Thursday, July 5, 2012

What is Teaching Style?

What is Teaching Style?
When we examine the profession of classroom teaching, the development of one's “teaching style” is considered to be an important step in becoming a proficient educator.  Each of us brings a unique personality and set of experiences when we start training to be a teacher, and these things clearly impact the rate at which we develop as a classroom instructor and ultimately how effective we become as a teacher.  If we want to develop the best teachers who will have the greatest impact on our children, it is worth spending some time examining a simple question:  Are there certain characteristics in an individual's personality that make them a better classroom teacher?   In other words, how much of what we do is innate and how much can be learned?  As I’ve pondered this question, the answer appears to be much more complicated than I initially thought.  I have also realized that the answer may have serious implications for those we actually train to be teachers.  The ultimate quality of a teacher might have a lot more to do with who they are as opposed to what they know and can learn.  The pervasive attitude in our country is that anybody off the street can be trained to be a classroom teacher.  The job is looked at as a lower middle class profession for those who couldn’t get a better degree.  Ironically, we talk about teachers as these great sculptors of the future, yet as a society we put our best and brightest everywhere but in the classroom.
    In recent articles, various researchers have sounded the need for developing quality classroom teachers by teaching them “research-based” strategies for student success. They have concluded that classroom teaching is sort of like assembling cars.  If you can learn the skills of the profession- you can become a quality teacher regardless of your personality or innate ability.  This perspective about teaching logically follows the cultural problem with education in the United States.  We talk a good line: Our education system is important to us, and the future of this country… Yet we fail to adequately fund any efforts to that end.  Additionally, we have turned classroom teaching into a second-class profession with little effort to encourage or fund excellence.  The result is a system that breeds mediocrity and perpetuates adequacy rather than excellence.  The researchers are right, there are a whole set of skills one must learn to survive in the classroom, but these are only part of what we do.  You can learn how to survive in the classroom, but does that make you a good teacher?
This whole question of personality versus skills comes to the surface when we review teacher evaluation systems. Evaluating teachers is a challenging task given the individual nature of what we do, coupled with the complex and variable environment of the classroom. Most teacher evaluation systems focus on what can be learned rather than what is innate. Obviously these systems must be fair, and therefore only assess skills that can be learned. Teacher evaluation systems as a whole work very well in developing young teachers and assessing the skills they need to survive in the classroom. Progressive teacher evaluation systems today reflect the wealth of information we have learned about research-based practices as they relate to successful classroom instruction.  Over the past 20 years, we have seen the focus of teacher evaluation move from teacher behaviors to student behaviors. Most teacher evaluation systems also reflect current research in cognitive science and other relevant fields of psychology.  Despite these great strides in identifying and measuring effective practices, teacher evaluation systems in general still struggle to measure excellence. Innate talents such as humor, work ethic and communication skills cannot really be measured fairly from one individual to another yet these are the talents that often distinguish excellent teachers.  In the following pages I want to explore how a teacher develops their style, and offer some observations about excellence.  The process of how a teacher integrates what they learn about instruction with their own unique talents is crucial in developing quality teachers who continue to grow throughout their career.
Developing a Teaching Style
The foundational research on developing and training teachers
refers to the importance of a teacher developing their personal style.  I’ve never really defined what this means but it seems to be the process of integrating what we learn about teaching with our own personality.  In our efforts to create good teachers we try to downplay the importance of the innate skills a teacher brings to the profession, and focus on what can be learned.  Initially this works great, as there is so much to learn about instruction and assessment at the classroom level.  However, over time a teacher incorporates the foundational skills into their practice and then their innate skills become much more important.  In this section I want to examine how those innate skills ultimately impact teacher quality and effectiveness.  I started by making a basic list of what is innate and what can be learned (see appendix).  This list is far from complete, but it does give us some interesting insights into how the individual personality of a teacher impacts their style.  As we examine different teaching styles, it’s worth looking at how certain personality traits can work positively and negatively in the development of a quality classroom teacher.
The following qualities I’ve described as innate in a teachers’ personality.  They can change over time, but ultimately filter and impact how a teacher implements what they learn into their practice. The importance of understanding how your personality affects your classroom instructional style is key to growing and developing into an excellent teacher.  As teachers reflect on their practice in an effort to improve, it is important to remember the human side of this profession.  Quality teachers use their innate abilities to their benefit while downplaying and compensating for weaknesses.  The best teachers do just what they are good at, but seek to identify and improve the areas where they are weak.    
Communication Ability
