Teachers: At what are you an expert?

This is the second in a series of reflections that came out of a fantastic sit-down with #MichED -ucators Melody Arabo (@melodyarabo) and Jeremy Tuller (@jertuller). Melody asked a question that followed up by mentioning that teachers have a really, really hard time answering: What parts of your professional work would you consider yourself to be an expert?

You see, the teaching profession makes it’s members uneasy by self-promotion. And it’s understandable. Teaching is a complex skill set. Teachers are renowned for having very, very broad sets of abilities as posters like this indicate:

Just a teacher

Technology adds even more lines to this poster. So, with so many different nooks and angles to the work, it can be very understandable that teaching is a profession that makes it’s practitioners feel as though their efforts are stretched a mile wide and an inch thick. It’s hard to feel like an expert at anything under those circumstances.

But we need to. We need our expert teachers to not only be aware of their areas of expertise, but also be willing to advertise it. There’s a lot of teachers in this state. Lots. Like… tens of thousands. It shouldn’t scandalize us that each teacher has strengths and weaknesses. And some teachers have lots and lots of strengths. Every profession has it’s hall-of-famers. I could name a few that I’d nominate for a public school teaching hall-of-fame. Duane Seastrom… Eileen Slider… (Did you just think of a couple that you’d nominate?)

And teachers have a darn good perspective on this. They know who the good ones are and what they are so good at. “Kids never act out for her.” “The projects they do for him are amazing.” “She gets amazing growth out of students with disabilities.” But chances are, those teachers aren’t blogging about it. Chances are they don’t have business cards that say, “Mrs. Taylor, instructional designer, classroom manager.” Chances are they aren’t promoting the practices that they use that work. Chances are they aren’t standing up in staff meetings showing 5-min video clips of the awesome things their students are doing. Because teachers don’t do that.

What is it about teaching that makes it’s practitioners uncomfortable declaring their strengths and advertising them?

I have my own half-baked ideas. (Comment opportunities for dissent, if you’re in the mood.) For one, teacher evaluations are really time-consuming and we really haven’t figured out how to do it yet. What are the best practices? How important is student achievement? How do you measure positive impact of a teacher on an unsuccessful student? These are really, really tough things to measure. This is a symptom of our inability to collectively agree on the exact role that the teacher plays in the education industry. I can all think of the teacher whose in-class practice is pretty good, but it completely uninvolved in the community. I can also think of teachers whose instructional and assessment practices aren’t stellar, but they do a wonderful, wonderful job of reaching out to the marginalized students and keep them coming to school. I can also think of teachers who are inept in supporting the struggling students in their classroom, but because they coach three sports help keep an different population of struggling students eligible so that they can stay active on their teams. All three of those teachers are playing roles that are tough to evaluate. Obviously, we want every teacher to be hall-of-fame quality at instruction and assessment, but how do you isolate the “mandatory” skill set?

From the other side, collective bargaining has put pressure on teachers to not really separate themselves in any major way. If we find ourselves with a handful of teachers who are exemplary teachers, it’s very short logical leap to those teachers deserving some sort of reward for being so good at what they do. Naturally, there’s a very reasonable desire on a whole lot of different levels to shield the teaching profession from this. We want this field to become more collaborative. Not more competitive. So, to protect against that the unions have stayed far, far away from emphasizing outspoken greatness of individual teachers.

That doesn’t mean that greatness doesn’t exist. It just means that greatness is staying contained. We don’t want that. We want greatness to spread. And given the technology, given the pressure, given the difficulty of being a teacher, it is becoming more and more reasonable for teachers to begin identifying the exemplary practitioners and trying to figure out what of their skills can be displayed and transferred.

There are three things that I believe to be true. 1. It’s possible for every teacher to be a great teacher. 2. Not every teacher is currently a great teacher. And 3. It is in the best interest of every student in America to be in the classroom of a great teacher just as often as possible.

So, I’ll ask again: What parts of your professional practice would you consider yourself to be an expert at? What do you do really, really well that you could demonstrate to mentor up a young or struggling teacher? What are the things you do that are so good that you’d be willing to share them on the open educational marketplace of ideas? Feel free to reply in the comments section. That way if you have a weakness in the area that matches with a person’s stated strength, you can reach out to them and open that conversation.

Reflections on the teaching profession and the potential for leadership

Recently, I got a chance to sit down with #MichED-ucators Melody Arabo (@melodyarabo) and Jeremy Tuller (@jertuller) to discuss (among other things) the teaching profession along with it’s potential for leadership and advancement.

