My Day Observing and Interviewing Young Teachers


I had the pleasure yesterday of serving on my school’s interview team for a third grade position. Five candidates, four of whom just finished their student teaching and one of whom has five years of teaching experience, competed for the job. They each taught a 15-minute lesson and answered questions for a half-hour. Here are five thoughts:

Our kids are in good hands

I’ve been on interview committees a few times before and I am always impressed by the quality of the candidates. While the data says that our “best and brightest” are going into other fields, I’m forced to take issue with their criteria. These are high-quality people who are signing up for a difficult job because they want to make a difference and help kids. With teacher strikes, social media, a Secretary of Education who’s hostile to public schools, and teacher resignation letters regularly going viral, no one goes into education today ignorant of the challenges. These people are signing up anyway. The banks can have the valedictorians; I’ll take the idealists.

It’s a limited sample size, but the young people who are becoming teachers today seem better trained than those with whom I competed almost 20 years ago. Frankly, just-out-of-college me would not compare favorably to the current just-out-college teachers-to-be, with their higher-than-mine GPAs, overseas teaching experiences, and volunteer hours at tutoring centers and summer camps. Most incorporate classroom practices that took me years to figure out and can speak intelligently about education topics I only know about because I’m in the thick of it day in and day out.  They even know most of the damn acronyms.

Expectations Are Everything

After watching five lessons, one thing above all others stood out as making the greatest difference between a smooth lesson and one in which both students and teacher struggled a bit: Expectations at the earliest possible moment.

Of the five teachers we observed, three stood apart. They were the same three that introduced themselves and then quickly laid out expectations for student behavior. All three made it crystal clear how students were to respond to questions and all three established an attention signal right up front. Two of them had practiced their attention signals before the interview team even entered the room. The other two taught fine lessons but had to go back later and set expectations after students started blurting and giving silly responses to open-ended questions. Which brings me to…

Avoid Open-Ended Questions

One candidate started her lesson with an open-ended question, which made me cringe. She then continued to ask more open-ended questions. Things were fine at first, and open-ended questions do encourage more involvement. Students were certainly engaged.

But you probably know what happened. It wasn’t long before students were gustily blurting out answers, and it wasn’t long after that before those with the greatest need for attention were blurting out answers solely intended to make their classmates laugh.

Asking open-ended questions and allowing students to blurt out can improve student engagement, but for most teachers and most classrooms, it’s too hard to maintain the kind of climate where learning will take place. Most teachers would be smart to stick with other involvement strategies, such and turn-and-talk, the use of whiteboards, or a digital response system and ask for hands to be raised the rest of the time.

Education Research Is Not Getting Through

I asked each candidate about best practices in ELA and Math instruction. You would think in the age of data and Marzano and Hattie’s effect sizes, that prospective teachers would be able to knock such a question out of the park. You would be wrong. With very few exceptions, each candidate addressed the question as though the phrase “best practices” meant “things you do in the classroom that you/your students like.” Not one candidate used the word research or effect size in their answers (and providing timely feedback is a no-brainer, man!) and not one supported their answer by claiming they did their own research and found that their best practice was in fact a best practice because they had data to support it.

If those just coming out of college aren’t aware of what “best practice” means and if they don’t know what the current research suggests works, then we have a long way to go.

I don’t blame the candidates. This is something their colleges of education should be teaching. As impressed as I was with the candidates’ use of learning targets, engagement strategies, and formative assessments, I was underwhelmed by their apparent lack of knowledge when it came to effective teaching practices. If colleges of education aren’t teaching those, then what are they teaching?

It shouldn’t be up to individual teachers to research best practices. That information should be shared with teachers in college and then throughout their careers. We still do a poor job of informing our teachers about the practices that are most likely to lead to higher student achievement. We need to do better here.

Specificity wins 

After sitting through five interviews, the one piece of advice I would give prospective teachers is to be as specific as possible when answering questions. This is one area where the teacher with five years of experience had a clear upper hand. Having her own classroom for five years meant she had used the standards to plan lessons for five years. She had used different curriculums and universal screeners. It meant she’d solved more problems than the recently graduated candidates had ever faced. Her answers were better because she was able to talk about specifics while the others could only talk in generalities and hypotheticals.