In broad terms, a basic characteristic of human personality is whether someone is outgoing or somewhat reserved in social settings.  Often these more outgoing people have an innate ability to make friends at a party, and ultimately they communicate more comfortably than less outgoing people.  When I refer to communication it also includes what might be called social affordances.  These are non-verbal things like posture and facial expressions that send important information to other people.  When we look at the world of a classroom teacher the ability to communicate clearly and create a welcoming environment is crucial to student success.
There is no doubt that having a more outgoing personality immediately puts you at an advantage in the classroom.  Teaching is acting, and the more comfortable the students see the teacher with their presence in the classroom, the more likely they are to believe the teacher is competent.  Communication plays a crucial role in how the students and their parents view the teacher and the school.  
Effective communication is important to the success of a classroom teacher.  The need to communicate to students, parents and colleagues is a crucial part of the job.  Although one can learn how to improve their ability to communicate, there are also several innate qualities that make some people better than others at this important task.  Perhaps the simplest aspect of communication is how you say things.  The inflections in your voice or the tone you use have a huge impact on how well people receive what you are saying.  Teachers are often challenged with concerned parents and students.  Patience and the ability to not loose your cool in tough conversations are crucial qualities in a teacher.  All administrators know that some teachers have the ability to solve problems with parents while others are constantly coming up on their radar.  In most cases, it’s not what the teacher says that gets them in trouble; it’s how they say things.  The ability to stay calm and defuse a problem before it escalates is part of one's character and personality.  In the social enterprise of public education, the ability to stay calm and not get angry in tough conversations is an attribute good teachers must have.
Another crucial aspect of communication is clarity. The ability to clearly convey your expectations to students and parents is often more of an art than a science.  Teachers need to use language that is appropriate for the audience.  The ability to clearly state expectations in rubrics or in writing out simple instructions is important to quality instruction.  A teacher’s ability to use concise language that creates meaning for the students is a huge asset.  Both orally and in written form, the ability to communicate clearly is a critical component of a teacher's style.
  Perhaps the most difficult to measure and describe are the non-verbal affordances we communicate as we interact with other people. Some people are more positive and upbeat in their very character. They smile more and interact with the people around them in positive ways. The importance of a smile and a spring in your step is crucial to setting the atmosphere in your classroom and school. Some teachers look tired. These are the ones who complain in the lounge a lot about the children. They walk the halls with their head down and don't interact with students or other members of the staff. Although these affordances cannot be measured in any teacher evaluation system, they are toxic to the social atmosphere of the school. Often these affordances are what create first impressions with both students and parents.
  Organization Skills
At first glace one might think that all teachers are inherently organized.  Obviously, the job is based on good planning and well-organized lessons that engage and motivate students. The fact of the matter, however, is some teachers are not well organized at all. The public would be surprised to see how many teachers come in day-to-day with little or no idea of what they're planning to do until class starts. These teachers have very little vision for the curriculum as a whole, and their class ends up being sound bites of information that have little continuity. For people who are innately well organized, the task of efficient and timely planning is much easier. Certain characteristics of organized people such as making lists and following a fairly consistent routine are very helpful in planning and maintaining a productive classroom.
  For those who struggle with organization, teaching is an inherently difficult career. Being organized is equated with effective planning and classroom operation. If the lesson is disorganized- where the teacher is unprepared, not only do the students suffer by not learning, but they make serious judgments about the teacher’s competence.  Since organization has a link to planning it is crucial that individuals compensate for weaknesses in this area. The ability to organize the curriculum and communicate this to students is ultimately what we do.  
As one reads this section about organization it seems that this character in a person's personality is extremely valuable in education. There is a dark side to being organized, however, in that organized people are often rigid and uncomfortable when their well-constructed plans must change.  Some teachers march through their planned curriculum with little regard for whether the students are learning or not.  Highly organized people sometimes struggle with spontaneity and the fluid environment of the classroom. Although lessons must be well planned and organized, they also must be adaptable and change as formative assessment data provides information about student progress.  
Evaluating a teacher's organizational skills is somewhat tricky. Some teachers appear to be completely disorganized by their messy classroom environment. Their curriculum, however, is highly organized and makes sense to the students. In other cases the teacher may appear to be well organized in their physical classroom environment. Papers may be stacked in tidy little piles with the desks straight and in neat tidy rows. The posters on the walls are hung perfectly straight and spaced uniformly throughout the room. Although this teacher appears to be well organized, the curriculum they present may be inherently disorganized. The teacher may lack a vision of what they're trying to do for the week, the month, or the year. But since their classroom environment appears to be organized, an administrator evaluating the teacher may be fooled into thinking they are effective. So don't equate the physical appearance of a teacher's room with being organized.
