As parents, many of us take for granted the fact that that our children are in good classrooms. After all, teachers go through years of education, stringent certification requirements, and ongoing rigorous evaluation. Curricula and standards are constantly under scrutiny and in various stages of development at the federal, state, and local levels, ensuring age-appropriate content and reasonably high expectations for student performance. Regardless of the many legal and community measures in place to promote safe, nurturing, high-performing schools, parents really care most about one classroom – the one their child is in. Here are a few things you can look for as you assess the quality of your own child’s classroom.
Highly Qualified, High-Quality Teacher
Highly Qualified and high-quality are not necessarily synonymous when it comes to determining if your child has a good teacher. “Highly Qualified” is a label that came out of the 2001 No Child Left Behind legislation. It basically means that the teacher has met minimum certification and training requirements. Teachers must acquire Highly Qualified status within a stipulated time frame, and schools are required to keep parents informed of their child’s teacher’s status.
High-quality, on the other hand, is an adjective to describe a teacher who demonstrates behaviors and characteristics that will likely result in optimized classroom learning. Here are a few traits to look for in a high-quality teacher:
- A Lifelong Learner – Teachers are required to participate in professional development sessions periodically to ensure familiarity with such relevant topics as new technology, best practices, and textbook adoptions. High-quality teachers go beyond the minimum, not necessarily in the quantity of coursework but in the excitement they demonstrate for learning. She may communicate this zest through talking about a good book she’s reading, an interesting program she watched the other night on television, or a hobby she has recently tried. Children who have a teacher who is passionate about learning tend to pick up on their teacher’s positive attitude, and they begin to connect what is being taught in the classroom to their own interests with a similar degree of enthusiasm.
- Instructional Expertise – A high-quality teachers knows which instructional practices are most effective for particular situations, and she knows how to implement them with a high degree of success. She tends to discuss teaching strategies with other educators, read books about best practices, and participate in professional development – constantly filling her “bag of tricks” with more ideas.
- Appropriate Assessment – Rarely content with arbitrary grading systems, a high-quality teacher can explain precisely how she assesses her students’ performance. Before she even begins a lesson, she knows how she will determine if her students are learning. Her grading tends to be based on specific criteria, and it tends to be at least somewhat individualized, taking into account each one of her students’ abilities and limitations. A high-quality teacher stays on top of assessment, understanding the importance of tracking accurate data as a means for understanding each child’s progress.
- Classroom Management – While a high-qualified teacher needn’t be neat as a pin, she does understand the importance of maintaining an organized physical environment and accurate records. She clearly explains her behavioral expectations, as well as consequences and possible rewards systems, at the beginning of the year, and then holds her students to those expectations fairly and consistently. A high-quality teacher also makes sure that her students understand appropriate procedures for all classroom activities, and grading criteria for each lesson or project.
Effective Teaching Practices
For the most part, instructional strategies are only as good as the teacher who implements them. Nevertheless, there are some methods and practices that are more effective than others. In his book Classroom Instruction That Works, Robert Marzano identifies certain ways of teaching that have the greatest quantifiable impact on student learning and achievement.
In a nutshell, Marzano found that student learning can be directly attributed to use of these practices in the classroom. The more of evidence you see of these teaching practices in your child’s classroom, the greater the likelihood that it is indeed a classroom in which learning is happening.
- Setting Objectives – When a teacher tells students what the goal of the lesson is, students are actively involved in reaching that goal. These objectives can be individualized to meet each student’s needs, but the overall sense should be that each classroom activity is purposeful.
- Using Advance Organizers – Teachers can provide students with a what-to-look-for guide prior to a lecture, reading assignment, guest speaker, or video. This keeps students attentive, and it also models how go into a learning experience with specific goals.
- Identifying Similarities and Differences – When students learn how to break a problem or concept into its most basic components, they are acquiring a skill that will empower them to more effectively address just about any problem that they may come up against in future academics. They may do this by classifying the components into two- or three-ring Venn diagrams; creating analogies or metaphors to link new information to things they already understand; charting similarities or differences in a table that clearly illustrates relationships between components; or simply discussing how those components better explain the greater concept being explored.
- Taking Notes – While we’ve all taken notes during our school careers, research is now providing very specific information about the best way to take notes. For instance, quantity does matter; the more notes taken, the more effective the notes. Also, teachers can provide students with notes that she has prepared; this can provide an excellent model for students’ own note-taking. As the year progresses, students can add to the teacher-prepared notes, and eventually use her notes as a model for their own. In cases where the teacher gives direct instruction to add specific notes – “Class, now write this down.” – she should also provide time for reflection and summarizing to ensure student mastery of the information.
- Summarizing – When a student can put into his own words something that he has just learned, he is both reinforcing his new knowledge and demonstrating his understanding. Teachers can provide opportunities for developing this skill by including a summary portion in notes; for instance, after the teacher has provided a definition for a new term, she may instruct students to summarize the definition in their own words.
- Use Pictures, Symbols, and Gestures – Not every student learns best through words. By adding pictures, symbols, and movement to the lessons, the teacher increases the chance that more of her students will better understand the new information. This strategy also reinforces new information for students who are successful with traditional methods, so it’s really a win-win approach for the whole classroom.
- Cooperative Learning – Research reveals a direct link between student learning and the carefully planned use of cooperative learning. To achieve the best results, teachers should use this strategy selectively rather than all the time. Also, students grouped into pairs or small groups reap the greatest academic benefits.
- Generating and Testing Hypotheses – Students demonstrate their understanding of the current classroom topic when they are asked to predict what an outcome may be; this also keeps them engaged in the next bit of information that may prove or disprove their own hypothesis.
- Questioning Effectively – If a teacher asks a question and then pauses before accepting student responses, she is demanding her students to think about their answers. By varying who she calls on, this cuts down on student apathy; students are more on their toes when they know they may be called on.
- Reinforcing Effort – Research indicates that students who learn to value their effort, instead of simply focusing on the grade, perform better. Teachers can provide students with examples of real people in history whose perseverance resulted in success, and can teach students to reflect on their own effort and how it relates to their classroom achievement.
- Providing Feedback – If a teacher is very clear about what her standards are for achievement, then her students will gain more value from being recognized for their achievement. For instance, “Awesome job, Billy!” may provide a feel-good moment, but Billy is far more likely to learn from the praise from a statement like, “Billy, you were careful to line up your numbers like we discussed in class the other day. Good for you!”
- Practice – If a pitcher is going to perform his best in a game, his practice sessions focus on accuracy and speed. Being a good student requires the same approach. Although the old-fashioned timed multiplication facts test, for instance, may increase anxiety for some students, these types of practice opportunities are quite valuable. Again, it’s all in how the teacher handles it. If she focuses on the benefits of the practice and incorporates strategies to minimize student stress, practice that aims for speed and accuracy are extremely effective ways to hone student understanding.
- Homework – Research tells us several things about the way we can make homework a valuable experience for students. For one thing, parents should not be very involved in homework; the greater the parent’s involvement, the less the student gains from the assignment. Also, homework must be commented on for it to mean anything; when teachers provide specific feedback on homework, it becomes a valuable extension of the classroom experience. Last but not least, the teacher should familiarize herself with the current data on grade-appropriate amounts of homework.
By being aware of what qualities to look for in your child’s teacher and the instructional practices she employs in the classroom, you can rest assured that your young student is getting the education that he deserves.