That wasn’t entirely their fault. There’s no replacement for on-the-job experience, especially when it comes to teaching, where there is no substitute for the real thing and the realities of the job can’t be replicated in a college environment. But that doesn’t mean the recently graduated can’t be more specific in their answers.

When asked about classroom management, don’t just talk about the importance of building relationships. We all know that; you get no points for saying it. Talk instead about a student you had during student teaching with whom you made a connection that led to an improved effort. If asked about the important components of a math program, don’t just recite what your mentor teacher did; talk about what you will do in your own classroom and connect it to your own experiences and research on what works. Vague generalities and edubabbly cliches become background noise that interview committees have heard too many times before. If you want to grab your interviewers’ attention, say things other people haven’t already said. The easiest way to do that is to get specific about what you’ve done or would do.


Do As We Say, Not As We Do

For as long as I can remember, education has been accused of being stuck in the stone age and resistant to change. You can’t spend a day on the socials without someone lamenting that schools haven’t adapted to the new world and still operate like 20th-century factories. One way out of our morass, these critics say, is for education to work more like medicine. We should be more scientific, and only do things that have been proven effective through rigorous research.

As teachers, we’ve been inundated with this message. A cottage industry has grown up around studying and reporting on what works in education. Whole libraries have been written. Our evaluations are mostly based on whether and how well we implement research-based practices in our classrooms, with principals ticking them off on checklists. It’s no longer acceptable to use the instructional methods our teachers used with us. Professional development focuses on recent research. Educators shame each other on Twitter over what they perceive to be dated and harmful teaching methods. My school has a poster of John Hattie’s effect sizes hanging – of all places – in the teachers’ lounge; we can’t even escape the guy when we’re eating. There’s a What Works Clearinghouse and the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit, two resources whose sole purpose is to provide educators with evidence of effective practices.

The message is clear: Teachers make a big difference, and it’s what teachers do that makes the biggest difference. Teachers who use the most effective practices are going to get better results than those who don’t. Just as you would never take a drug that hadn’t been proven effective through rigorous study, we shouldn’t put teachers in classrooms unless they know and will follow the evidence.

Many teachers have understandably jumped onto the evidence-based bandwagon. They want to do best by their students. They want to be effective. They want to make a difference.

But one thing that may be holding teachers back is the rampant hypocrisy practiced by those in power. Hypocrisy, it should be noted, is not an effective practice, and I don’t need John Hattie to do a meta-analysis to tell me so.

If education is going to be evidence-based, then every time those in charge ignore research because it conflicts with their beliefs, or the way things have always been done, or because it costs too much, or it’s politically risky, the whole notion of evidence-based education is undermined and teachers have every reason to ask why they’re being held to a standard that their bosses ignore.

Benchmark assessments

Robert Slavin recently wrote this: Benchmark Assessments: Weighing the Pig More Often?

Here’s an excerpt:

High-quality, large scale randomized evaluations of benchmark assessments are relatively easy to do. Many have in fact been done. Uses of benchmark assessments have been evaluated in elementary reading and math (see Here is a summary of the findings.

Number of StudiesMean Effect Size
Elementary Reading6-0.02
Elementary Math4   .00
Study-weighted mean10-0.01

In a rational world, these findings would put an end to benchmark assessments, at least as they are used now. The average outcomes are not just small, they are zero. They use up a lot of student time and district money.”

Despite the lack of evidence supporting these assessments, almost every school district gives them and many states mandate their use. How can you claim to be evidence-based when you do such a thing? How can you expect your teachers to follow the research when you so willfully ignore it?

Start Times

Those who want education to operate more like medicine might be interested to know that the Centers for Disease Control recommends that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 am so that adolescent bodies can get the sleep they need to function at their best. But according to a 2014 study, 93% of high schools and 83% of middle schools started before 8:30.

If, in the face of clear evidence and a recommendation from as venerable an organization as you’ll find, you can’t do something as simple as swap the starting times of your elementary and high schools because of tradition, or football practices, or after-school jobs, or busing schedules, then your teachers are going to wonder why they should upend their comfortable teaching practices. Leaders who want evidence-based teaching in their classrooms must lead by example by following the evidence even when they’d rather not, because that’s exactly what they’re asking teachers to do.