  Sense of Humor
The ability to make people laugh and smile at school is one of the most powerful innate qualities a teacher can have.  Using humor to engage students and to develop a positive rapport in the classroom is a great way to create an environment where students enjoy learning.  When educators examine how teachers use humor, they generally agree that it’s an effective tool for building positive relationships with students.  Most of us would also support the idea of making school a little more fun with some good laughter.  Many teachers often wished we had a little more ability to make the students laugh.  There is a downside to humor, however, and it’s worth examining how we use this skill in a little more detail.
  There are two common problems with humor in the classroom, and anyone who has been a classroom teacher has probably seen examples of both.  The first problem emerges when a teacher uses humor so much that their classroom becomes a party.  It is actually somewhat of an art to crack funny jokes and get the class laughing while still managing to teach the curriculum.  Some teachers enjoy the entertaining part of the job but fail to actually get the kids to learn anything.  In some cases the teacher’s ability to act and entertain often mask their lack of mastery of the curriculum or skill as an instructor.  These teachers are very popular with the students- but for all the wrong reasons.  Their class is often described by students as fun but pointless.
  The second problem emerges when the teacher’s sense of humor offends groups of students or an individual.  Teachers often use sarcasm or other forms of humor that are not particularly appropriate for the school setting.  In many cases the teacher doesn’t   even know they have offended a student as they make comments in front of the class.  This kind of humor can be particularly harmful as students will not tell the teacher they have been hurt by what was said.  It is important to remember that many things adults find humorous are not funny to students who are in puberty and struggling to develop their identity.  The classroom setting is a public place where many different people have come together to learn.  A teacher must think carefully about how they use humor so as not to offend anyone.  
Using humor can be great but one must remember that the principal reason we are in school is to learn.  If a teacher can mix in humor appropriately with the day-to-day business of learning the curriculum, the results can be powerful and create an environment that is fun and productive.  Although humor can be useful and effective in the classroom, it can’t really be measured in an evaluation system.  The bottom line is: having a sense of humor, and using it appropriately in the classroom, is sort of innate.  Some people are not funny, and the last thing you want to do is try to be funny when you are not.  
Group Management Skills
There is a wealth of educational research on how to organize and maintain order in the classroom setting. There are also inherent personality traits that help teachers maintain order and communicate their expectations to students. In today's cognitively friendly classroom, students are expected to work in groups and spend a significant part of their class time discussing and collaborating with each other. Some teachers have a much greater tolerance for noise and chaos in the classroom setting. This doesn't mean that they are disorganized or fail to maintain a rigorous learning environment. They simply have a greater comfort level with noisy learning. The ability to multitask and monitor various activities at the same time is a challenging aspect of classroom teaching. Some individuals are much better at it than others, and it's usually related to their tolerance of noise and apparent lack of structure. There are additional challenges that are linked to the teacher's fundamental beliefs about learning.  Some teachers are inherently uncomfortable with a noisy learning environment because they personally prefer a quiet classroom.  It fits more with their vision of school as an orderly place where calm students move from place to place…sort of like a library.
The way a teacher maintains order in the group setting is ultimately linked to planning and a highly organized set of procedures.  This does not mean that the students act like clones. It simply means that the teacher takes time to explain how they want the students to interact and share ideas.  The concept of with-it-ness also comes into play when a teacher actually runs the class.  Some teachers have a certain innate ability to monitor a class like a cowboy drives a herd of cattle.  They seem to anticipate trouble before it occurs and constantly demand productivity.  They make the job look easy by constantly assessing, facilitating, and redirecting learning.  Although the researchers can identify and describe this wonderful skill we call with-it-ness, they fail to help teachers understand how difficult it is to develop.  Compounding this challenge is fact that some teachers have a very laid back personality which makes them somewhat less with it all of the time.  Students sense how well a teacher runs the class and manage student behavior. They are acutely aware of how the teacher presents him or herself and monitors students while they are working.  Being a little hyper doesn’t hurt at all when it comes to classroom teaching.
  We might summarize these first few variables to teaching style as how well does the teacher create and maintain positive relationships with adults and students.  Although this seems sort of broad, one might be surprised to see how many teachers really don’t value developing a relationship with their students.  This is particularly true at the secondary level where you will often hear teachers say: “I’m not here to be their friend. I’m here to teach this complex curriculum”.  That sometimes translates to them reading the book to students and offering boring power point lectures.  Although most teacher evaluation systems don’t even mention relationships with parents or students, it turns out the simple skill of developing positive relationships might be the most important innate skill a teacher can poses.  Schools are a complex social setting where people are challenged to work together.  The ability of a teacher to collaborate and create positive working relationships with both colleagues and students is a valuable skill that ultimately leads to a productive school culture.