I’ve learned a ton this year in my new role at Ingham, and that work has helped me become knowledgeable in maybe a dozen districts, in addition to the four I’ve been involved with already in my career. I’m starting to get a sense that there are some patterns to the teaching profession that aren’t specific to a single district. Sitting with Jeremy and Melody for a 90-minute discussion brings the knowledge of the experience of scores of other educators in districts all over the state. After that conversation, it seems there are definitely patterns.

1. There are very, very few distinctions that separate rookies from veterans. The job of someone with 50 clock hours of classroom experience is remarkably similar to the job of someone with 50,000. The expectations are the same. The workloads are the same. The evaluations are the same. The professional development is the same.

2. There are remarkably few advancement opportunities within the field of teaching. Don’t confuse this with the education industry as a whole. There are lots of career pathways within education. But if someone is an exemplary talent in teaching (Every field has its hall-of-famers. Teaching is no different…), the field doesn’t offer much in the way of advancing in the field WITHOUT having to leave the classroom. Which is a little risky because…

3. … teachers trust the advice of teacher far above and beyond the advice of non-teachers. This is why #MichED and it’s motivated leadership have done such important work. Teachers need to be connected to other teachers. The masters of this craft need to be able to share their work with others. They need to be able to advertise their expertise. Which used to be difficult because the technology didn’t allow for it. Not so much anymore.

Flexibility holds the key to the solution to a lot of these problems. I have a series of what-ifs…

1. What if each leadership position in a school district included a teaching component? The superintendent, the directors of curriculum, technology, grounds, special education, athletics, the building principals and assistants all could teach one hour per day. Anyone who is certified to teach will. This would have several positives.

First, it would keep all the decisions very close to the classroom (and that means close to the students who should ALWAYS be the main focus.)

Second, it would force collaboration because a full-time job like curriculum director needs full-time attention, but with the director also being a part-time teacher, then those decisions would all get made in committee with the curriculum director as the chair.

Third, it not only frees up hours for teacher fluidity, but also opens up committee positions to build in leadership capacity among the teaching staff. Now, we are expecting exemplary, veteran teachers to contribute to district-wide decisions. And that would be built into the day. This wouldn’t be after-school work that endlessly interferes with their down time. When the curriculum leadership team needs to meet, the building principal can cover for the teacher in that building that needs to be out. After all, they teach too.

Fourth, it would make decisions coming down from the central office more likely to be accepted by the teaching staff (which can be a contentious issue in schools.)

2. What if we increase teacher “fluidity”? I don’t think we take advantage of our teachers who can teach multiple subjects nearly well enough. Having a teacher that is able to teach any math class and any science class from grades 6-12 is not an uncommon skill set. Having the finance director coming to your school every day to teach a math class not only frees up that math teacher for an hour, but imagine if that math teacher (who can also teach science) is now free-lance. This isn’t necessarily an additional prep hour, this is an hour when that teacher can step into another teacher’s classroom. Perhaps because they have a cool cross-curricular project they want to have their students experience. Perhaps that teacher is going to cover for a colleague who is at a conference or professional learning activity. How about all of these benefits?

First, curriculum would need to be coherent, clear, and consistent. That math teacher wouldn’t be coming into the science teacher’s classroom to be a place-holder. She is teaching that class that hour. That means she needs to be able to step into the flow of the unit.

Second, how much better of an understanding would teachers have of each other’s practice, classroom experiences, struggles, and strengths? Imagine if a teacher whose classes are regularly rowdy and difficult to control goes into their colleague’s classroom and sees those same kids quiet, focused, and attentive? There’d be some powerful observation and discussion happening.

Finally, this flexibility would allow for my third “What-if…”

3. What if we completely rethought new teacher mentorship? I get so discouraged when I hear of the lousy workloads and complete lack of support that new teachers receive. I’ve seen fresh-out-of-college teachers given 4 and 5 brand new preps with daily travel between buildings without full-time pay. I’ve seen new teachers (when they should still be working on their classroom management and assessment/feedback of student work) asked to build new classes into the curriculum because the rest of the veterans in the department wanted it done and didn’t want to do it themselves. I’ve asked brand new teachers “who is your mentor?” in December of their first school year and watched them not know the answer.

This is madness. At some point, we have to stop allowing veterans to look at new teachers the way seniors look at freshman.

In combination with my other two What-Ifs, we can completely overhaul the idea of teacher development around a few premises.