It’s abundantly clear that recess is good for kids’ wellbeing and their academic performance (some of the research is referenced in this article from Time) and yet even today, many states and schools put strict limits on it. If you’re a teacher who works for a district that doesn’t allow kids recess, then you work for a district that isn’t serious about using evidence. You’d be well within your rights to ask, “If you’re not going to follow the research in your district policies, then why should it in my classroom?”

Of course, maybe school boards and superintendents who ignore evidence are simply following the lead of government officials. When the folks who are running your state ignore evidence, it shouldn’t be a surprise when those who run school districts feel they can do the same. Take retention.


The effect size for retention, John Hattie found, is negative .32. In his book, Visible Learning, he wrote:

“The effects of flunking are immediately traumatic to the children and the retained children do worse academically in the future, with many of them dropping out of school altogether. Incredibly, being retained
has as much to do with children dropping out as does their academic achievement. It would be difficult to find another educational practice on which the evidence is so unequivocally negative.”

Despite the one-sided research, 16 states require retention for students not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. Another eight allow for retention but don’t require it. Two more are currently considering legislation that would require retention. 

Evidence-based education may, in fact, be the solution we’ve been waiting for. It might lead to better teaching and learning. By doing what the research says, education might make the sort of progress seen in the medical world.

But evidence-based education has no chance to make a difference if the people who make education policies at the state and local level continually ignore the research.

Until they do, evidence-based teaching feels like just another example of people telling teachers to do something they themselves are unwilling to.



Challenging Classrooms

By Ashley Jenkins


I enjoy seeing my former students in the hallways at school. When one of them came by my room to tell me she was moving to a new school, I asked her why. She replied, “My parents think I’m not being challenged enough.”

I wish I could say I was surprised, but this was not the first time I had heard this from a student. I sometimes hear this complaint from friends who are parents, too. When speaking with colleagues and other teacher friends, I found that this is something we have all heard more frequently as of late, as test scores, emphasis on STEM programs, and invitation letters for gifted programs are on many parents’ minds. While frustrated by these comments, I wanted to take a step back and evaluate my own classroom as well as find meaningful ways to have conversations with parents about this topic.

Ways to assess and enhance your own challenging environment:


Check in with students: This could be as simple as a walk around the room while students are doing independent work. Who is engaged? Are students clear about expectations? Do they need a lot of support? Are they aware of where to look for guidance and self-assessment?

Equally as important: carve out time for your higher-achieving students. We so often (myself included) can be guilty of assuming they can work independently and don’t need our help. Make sure they are clear that you are holding them to the same standards as everyone else.

Include more creativity: Some of my favorite activities I learned while taking gifted coursework involved creativity. These are always a big hit in my classroom with every student but especially with higher-achieving learners. Because most of our day is often filled with the same routines, getting the chance to be creative forces students to use a different part of their brain. One of my favorite activities I did when I taught third grade was tasking students to create an animal that could survive in multiple biomes during a unit on adaptations and habitats. I loved seeing the details in their art, and they were able to provide scientific evidence as to why their animal would survive. Of course, providing opportunities like these are much easier for me to do now that I’m teaching kindergarten than they may be if you are in a testing grade. Squeeze them in when you can.

Fast-forward: If a student has mastered a concept, don’t make them repeat it with the rest of the class. This is commonly known as curriculum compacting. If I’m doing a whole-class phonics lesson that my higher readers have already mastered, I allow them to independently read or work on a reading program on our class iPads while I work with the rest of the class.

Partner/small-group teach: I’m a firm believer that students learn more from talking to each other than they do listening to me. Research also shows that students benefit from conversation (Fisher, Frey & Rothenberg, 2008).  I have a student this year who excels in math. Rather than constantly giving him more to do, I found that he enjoyed explaining what he learned to his peers. And when students asked him questions, he often had to think about the answer and go back through his steps.