The fact that there are many teachers and administrators that fail to make positive relationships with students and colleagues is somewhat troubling.  This is obviously not assessed in the teacher's evaluation as year after year students continue to complain about the same teachers.  The fact that people who struggle with developing and maintaining positive relationships are still in the classroom and running our schools is likely the result of the difficultly in measuring or quantifying the ability to make positive relationships.  This is indeed an innate skill that is so simple yet so often ignored.  When we look at the value of this skill in teachers who build positive relations, the impact on students is obvious.  The best teachers build positive relations with three specific groups: students, parents, and colleagues. In all cases they universally understand the value of caring about other people and convey that belief in their day-to-day practices.  
  The relationship between student and teacher is by far the most important.  This relationship changes during the student’s development, from kindergarten where the teacher is almost a second parent, to high school where a teacher is often more of a friend and confidant.  When great teachers talk about their experiences in the classroom they immediately start talking about individual students.  They see that relationships are foundational to individual student motivation and success. In that regard, teachers need to differentiate the relationships they develop with each student.  Simple things like greeting at the door and quickly learning names are sometimes not seen as the most important aspects of education, but they probably should be.  The ability to relate to students and develop positive relationships is key to being a great teacher.
  It is not worth trying to describe the various ways great teachers develop and foster positive relationships with their students.  But it is simply a fact: the relationship affects both motivation and academic achievement in students.  Great teachers know the power of first impressions.  They think about how they interact with the class and use humor appropriately.  Although how we make relationships is unique, there are ways to measure how students perceive your relationship with them.  Gathering data from students about how they view you as a teacher is one of the most useful things a teacher can do to improve.  It is also very scary to learn about your weaknesses.  The whole process of surveying students is somewhat complicated, so I’ve included a supplemental paper on the topic in the appendix.  
  From the discussion above we can see why evaluating teachers is somewhat difficult.  The craft of teaching is a rich mixture of innate skills and learned technique.  We can measure certain teacher behaviors and student outcomes, but the teacher’s personality and individual skills have a huge impact on their quality as an instructor.  For this reason, most evaluation systems are fairly good at identifying and measuring basic observable behaviors that research has indicated help students learn, but they generally struggle to measure teaching excellence.  The challenge to measuring the best teachers is that they excel in ways that are not easy to quantify and describe.  Their ideas and methods are often cutting edge, and innovation is not something that occurs once in a while, it is the norm.  Systems like the National Board For Professional Teaching Standards recognize this aspect of excellence and measure teachers using a portfolio.  It is then incumbent on the teacher to reflect on their practice and identify how they excel as an individual.  Portfolios are cumbersome to create, however, and very costly to evaluate.  
Although portfolios are not practical for evaluating all teachers they might be the only way to evaluate excellent teachers.  As I reviewed the criteria for National Board certification and my own district's abandoned portfolio system, I noticed three innate skills that seem to be present in excellent teachers.  They were more than just skills that can be learned. These might better be described as dispositions to excellence.
  Dispositions to Excellence – The Teaching Style of a Master
When we look at the best teachers, they incorporate all of the skills listed above in a rich tapestry of planning and action.  They are constantly looking for ways to improve, and reflection is part of their daily practice.  These teachers have enough experience to recognize that change is part of this profession.  But they also have three innate dispositions that make them leaders in the profession and excellent in the classroom.  They work harder and more effectively, they are constantly looking to innovate and improve, and they are creative.  These aspects of excellence become more evident through time but are present in the personality and innate character of all great teachers.    The sad news is that there are very few great teachers, and the reason might be that individuals with innate creativity and innovation usually go into a business where they can make more money.  And as you will see, none of these crucial dispositions to excellence are promoted in any systematic way in public education.  So it’s no wonder that we struggle measuring excellence in teacher evaluation systems when in some ways we discourage it through our practice.
The following examines the three dispositions to excellence listed above.  In each case I will look at how these characteristics are crucial to excellence as well as look at why some teachers fail to posess any of these talents and yet succeed in the profession.
Work Ethic
