Focus on Student Work

bad teacher

Reach into your memory banks and recall popular movies about great teachers.  The focus of the camera is the teacher; a captivating and dynamic individual uniquely holding the attention of otherwise inattentive students. Hollywood does a good job of perpetuating the idea of a teacher performing well to inspire student learning.

Similarly, the appraisal process is focused on the behaviors and actions of the teacher.  Too many teachers can recall PDAS appraisals varying from year to year based on which administrator was visiting.  Contrast this with a recent article by Mann and Mann (2013) advising teachers to evaluate the question, “How will students show me they learned the content of this standard?” (p.32).

If we intend to grow student achievement, focus must shift from teacher behavior to student work.  Schlechty (2002) underscores this sentiment, declaring observers “routinely fail to differentiate between teachers who are engaging as a person or as a performer and teachers who are skilled at providing work and activities for students that the students find to be engaging” (p. xxiv).  In order to improve student learning, skilled administrators focus on student work instead of teacher performance.

Specifically, Schlechty (2002) references the idea of a clear and compelling product.  Under those terms, students create a product directly tied to the standard the teacher intends for the students to learn.  To borrow a concept from Margaret Kilgo (2008), products must prove a verb-noun connection to learning standards.  If learning standards involve analyzing (verb) the causes of the civil war (noun/concept), the main product produced by the student should cause the student to “analyze” “causes of the civil war.”

This concept sounds simple enough, but is this our default mode as appraisers?  When we enter the classroom, do we judge the level of rigor by the questions asked by the teacher or by the task given the student?  Compound this with the fact the instructor likely possesses higher content knowledge than the appraiser, and our focus on student work becomes hazy. Instead of student work, we may solely focus on the actions and words of the teacher to behave in ways that fit our mental model of effective teacher performance.

In appraisal and feedback, keeping a focus on student work is essential.  Marshall (2009) believes evaluation and feedback easily becomes focused on pleasing the principal, not student learning (p.36).  The manner in which a teacher interacts with students and delivers information is important.  However, it is entirely possible for students to sit passively outside of the learning standard while a teacher fulfills many aspects of an appraisal process.  Failing to recognize this cheats both the teacher and student from their ideal teaching and learning development, respectively.

To grow instruction and achievement, focus on what the students are doing.

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