1. New teachers teach a full-day no more than two days a week their first semester in the classroom.

2. New teachers co-teach a lesson with their mentor (either in the new teacher’s classroom or in the mentor’s) at least two hours per week for the first semester. One hour a week for the second semester. Two hours per month for the second year.

3. New teachers and mentors have built into their schedules one hour per week of collaboration/discussion/mentorship time.

4. Building leadership will observe new teachers at least two separate half-hours per month.

5. Each department will designate the two most difficult classes to teach well in terms of student behavior and struggle to learn the material. No teacher in the first three school years out of college will be allowed to teach these classes.

These are all things that can be address if we just rethink the idea of leadership and the teaching profession. Everyone in our district who is certified to teach will. This will add opportunities for teachers to grow into leadership roles. This will also create chances for teachers to become active members of the school community in different ways that was previously possible. It will give a better chance for our exemplary teachers to support the improvements of everyone.

“Everybody knows what that means…”

A while back, I was explaining to some folks how my daughter understood the word “half.”

“Half” really isn’t a subjective word. It’s got a fairly clear definition. A half is created when an item or group of items is separated into exactly two parts that are exactly the same size. But in the end, it isn’t the definition that governs how my daughter used the word.

She used it according to her understanding. In order to make that point, I created the following graph.

Water Drinking Spectrum

She understood “half” to be anything between “almost all” and “a little bit”. My lack of understanding of her perspective led to some conflict when instructions like “you need to finish your broccoli and drink half your water” were given. She thought she had followed directions. I disagreed. It wasn’t disobedience or defiance. We just both thought the other person had the same understanding we did.

Sometimes, I think it’s the most common words that are the most easily miscommunicated. Words like “teaching”, “learning”, “consequence”, and “discipline” are words that get thrown around with regularity with a surprisingly wide variety of meanings. Each teacher knows that their job is to “teach” so that their students will “learn”. This process works better when there is a plan for “discipline” complete with pre-thought “consequences.”

The commonality of those words often results in practitioners not feeling the need to build consensus around those ideas because “everyone knows what those words mean.” Over the past months, I’ve become more and more aware that those common, everyday words are actually extremely loaded. There is an extreme need for those words to be very clearly and carefully communicated and the failure to do so often presents a real barrier to struggling, frustrated teachers and learners getting to move forward.

If haven’t met Desmos yet…

I would like to use this post as a shout-out… an atta way… an unpaid advertisement, if you will.

There are a lot of tech tool providers out there. Not all of them want to work with you. Not all of them want to hear your feedback. Not all of them provide their products openly for free on lots and lots of different platforms. (In fact, I sat in a focus group with an instructional tech developer once. The producct in question was being sold to districts for $10,000 per building. When we all picked our jaws up off the floor they said that they set the price high on purpose. If too many people bought it, they didn’t think they would be able to properly support everyone who was using it.)

Desmos is not any of those things. I’ve never gotten responses from instructional tech providers and developers quite like I’ve gotten from the folks at Desmos. I have two anecdotes that will help illustrate this.

1. I had an idea and made this. When I finish a post, I send out a tweet. The folks at Desmos responded to my tweet.

I want to make sure you clicked both my “made this” and their “few possible ideas.” If you didn’t do that, do it now. Do you see the difference? Do you see what happened there? They took the little bit of an idea that I had and added to it stuff that I didn’t even know how to make Desmos do. The tweets that followed were an exchange between them and me that helped me learn how to do that stuff.

That was a unique event. That had literally never happened to me before. The developer of the tool reached out to my feeble attempt to use their tool and personally improved it and instructed me all the while giving me the credit?

At least it was unique until it happened again. Last week I had an idea. This idea. And I tweeted out the post. And then…  


Once again, be sure that you check out their idea compared to mine. Mine was a nice start (I hope you see the progress I’m making learning how to use the tool). There’s was expert level. The folks at Desmos are eager to build on the ideas of the educators who are trying to put their free tool into play in the classroom.

If you haven’t gotten a chance to try some Desmos work? Maybe consider redesigning a lesson and then, just maybe, they’ll have a few ideas for you, too.

Desmos-Enhanced: The remodeled Pencil Sharpener Problem

Lately, I’ve found it tremendously enjoyable to revisit some of my favorite homemade problems and use Desmos to model them.

I decided to remodel the Pencil Sharpener Problem this time. If you’re not familiar, go check it out. Here’s how it goes.

Three boys are held after class for detention. I told they have to stay for a half-hour, but they can leave earlier if they can grind down 100 pencils by hand in less than a half-hour.