It’s surprisingly simple. Excellent teachers work harder and more efficiently than their less effective colleagues.  Many people argue that this is not true, but the fact of the matter is you can’t do this job in the time assigned to you each day.  I know several excellent teachers and they all put in long hours both during the school year and on vacation.  The time away from students is not viewed as “time off”, but as reflection and development time.  Although excellent teachers work long hours they don’t seem to mind because they love the job.  They feel the extra time they spend with students is worth the effort.  There is also the efficacy factor at work in successful teachers.  Great teachers have confidence grounded in their success.  They love watching kids learn, and constantly look for ways to improve.  As they gain efficacy- they want to improve even more.  I can safely say that all excellent teachers start with a very strong work ethic.  There seems to be a mind set that the job requires overtime, and they don’t mind putting in the extra time.  
  Among excellent teachers a strong work ethic is mandatory, but we see a broad spectrum of work effort in most schools.  Perhaps most disturbing is that some teachers come in to the profession because they don’t want to work hard.  We see these teachers come in late and leave early each day.  They are the ones with the sign over their desk: THE BEST PART OF TEACHING IS JUNE, JULY AND AUGEST.  They have the students march though uninspiring lessons and then assess them with poorly designed tests.  Year in and year out the class remains pretty much the same. These teachers oppose change primarily because it will make them work.  These teachers plateau early in their career and then spend most of their time promoting the popular public image of the lazy teacher who is over paid and works very little.  More disturbing yet may be the fact that politics and many teacher evaluation systems promote mediocrity.  
In some public schools employees are told when they must go home.  In this case a political union contract dictates how many hours a teacher can spend at work.  Even if a teacher needs to spend time after school with students, their contract prevents them from exercising a strong work ethic.  Additionally, we see most teacher contracts are around 7-8 hours of work per day.  Anyone who Has ever done the job of teaching well knows that this is not enough time to do much planning or grading.  So our contract actually encourages average performance at best because it lists our workday as 7-8 hours.  
Teacher evaluation systems also struggle with the mandated contract day.  If you look at the evaluation system in my district, which is incidentally pretty good, it demands all sorts of great things from teachers.  There is a demand for critical thinking and formative assessment in all lessons.  The teacher needs to create positive relationships and promote and employ psychologically friendly discipline systems.  This all sounds good until you look at the time involved.  Although the district has listed a wonderful outline of good teaching, there is no way a teacher could possibly excel without working hours of overtime each week.  Even the most generous teacher contract fails to recognize the time it takes to do the job well.  You can’t really mandate a strong work ethic in any evaluation system.  
Since our teacher evaluation system does not even recognize the time it takes to be excellent, we must assume that work ethic is an innate skill that must be present in the character of great teachers when they start the profession.  It is also easy to see from my list in the appendix that there is much to learn before one can say they have mastered the craft of instruction.  A strong work ethic seems to be the predisposition that allows some teachers to become excellent.  There is too much to learn in too short a time if one hopes to become a great teacher.
  The Innovation Spirit
Innovation is a word you hear quite often in education.  To some degree all teachers must be somewhat innovative just to keep up with the mandated changes that are associated with the job.  But a handful of teachers are truly innovators in the profession and posess what I call the innovation sprit. The innovation sprit is an innate characteristic of people who enjoy challenges and rewards, exploration and adventure.  They don’t mind taking risks and enjoy the disequilibrium of implementing new ideas.  These people have a certain comfort with change and serve as leaders to other teachers who may not be as comfortable with transition. If you couple the innovation sprit with a strong work ethic, you have a teacher who constantly embraces new ideas.  This does not mean they are constantly changing, it simply means they are aware of new ideas.  
The innovation spirit is not present in many teachers.  These teachers are very cautious of change and new ideas. They often complain about having to do things a new way and prefer a more traditional classroom. This lack of interest in changing or incorporating new ideas is a significant challenge.  Teachers with this mindset tend not to reflect on their practice since they have no intention of changing or incorporating new ideas into their practice.  They also tend to do the exact same things year in and year out.  The consequences of this static approach to classroom instruction is that the teacher fails to grow and to get better each year.  The result is the teacher reaches an early plateau in their career and then basically becomes more ineffective as time goes by.  Although we talk about continuous improvement and life-long learning, the fact of the matter is many teachers lack the innovation sprit.  Without this desire to embrace change and look for new ways to do things a teacher has little hope of becoming great in the profession.
Innovation in the classroom sounds great, but it actually creates a paradox in public education.  Although we want teachers who are reflective and looking to grow, we also want some consistency in classroom instruction and assessment.  What if the innovations are ineffective? Do we really want all teachers to be innovative?  This question gets at the heart of teacher professional development.  Since some teachers don’t even have the innovation sprit we can see that only a few teachers are really going to be innovative.  Personally I think there are only a small number of true innovators in the classroom, perhaps 5% or less.  These teachers have the innovation sprit coupled with the knowledge and creativity required to bring new ideas to life in their classroom.  But who are these teachers and how do we identify them?  
