All That Glitters...
Imagine with me for a moment two very different classrooms.
The first is, in all honesty, not the classroom you normally take visitors when unannounced visits occur. The room is sparsely decorated save some colorful post-its on the window creating pixelated images that, if you’re not mistaken, are the same from last year. Within the room there are piles of books and other items suggesting the need for a new organizing system. Even before entering the classroom you are often met with a cacophony of laughter, talking, and moving furniture. The students are rarely in the same place during each visit and sometimes, when navigating the maze created by shifted desks and chairs, it's difficult to ascertain the objective of the lesson as students seem to be working on various assignments.
The second is drastically different. Imagine your iconic classroom setting, the one that you see in Pinterest posts. The space is perfectly arranged for students to move about. There are plenty, but too many, classmade visual aides adding splashes of colorful decor while simultaneously reinforcing concepts taught in previous lessons. Student work adorns spaces on the various boards reminding visitors and students that much has been accomplished. Walking into a lesson, it is evident that established routines and procedures are in place as students complete tasks in their respective spaces with little or no guidance.
Two classrooms with vastly different environments would, presumably, yield vastly different results. And they did.
As an educator for nearly 15 years with more than half of that time spent in positions requiring teacher observations, both evaluative and not, I have witnessed educational trends phase in and out whenever a new theory or “best practice” dominated the scholarly arena. Along with these changes so did the protocols for classroom observations. We modified, with some regularity, the practices that we should see occurring in classrooms and during lessons to deem them effective or not. While there are elements with which I have agreed and some of which have remained in some aspect or another, there have been others that I have questioned. Items that I did not feel directly impacted the quality of instruction in the classroom.
Consider the following:
-Arrangement of desks/furniture in the classroom
-Visual aides/cues posted in the classroom
-Data wall posted in the classroom
I’m not saying that these things are not important or that they should not exist within the classroom setting. Instead, I often felt conflicted marking these as areas of needed improvement regardless of what was happening in the classroom. True, certain student seating arrangements are conducive to particular instructional modes (classroom discussion v. small group work) but perfectly arranging students in itself does not ensure productive environments. Likewise, posting a creatively coded data wall does not mean that students or the teacher use that information to guide learning, especially when it is a surface level snapshot from a benchmark two months ago.
There have also existed, regardless of the modifications made to evaluation protocols, those behaviors that I consider part of the best practices cadre. Take for example, asking higher order questioning and providing wait time for students to respond, developing opportunities for students to engage in authentic conversations around topics, assessing students regularly during lessons and adjusting instruction as necessary. In my experience, these elements have a much higher impact on student achievement.
Why do I bring all of this up?
At one point in my career as an educational leader I worked with two teachers. They both were in the same building at the same time and working with very similar groups of students despite being in different grade levels. Their two classrooms were those that I referenced at the beginning of this post.
It should come as no surprise that the first teacher consistently received detailed feedback and suggestions on how to improve instruction in the classroom. From creating a more “welcoming” classroom environment to designing more coherent assignments aligned with state standards, there was no shortage of available advice. The second teacher, however, seemed to produce perfect lessons in the ideal classroom. Feedback and suggestions were typically around areas of reinforcement to ensure continued practices.
It may come as a surprise, however, that the students in the first teachers classroom consistently outperformed the students in the second teachers classroom. Not slightly, but at a high margin.
How? Why? We were perplexed. The second teacher was doing everything right. Or so we thought.
After two years of regular data analysis and watching the first set of students continue to climb while the second remained stagnant or even dropped, the leadership team had a serious conversation in an attempt to determine the cause of this apparent anomaly. A single word emerged from the discussion. A single word that truly separated those two teachers. A single word that has existed within education but only has recently become a buzzword.
While the first teacher’s instructional practices were messy with a classroom environment to match, the teacher took time to build authentic, positive relationships with students. And it wasn’t just with that teacher’s students. This teacher could be found throughout the building working with students and assisting other teachers during prep periods. This teacher was often the first to volunteer for after-school tutoring and was present at student activities on the weekends. It was evident that this teacher cared.
Conversely, while the second teacher’s instruction and classroom seemed to exemplify best practices, there was a crucial component missing. We often received parental complaints about the teacher’s unwillingness to be accommodating. The teacher rarely volunteered for additional duties and was only in the building beyond contractual hours to complete lessons or grading. Not to say that this teacher did not care but the actions were not present.
The leadership team came to a realization that day. That relationships truly do matter. That Comer’s words about significant learning occurring only in the presence of significant relationships is absolutely true. That sometimes we need to look beyond classroom checklists when conducting observations. And … well … all that glitters is not gold.
Charles Williams is a professional educator with nearly 15 years of experience. Williams currently serves as a K-8 Principal in Chicago, IL. He is also a member of Great Expectations Mentoring and Men of Color in Education. Williams has presented at numerous conferences including the Statewide ESSA Conference, the Annual INCS Conference, and the CPS Leadership Institute. He has also started his own educational consulting firm, CW Consulting.