So, the three of them decide to take the me up on my offer and begin cranking the pencil sharpeners as fast as they can. Each of their top speeds is recorded on video. If we assume that they keep their top speed up the whole time and don’t slow down, then how long with their detention last?

This problem has created some fantastic student work. Enough so that it is almost tempting to force pencil and paper work.

However, I couldn’t resist the temptation to create a Desmos worksheet for it.
Besides, by now, Pencil Sharpener Problem is ready for an extension. How’s this:

It seems safe to assume that the boys will tire as they crank the pencil sharpeners over and over and over. How about we say that the each subsequent pencil takes 5% longer than the previous pencil. So, if first pencil took 60 seconds, the second one took 63 seconds, and the third one would take 66.15 seconds, and so on.

Would it still make sense for the boys to grind away pencils? Or should they just sit quietly for 30 minutes?

Direct Instruction vs. Inquiry: The What and the When

In my last post, I looked at the characteristics of high-quality classroom instruction and discussed why I felt like those were essential regardless of the model any given teacher used. There were some excellent comments left after I posted that, so I’d encourage you to go join the conversation.

What I didn’t discuss is the role of inquiry and the role of direct instruction. Each tool that gets wielded in a classroom is build to do a certain type of work. To maximize the effect, each tool must be used to do the job for which it was created. Direct instruction does one type of work. Inquiry does a different type of work. In order to highlight this difference, let’s consider a content standard.

Give examples of linear equations in one variable with one solution, infinitely many solutions, or no solutions. Show which of these possibilities is the case by successively transforming the given equation into simpler forms, until an equivalent equation of the form x = a, a = a, or a = b results (where a and b are different numbers).


Consider how we’d assess this standard. The students need to “give examples of”, which means they need to actively create something and explain why it’s the right kind of something. But, the explanation is predetermined. They can’t explain it anyway they want (according to the standard, at least). They need transform their example to match one of the stated forms.

So, the final assessment of that standard (if we choose to assess it to the letter, so to speak), would include three equations that the student created and then evaluated in a standardized way to support their claim that their equations had one solution, infinitely many solutions and no solutions respectively.

From my perspective, anytime the students are going to be expect to create something on the assessment, they will need some time to freely explore. You can’t assess a student on something they’ve not gotten the chance to practice. So, if you want them to create on the assessment, they need to practice creating. But we aren’t assessing their ability to create just ANYTHING. We want them to create strategically.

There’s also that standardized evaluation process they’ll use on the equations they’ve created. While there may be some value in allowing the students to explore a variety of different, homemade ways to tell what their equations are going to do, in the end, we are going to ask them all to do the same thing. They need to be taught this process.

Also, we need to make sure everyone is on the same page with the words “equation,” “solution”, and “variable.”

Hang on… I need a quote.

“[Highly-effective teachers] provided support by teaching new material in manageable amounts, modeling, guiding student practice, helping students when they made errors and providing sufficient practice and review.”

“Many of these teachers also when on to experimental hands-on activities, but they always did the experimental activities after, not before, the basic material was learned.”

– Barak Rosenshine

Based on his research, Rosenshine is saying that inquiry can work provided students possess the appropriate background knowledge.

He isn’t the only one to say stuff like this.

“[Content and creativity] drive each other. Students need a certain amount of content to be creative. Increased creativity drives deeper understanding of the content.

“Algorithms and problem-solving are related to one another. Algorithms are the product of successful problem solving and to be a successful problem solver one often must have knowledge of algorithms.”

– Dr. Jamin Carson

And also…

“Students need to be flexible problem solvers. We know that one thing that separates high-achieving students from low-achieving students in elementary school, is that the students who are successful can flexibly use numbers.”

– Dr. Jo Boaler

This idea can be found within a variety of researchers in high-quality math instruction. Students need to explore. They absolutely do. They need to freely explore and play with the math.

But in order for that to be effective as a learning tool, it really, really helps to have sufficient background knowledge. Be it the knowledge of algorithms helping to support and drive the problem-solving process, the math facts giving the elementary students flexibility, or in the case of our example 8th grade standard, a solid understanding of “variable”, “equation”, and “solution” to give the sufficient foundation on which to build their exploration.

So, for this standard, I would probably recommend a direct instruction introduction to the standard that ends with making sure that all students are clear on the three essential vocab words as well as the evaluation process.

