Effective Teaching: Negotiating Conflicting Paradigms

While the conversation around the topic of “effective teaching” is not new, there has certainly been a shift in recent years as more attention is being placed on standardized test scores in relation to teacher evaluation and, in many instances, how the public measures a school’s overall success. As states across the nation continue to develop standardized common core exams, the result has been more testing in all grade levels and, too often, a “teaching to the test” culture that has effectively watered down instruction despite the “rich” objectives that are outlined in the common core standards. The irony of this testing movement, of course, is that there is a seemingly simultaneous push for schools to prepare students with “21st century” skills that will allow them to think critically, solve problems, and essentially learn “how to learn.” In fact, the common core calls for just that, yet the result has been a feeling among teachers and administrators to figure out what’s on the test in order to ensure that results are on par with neighboring districts and across the state.

This strange irony that has come as a result of what are essentially warring paradigms has led most (if not all) schools to investigate the infusion of more technology, performance-based tasks, and the utilization of effective teaching rubrics while simultaneously trying to balance the stifling and looming pressure of the impending standardized exam at the conclusion of each respective course. For school leaders, this has resulted in obvious tension and, in many cases, mixed messages to teachers about what is most important in terms of teaching and learning.

So what does it mean to be an effective teacher and, more importantly, what does effective instruction look like? As a Principal, I try to “keep my eye on the ball” (see post: https://johnfalino.com/2013/09/13/the-principalship-whats-most-important/) when observing teachers by focusing on what is (or isn’t) happening inside of the classroom to ensure that we further reach our school (and district) mission of preparing students who are “independent thinkers prepared to change the world.” This mission is in-line with both our values as a district and with the tenets of what it means to be an IB World School. That said, the following areas are most critical for me when evaluating “effective teaching”:

  • Inquiry-Based Approaches: Classrooms need to be places where students explore ideas and draw conclusions based on findings and perspectives that are presented. In doing so, students tackle higher order essential questions, respectfully argue their positions, and identify real-world examples to support their views.
  • Problem-Based Approaches: Similar to the point above, students need to leave high school “knowing how to learn” so that they can adapt to real world encounters and situations that they encounter. As the world becomes more unpredictable with each passing day, the likelihood is that our students will work in jobs that do not even exist at this point. In that sense, the content learned in the respective classes that students take needs to be viewed more as a means to a much more important end that does not include success on a standardized assessment.
  • Student Engagement: An effective teacher finds ways to connect all students to the curriculum despite differences that may exist in academic readiness, interest, and background. The effective teacher also realizes that the ways in which students connect will not look the same for all students and that this is okay.
  • Respect and Rapport: Effective teachers know how to communicate with students and create an environment that is warm, welcoming, and supportive of academic risks. All students within the class feel respected both by the teacher and the students in the room and feel as though they are part of a learning community. Simply stated, a safe supportive learning community translates to academic risks which in turn translate to deep and meaningful learning.
  • Classroom Management: While all of the items above are critical, nothing of substance is going to happen inside of a classroom if a teacher does not possess strong classroom management skills. Think of the ability to maintain a safe and supportive classroom as being at the very bottom of the Maslow pyramid of teaching (if he had created one).

While few would disagree that the areas outlined above would lead to wonderful learning experiences for all students, things get a big trickier and “the sell” gets much tougher if test results come in lower than the public expects. For many, standardized results are where the rubber meets the road and the belief remains teachers and schools should be measured exclusively on that data. For school leaders, it comes down to providing both a clear vision and clarity in what constitutes effective teaching and learning while continually trying to navigate the muddy waters of conflicting agendas that continue to drive public education.

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