Most teachers are not innovators, yet they manage to evolve and incorporate new ideas in their practice. The practice of reflecting and evaluating new ideas is something that can be learned.  Although some people are more comfortable than others with change, all competent teachers must evolve and change their practices over time.  The teacher should not be expected to create the ideas, but they should consider whether they might have a positive impact on students in the classroom.  So we see there are different degrees of innovation at the classroom level.  Some teachers do not innovate at all and are recognized as marginally proficient at best.  There are teachers who reflect on their practice and incorporate new ideas as they feel appropriate.  And then there are the creative innovators who actually create the changes that others can then use.  These are the rare teachers who actually design new ways of doing things: they have both creativity and the innovative sprit.
The gift of creativity can be a great asset to a classroom teacher.  Some teachers are constantly coming up with new ideas and creative ways to solve problems.  They have the gift of creativity and use it in their day-to-day practices. You can’t mandate creativity, so it’s rarely mentioned in teacher evaluation systems, yet it can be extremely useful in classroom instruction.  Like innovation, creativity is downplayed and not really encouraged in most schools, as we don’t want all teachers being creative.  However, some teachers seem to have the gift of dreaming up cool lessons and authentic assessment tasks.  We want them to create these wonderful learning experiences and share them with their less creative colleagues.
One could argue many of the points I’ve suggested above, but I think we can now see why it’s difficult to measure excellence in teaching.  Great teachers have developed a style that is unique to their specific character and talents.  Although anyone can study the craft of instruction and develop the skills of a classroom teacher, the bottom line is some teachers are innately better at the job than others.  They have certain skills that make them learn the craft more quickly and ultimately develop into a better teacher.  Identifying these innate talents is an important step in developing one's teaching style.     
The need for qualified teachers is a growing problem in education today.  As we look to train and develop new teachers it is important to look for people who have various innate abilities coupled with a strong work ethic.  It’s time to start raising the bar on who we hire to teach our children, but is not something that is easy to mandate.  Excellent teachers are not trained they are born.  The passion they bring to the classroom is much more related to their character than their training.  This has profound implications for the way we evaluate and compensate teachers.
We can see why portfolios are used as a way to evaluate excellence.  Any system of teacher evaluation must consider the innate talents that make the teacher great.  There are numerous efforts across the country to reward the great teachers with more money and to weed out those people who are not serving our schools well.  The problem with most of these plans is they fail to even consider the innate.  We see systems of teacher compensation that base a teachers pay on how well their students do on standardized tests. Or they try to describe what excellence looks like in some sort of rubric.  The problem with these systems is they fail to address the individual nature of teaching.  The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards recognized this many years ago and bases their determination of excellence on a teacher-generated portfolio.  Although this is costly and cumbersome, it allows teachers to identify and describe what they have learned are their strengths.  In fact there is a fair amount of research that suggests the act of reflecting on your practice actually helps teachers improve their classroom instruction.
The challenge of teacher evaluation is compounded by the fact that most administrators have not spent enough time in the classroom as teachers to really understand or evaluate experienced, quality teachers.  Since they are not experts in instruction, they must rely on rubrics or test data to determine whom the good teachers are.  Relationships with students and parents are not something they measure unless the teacher is doing a poor job and getting complaints.  Most administrators do not really encourage creativity and innovation because it circumvents their authority and leadership in the school. Work ethic is not really something you can measure, and some teachers work long hours but are still ineffective.  The chart below shows how teachers change during their career and why it is so difficult to measure excellence.
    Chart Illustrating Why It is Difficult to Measure Excellence in Teaching
Difficult to measure
Art of Teaching: The innate skills in the character of a teacher, Relationships, Sense of Humor, Creativity, Flexibility, Open Mindedness,
  Easy to measure
Time, Science of Teaching: What can be learned, Planning, Classroom Management Skills, Content Knowledge/Pedagogy, Assessment Skills, Technology Integration, Cognitive Science,
  The chart above illustrates how a teacher changes during the course of their career.  At the start, it is fairly easy to identify and measure how well the teacher performs the various tasks they have learned.  Most teacher evaluation systems do a fairly good job in assessing these “learned” aspects of teaching.  As a teacher grows in their career, they internalize much of the science of teaching into their day-to-day practice.  Once this occurs the personality of the teacher becomes more important.  As a person continues to grow in their teaching career, more of their innate personality becomes evident in their practice.  This has huge implications for teacher evaluation because these innate talents are not easy to quantify or describe in some rubric.  
Teaching…What can be learned?      What is innate?
Learned: Procedures/rules, Lesson design, Classroom management techniques, Instructional style, Content knowledge/Curriculum mastery, Cognitive science / learning science, Assessment literacy, Technology integration, Acting ability
Innate: Communication skills, Organizational skills, Relationships, Sense of humor, Work ethic, Need for order and productivity, Open mindedness, Innovative character, Comfort with change, Creativity                                  


