? And at this point, I want to fully acknowledge that the antecedents of the craft of excellent teaching are multivariate and as a result there are many answers to this question. But if you were asked by a Principal of another school that question--"What makes Mrs. Smith such a great Math teacher?"--words and phrases such as relationships, engagement, interactions, classroom management, flow-based challenge, feedback and formative assessment bounce around in our brains. And while these may be things that we observe in Mrs. Smith's classes, I am wondering if we all make the same two mistakes (which I have on numerous occasions) when we answer this sort of question:
- We attempt to answer through a poetic waxing and decidedly unquantifiable description that includes many of the aforementioned attributes (and perhaps many others) of that teacher through our own lens of what we believe is important in good teaching.
- We fail to answer the question from the evidence-based perspective of the skills and attributes demonstrated by learner developed as a result of the tasks the teacher utilizes in their classes.
In April of last year, I connected with Jamie Robinson (@_jrobinson), Principal of Glenrosa Middle School in our neighbouring of Kelowna at a Ministry of Education Curriculum workshop. He was excited to share the work he and his district had done around a book called Instructional Rounds in Education by Harvard researchers Elizabeth City, Richard Elmore, Sarah Fiarman and Lee Teitel. Jamie has an excellent track record of taking what is written and turning it into action, and as a result, I bought the book immediately. And after seeing Jamie and members of his district present at the BCSSA Conference last week about Instructional Rounds (IR), I was and continue to be blown away by the concepts laid out in this book and how the Kelowna School District is implementing them to positively impact student learning in their district.
To quote the jacket description on the back cover...
"Inspired by the medical-rounds model used by physicians, the authors of Instructional Rounds in Education have pioneered a new form of professional learning known as Instructional Rounds networks. Through this process, education leaders and practitioners develop a shared understanding of what high quality instruction looks like and what schools and districts need to support it."
The Instructional Rounds concept is based in seven principles:
- Increases in student learning occur only as a consequence of improvements in the level of content, teacher’s knowledge and skill, and student engagement.
- If you change any single element of the instructional core, you have to change the other two.
- If you can’t see it in the core, it’s not there.
- Tasks predict performance.
- The real accountability system is in the tasks that students are asked to do.
- We learn to do things by doing the work.
- Description before analysis, analysis before prediction, prediction before evaluation.
I specifically highlighted two of the Principles of Instructional Rounds in the list above because they truly resonate with me. From Instructional Rounds:
"In our experience working with teachers, principals. and system level administrators around problems of large-scale improvement, people tend to be much more specific about what they expect by way of student performance than they are about what in classrooms would lead to the performance that they desire." (p. 32)
How many times have we said that we want our students to be collaborative, to be creative thinkers, to be critical consumers of information and then hand out worksheets, assign problems, or assess using matching and multiple choice questions that require few or any of these skills?
The South Lane School District has adopted Instructional Rounds as a means to improve student and educator learning, and describes the process like this:
There is a lot of work that takes place before the team goes out to observe in classrooms. The team practiced the instructional rounds protocol with videos of classroom lessons. Identifying the “Problem of Practice” is essential to maximize the effectiveness of instructional rounds. The principal, with the help of a district team (superintendent, assistant superintendent and director), identifies their “problem of practice” and clearly describes that problem to the team before instructional rounds begin. The rounds process has teams of 3-4 staff observing in four classrooms for about 20 minutes per observation collecting evidence related to the problem of practice.
Sample “Problems of Practice”:
- Are students being asked to do something more than remembering or literal recall?
- Are students doing more than “sit and get?” What kinds of student engagement, participation, and equity are observed?
A concept such as this that allows us to qualitatively describe and replicate elements of good teaching in all of our classrooms through the optic of the skills that we want students to achieve is intriguing to me: this looks to be an inclusive and high-yield process that engages learning at every level.
It is my hope that as we work our way along the Instructional Rounds pathway, when asked the question "What makes Mrs. Smith such a great Math teacher?" by a colleague, I will be able to more adequately describe the correlates of good teaching so that they can be spread beyond the walls of a single classroom.