After all these years, I can still recall an assignment from my fourth grade year. We were learning about what life was like for travelers of the Oregon Trail and the settlers who chose to put down roots on the Midwestern plains. One assignment was to build a log cabin that one of these settlers might have lived in years ago—out of pretzels. Looking back now, I wonder what Common Core State Standard such a task might help one achieve, but at the time all I could think of was how impossible the project appeared to be. My materials may have been some pretzel sticks and a hot glue gun, but I might as well have been charged with cutting timber and caulking logs based on my anxiety level.
I went home to my mother the day we learned of the assignment and hopelessly described the impossibility of the task that lay before us. I may have cried and I certainly whined. When I’d finished my rant, I waited for my mom to tell me she would get me out of the assignment and perhaps write my teacher a strongly worded letter. Instead, my mom smiled at me and told me it would be OK. “One piece at a time,” she said. “We’ll build this thing one piece at a time.” And that’s exactly what we did.
Two decades later, my mom’s message sticks with me today. All projects, big or small, are truly constructed just one piece at a time. Great schools are no different.
By focusing on the seemingly small details and building a strong foundation in slight increments, teachers and administrators across the country establish outstanding learning environments in which students and staff can learn and grow together. There are countless pieces needed in order to create high-achieving schools: stakeholder support, recruitment and retention of quality educators and financial resources for students are just a few. While each school is unique in its own right, there are common threads among the best. As educators across the country attempt to build their own successful school, I advise them to focus on one piece of the puzzle that is most under their control and most likely to lead to worthy results: high-impact teachers.
During my time as an educator, I have seen exciting new techniques or strategies come and go. I’ve witnessed firsthand the gravitation toward technology that continues to take place in schools across America; in fact, I incorporate the “flipped classroom” model in my own algebra class. I see the value of embracing new pedagogical methods and I challenge educators to remain lifelong learners throughout their careers by continually searching for the best way to reach and teach students.
However, the more things change, the more things seem to stay the same. The key components of great teaching 100 years ago remain the same today. While working to develop my own skills as an educator and collaborating with my colleagues within professional learning communities, I keep coming back to four essentials for high-impact teaching: content planning, classroom climate, effective instruction and accurate assessments.
Four Essentials of High-Impact Teaching
- Content planning is the necessary labor that takes place behind the scenes for any great educator. The best teachers ensure achievement by focusing on the essentials and developing a game plan (and multiple backup plans) prior to working with students. It is crucial that teachers not only conscientiously design each concept or unit, but they must also create a plan for differentiation throughout the unit. Good content planning means knowing what to do if students already know the content and what to do if students still don’t understand after the initial instruction. By intentionally planning for different student needs and developing essential questions with clarity and priority, high-impact teachers set the stage for learning long before the teaching takes place.
- Classroom climate is all about setting and maintaining high standards. It’s developing relationships and establishing procedures that manage behaviors and engage students in their own learning. Instructional coach and author Jim Knight uses the phrase “power with, not power over” when describing the ideal teacher-student relationship. The best teachers know that authentic engagement is not forced; it’s promoted and stimulated in an environment that values learning while respecting the learner.
- Great teachers provide effective instruction through master coaching that engages, challenges and supports their students. The best teachers know how to use thought-provoking stories, exciting cooperative learning strategies, and a gradual release of responsibility to ignite their students’ interests and direct them to the essential learning targets. Effective instruction is undoubtedly an art and a science, but it is also a craft that can be improved upon through time, effort and collaboration.
- Finally, accurate assessments require a variety of data to assess student progress. While high-stakes summative assessments like national and state tests get much of the attention, in-class formative assessments, checks for understanding and “exit tickets” are likely more important because the feedback is instantaneous and teachers can adjust instruction as needed. The best teachers know how to use a variety of methods to check their students’ progress and respond accordingly.
Exciting and innovative techniques will continue to emerge in education, but a few constants will remain: the best schools will provide an exciting learning environment founded on rigorous and relevant content and positive relationships, and high-impact educators will continue to focus on content planning, classroom climate, effective instruction and accurate assessments. These small details seem to inevitably make a large difference in student achievement.
As for administrators out there hoping to recruit or develop these engaging educators as members of their staff, be aware: teachers of this quality are rarely, if ever, satisfied with a mission that is limited to their own classroom. High-impact educators that care about the growth and development of their students want the same for their fellow staff members. They want the challenge of sharing their expertise and leading their peers. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan understands this well. In March of 2014, he introduced an initiative called “Teach to Lead” which aims to change fundamentally the old model and culture of schools. The program intends to give teachers a central role in transforming teaching and learning as well as in the development of policies that affect their work.
The key to successful teacher leadership is giving educators a voice in what happens in their schools and profession—all without leaving the classroom.
I was fortunate to be hired by a forward-thinking principal six years ago who understood this well and offered me leadership opportunities early in my career. This invaluable experience shaped me into the teacher and leader I am today. It also gave me insight into how successful schools are built one small piece at a time. In the very near future, I hope that all of this country’s schools will be led by both administrators who understand this concept and by high-impact teachers who embrace the challenge.