Shifting the Lens from Teacher to Student

In my first semester of teaching, I thought that I might actually be widening the opportunity gap for my students. Each day I delivered lessons centered on quality texts and strong writing exemplars worthy of the twelfth grade. Yet when I graded my students’ interim assessments, all I saw was a sea of red. My kids clearly weren’t learning, so clearly I wasn’t teaching.

Over time, I began to focus on what I put in front of my students and on what they produced in class: written responses to classroom exercises, homework assignments, and their contributions to discussions. Studying these bits of “data” helped inform what I taught and how I taught it. And as I continued to refine how I used this data to make adjustments to my instruction, my students’ results significantly improved.

Now that I coach first-year teachers in Nashville, I see the same challenge again and again: New teachers put rigorous, aligned content in front of their students, but their students don’t always grasp it, and teachers don’t know what to do with that information. As coaches, our task is to help them use that data more effectively, by becoming carefully attuned to what their students are saying, doing and writing in class. The question is, how do you help new teachers shift their focus from their own actions to their students’ actions?

We’ve learned that content is king here. New teachers must develop a deep mastery of their content in order to be able to map out clear expectations for strong student work, and to understand the thought processes students will need to go through to produce that kind of work. To help our new teachers do that, we’ve reconfigured our training around a few priorities:

Have teachers engage with content as learners, not teachers. Often, teachers put content in front of their students and look for a desired response—without having actually engaged with the content themselves. To address this, we’ve started gathering teachers in the same discipline and helping them work through the content as learners first. With our ELA teachers, this means reading, analyzing and discussing complex texts together—as though we’re all students—and then responding to the aligned tasks.

With our math teachers, we solved practice problems using multiple methods in order to understand the mathematical explanations behind the skill and identify the different types of rigor demanded by the standards. By crafting their own responses, teachers were able to develop their exemplar student responses, too.

Identify—and break down—the steps needed to arrive at appropriate responses. In addition to a clear understanding of the student responses they’re looking for, first-year teachers need a strong grasp of the cognitive steps their students will take to reach such a response. Identifying these steps helps teachers predict where a student might get off track or have a skill gap—especially when teachers lack the experience that makes that easier to anticipate—and allows them to focus on the right kind of response without compromising rigor in the classroom.

I saw this in action in a science classroom. When students failed to reach an accurate understanding of a surgical procedure that was described in a text, the teacher brought out an exemplar written response, and simply asked students to revise their work. Later, when I asked the teacher to pinpoint why students’ responses weren’t on target, she couldn’t say.  

We walked through the thinking and understanding required to reach the answer and then delved into the student work. This led to an “aha!” moment for the teacher. Once she had identified the thought process involved in the task and analyzed her students’ responses, she knew what she needed to do to reinforce her instruction and bridge the skill gaps that were resulting in her students’ lackluster responses.

Focus on vertical alignment, so each lesson builds on the last and lays the foundation for the next. We repeat this process of building content knowledge and skills with new teachers—starting as learners of the course content and working through the steps to get to effective student responses—throughout the year, so it becomes a standard part of the planning process for each instructional unit. Doing so allows teachers to think about questions like: How will my current lesson enable students to build key ideas and concepts over time and apply that critical foundation in future lessons? Based on teachers' understanding of the intentional sequence of their lessons, they can calibrate each lesson’s rigor and the expectations for students’ responses.

Amidst all the other things new teachers need to learn—from classroom management skills to building assessments to differentiating instruction—it can feel like a major slow-down to spend time engaging with content like students, before even talking about how to deliver it as teachers. But that time is a critical investment. By building deep content knowledge, first-year teachers are better equipped to create aligned lessons, to truly listen to what their students are telling them, to respond effectively to off-target responses and ultimately to lead their students in the direction of greater understanding. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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