  1. There is much in this post I look forward to discussing. I am excited because I believe that you are really clarifying why pay for performance is a daunting task.

  2. Thanks for organizing the paper into clear parts. Hopefully someone will disagree or at least look past the surface of the most complicated aspect of teaching: How much of what we do in the classroom is innate and how much can be learned?

    We can only really hold teachers accountable for what can be learned... and this is why teacher evaluation systems don't measure excellence well.

  3. You say " we can only hold teachers accountable for what can be learned"...
    I am just wondering. When the judges score the Olympic divers in a few weeks, they will give a score based on talents that are both learned AND involving innate talents. Why then couldn't a pay for performance program judge teachers on both their learned and innate talents, also? I haven't thought this through completely yet. But why couldn't a rubric be set up that judges all of the qualities in a teacher's performance?? I would love your thoughts on this premise. Thanks!

  4. I think you can evaluate both the learned and the innate. The problem is our sense of fairness in evaluation. Most teacher evaluation systems are built on the idea of listing what can be learned and then assessing how well the teacher does those things. If you ask a teacher to be more creative or funny the first thing you will hear is this isn't fair. Work ethic is another black hole. Most great teachers work tons of overtime grading and designing cool lessons. Obviously a system that only compensates teachers for 7.5 hours a day knows little about the job of great teaching.