Then, I’d move to an structured inquiry activity that led them through a chance to practice creating their own equations and evaluating them eventually leading them to make some generalizations about what equations look like when they have one solution, infinitely many solutions, or no solutions. I see the possibility for some small group discussions, reporting out… possibly a Google Sheet or some white boards and a gallery walk, etc.

And from my chair, this exercise through this standard demonstrates the bigger picture. It isn’t whether or not inquiry or direct instruction should be used in eighth grade.

It’s about what we are going to ask the students to do and which of those models supports the students best at which point during the instruction.

It’s not about which. It’s about what… and when.


Quotes taken from:

Rosenshine, Barak (2012) “Principles of Instruction”, published in American Educator, Spring 2012 edition. Quote taken from Pg 12-19, 39. Quote taken from pg 12.

Carson, Jamin (2007). “A Problem With Problem Solving: Teaching Thinking Without Teaching Knowledge.” Published in The Mathematics Educator, Vol. 17, No. 2, Pg 7-14. Quote taken from pg 11.

StanfordSCOPE interview with Professor Jo Boaler. Quotes taken from times 2:40-3:20 in the video.

The Ongoing Debate: Direct instruction vs. Inquiry

I’ve been on both sides of this conversation. And this discussion can get heated. Do we tell students what we want them to know? Do we let them explore? Do we let the students develop their own understanding? Do we model proper techniques for the students?

And this isn’t a particularly new debate.  John Dewey was exploring this question at U of Chicago Laboratory School during the second Grover Cleveland Administration.

This is at the heart of many objections to the flipped classroom and services like Khan Academy.

Opponents of direct instruction models say that students are too passive and reliant on the teachers as the keepers of all the knowledge. It’s not “student-centered.”

Opponents of inquiry-based models say that it is ineffective for students who are behind grade-level and alienates students with disabilities.

What strikes me is how often one side isn’t really objecting as much to the other side’s model, but rather objecting to the other side’s model done really poorly! 

The direct instruction advocates are often not objecting to the masterful inquiry teacher who differentiates the instruction and has fantastic formative assessment/feedback loops that keep the lines of communication open non-stop as students self-monitor their progress. They are objecting to the free-lance teacher who gives the students almost no guidance and makes them develop every bit of understanding completely on their own as well as answering each others questions while the teacher sips coffee and reads the paper.

Likewise, the inquiry advocates are rarely objecting to the teacher who provides a variety of worked examples, mixed in among short, focused practice sessions where all students’ progress is monitored and subsequent explorations are based on the each student’s progress through the new material. They are typically objecting to the disconnected boo-boo who stands at the front of the room and scribbles on the white board all hour long every day.

For a teacher to say that he or she teaches with in an “inquiry model” or a “direct instruction model” is not a value judgement unto itself. The teacher still needs to do a good job teaching in whichever model they choose. And teaching done well has some pretty standard qualities regardless of the model you fancy yourself following.

In either model, the effective math teacher has a plan for the experiences his/her students will have that day. There’s some kind of goal. A goal that fits coherently within the unit. This means understanding the goal’s connection to other content both previous and subsequent. Sometimes the goals is about specific math content (Example: the students will be able to solve two-variable linear systems by graphing) or sometimes it’s a learning practice (example: the students will learn how to try several different ways of solving a problem and discern which was the most effective).

In either model, the effective math teacher either A) already knows the current state of each of his/her students in their progress toward that goal or B) has an assessment tool built into the lesson to get that information, perhaps a short practice set in the warm-up or some strategically-chosen discussion questions in a Google Form. Something.

In either model, the effective math teacher stays involved with the students as they engage the teacher’s planned activity. This is essential for formatively assessing the students as they progress through the lesson. This is where the teacher gets to monitor that each student is consistently moving toward the predetermined goal. This allows for the students to try, check, get feedback, and try again.

And finally, in either model, the students are more formally assessed against the goal to see if they made it to where the teacher had hoped they would. This might be the exit ticket, the homework that comes back the next day, the quiz, the group sharing out, etc.

So, it seems clear to me that any teacher that has good, tight, coherent plans, is able to create launch points based on the students’ strengths and weaknesses, stays responsive as the students are exploring the content, and then effectively assesses the progress at the end of the lesson is going to have a major positive impact on their students. Those students are probably going to learn a lot of math.

The area where the differences between direct instruction and inquiry are most evident in when the students are exploring the content in a more self-directed way. When done well, both models have built-in ways for students to explore content in self-directed ways. The main difference is when.

Stay tuned for my (research-based) thoughts on that…