    You can get some insight into both the learned and innate talents through alternative measures such as surveying students. But we are still in our infancy with collecting and using student/parent data to evaluate teachers. Perhaps we need to post that article...

  5. Our article on evaluating teachers is next up on my editing board! Thanks for the good thoughts you posted. I hadn't thought through the individual innate qualities that would need to be judged. Survey results are also hard to standardize, especially when you survey students. I wonder if there is a quality called "classroom culture" that could be judged for motivation, support for taking risks... That tends to lead toward my dissertation that showed that a variety of classroom cultures can lead to high achievement. And yet, principals, students and parents KNOW a good teacher when they see one. I need to do more thinking on this. Perhaps when we re-read our teacher evaluation systems writing, something will click. Thanks!

  6. This is a wonderful topic to explore but I think most principals and administrators struggle measuring what they have now. I like the idea of "classroom culture", however, most evaluation systems I'm aware of don't even attempt to measure things like student motivation or the quality of the social context a teacher creates in their classroom. Even group work, which is broadly called collaboration, is difficult to measure. But you are right when I enter a class where kids have learned to collaborate and share ideas I can sense the productive atmosphere.

  7. I have been thinking about this more today. I think I will go back and study the precepts in the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Those standards were used by DCSD's Outstanding Teacher program, of course, which I believe had tremendous potential for judging what we have been talking about. Another teacher evaluation system that has merit might be the one in Minnesota, I believe? Remember the fellow who taught Foundations I with Melanie. He said his district had their entire professional development system AND evaluation system wrapped around the AFT's ER&D program. I can envision a district using just Foundations I and II to do this. Set up those 2 courses to be the important PD focus on in service days. Regularly require teachers to do meaningful RAP assignments where they pick a topic and try something and reflect about the experience. I think an effective teacher evaluation plan could be developed that takes the tenants of Foundations I and II and uses the observation and demonstration of those ideas to determine satisfactory and exemplary teacher performance. And that would provide a natural support system to remediate weak teachers and to provide an avenue for continuous teacher quality improvement. We both know that a teacher is never "done" with mastering all that is in those two courses. Those are researched-based and hold the essence of good and great teaching!! What do you think?

  8. Hi Kathy and John,

    I know I am again sneaking in on your conversation but I have a thought on this one. John, you bring up the learned and innate characteristics of an effective (great) educator. True that some things come naturally and others are learned and both are probably essential to the success formula. Our premise in teacher evaluation is that teachers can be fixed, improved, through mentorship by an instructional leader. Even in the best of circumstances, I think this is a fallacy. Individuals are often counseled out of a profession (or summarily dismissed from it) because they lack some of the essential, basic qualities that will make them effective. You can't always teach that sixth sense to a police office that tells him or her NOT to fire their weapon. You can't always teach a child to dance who can move their body to the rhythm of the music. People are just "differently-talented" and "differently-abled" to put it in politically correct terms. The trick is to effectively match those talents and abilities to a passion and to a profession or avocation.

    Teacher evaluation / pay for performance systems can't make allowances for our deficits as educators; these systems need to ACCOUNT for our deficits (as well as our assets) in order to provide an accurate profile of us as educators. If the deficits are significant, if they are inconsistent with quality education, if they indicate a lack of educator "talent" and "ability" then perhaps a change of career is in order. And that's a good thing for both the educator and the students, right?

  9. How about providing mentoring and resources from day one of a teacher's career to help them provide a feedback loop for students which helps them be involved in the responsibility for their learning and which provides formative assessment info for the teacher AND to guide teachers in developing system which students and teachers both participate in that gives evidence of student learning (knowledge, skills, and abilities) throughout the school year?