It’s never easy having a parent criticize your job, but if you are approached by a parent about the level of rigor their child is not getting, here are some helpful ways to approach:

Listen and home in on what their complaint is: Are they basing the level of challenge for their child on test scores, grades, amount of homework brought home, etc.? I find that sometimes parents make judgments only on evidence of one thing, and I have to remind myself that they don’t see everything that happens in the classroom every day. If they believe their child needs more challenge due to test scores, cross reference test data with classroom work and anecdotal data of what you see in class. I send home weekly classwork so parents can actually see what their child is working on, and I also keep some of their most important writings and projects for portfolios. Often, when I show parents these samples at conferences, they are blown away by the level of depth and rigor that their child is doing in the classroom. They just are not able to see this on a test score.

Be honest about what you are facing in the classroom: Most parents mean well. They don’t know the many levels you have to differentiate and plan for every day. I honestly tell them, in a respectful way: “One of the most difficult things about teaching is that there are (x) number of students, and one of me. I wish I had an unlimited amount of time to spend with everyone each day. I try to make up for this with allotted time for small groups each day. Here is how I am working with your child to meet their needs:____.” I have found that parents appreciate my honesty and it reminds them that I, too, am human.

Get their help: Is there an activity you would love to work on with your students needing more of a challenge, but you are short on time or it would be too much prep? See if the parents are willing to help. This year in my kindergarten class, I have a student reading much higher than the rest of her peers. I wanted to start a more advanced word study program with her but was always short on time to prep. I asked her mom if she would be willing to work with her on it at home and she happily obliged. This kept her in the loop of what her daughter needed to work on and saved me time. I required her to bring in her completed work to me and instead we could use our time to extend what she learned rather than teaching it from scratch. Both parties won. I’ve also had other parents offer to come in and print weekly readers or prep materials for higher students that maybe I would not have had time for otherwise. I find that most parents understand that it does take a village to teach a child, and students are much more successful when we work together.

Hopefully you will find some of these ideas helpful. What have you found to be successful in creating a challenging environment in your own classroom, as well as in communicating with parents?


Source: Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Rothenberg, C. (2008). Content-area conversations: How to plan discussion-based lessons for diverse language learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

It’s What They Learn, but It’s Also How We Teach

The tide, it appears, may finally be starting to change. After a generation of test-centered accountability for teachers, the state of Maine has passed a law that removes a requirement that standardized test scores be used to evaluate teachers. I suspect more states will follow, if for no other reason than all educational trends eventually fall out of favor when we realize the old ways maybe weren’t so terrible after all.

No matter what other states do, the question will remain: How do we fairly evaluate the performance of teachers? There is no easy answer, and it’s largely because there are two competing beliefs about how to identify good (and bad) teaching.

I read two articles in the last couple of days that illustrate the tension at the center of teacher evaluations. The first was written by Alfie Kohn way back in 2008, but its message is often repeated today. In It’s Not What We Teach; It’s What They Learn, Kohn asserts that “what we do doesn’t matter nearly as much as how kids experience what we do.” He provides a number of examples, explaining that it doesn’t matter what an adult intends if a child interprets the adult’s words or actions differently. Kohn writes:

“We may think we’re emphasizing the importance of punctuality by issuing a detention for being late, or that we’re making a statement about the need to be respectful when we suspend a student for yelling an obscenity, or that we’re supporting the value of certain behaviors when we offer a reward for engaging in them.

But what if the student who’s being punished or rewarded doesn’t see it that way?  What if his or her response is, “That’s not fair!” or “Next time I won’t get caught” or “I guess when you have more power you can make other people suffer if they don’t do what you want” or “If they have to reward me for x, then must be something I wouldn’t want to do.”

We protest that the student has it all wrong, that the intervention really is fair, the consequence is justified, the reward system makes perfect sense.  But if the student doesn’t share our view, then what we did cannot possibly have the intended effect.  Results don’t follow from behaviors but from the meaning attached to behaviors.”

It follows, then, that a teacher’s intention to teach effectively doesn’t matter if students don’t learn anything. A teacher who says, “I taught a great lesson but the kids just didn’t get it,” is, in Kohn’s view, making an incoherent statement. There can be no teaching without learning.

So given that a teacher’s practices are irrelevant if students do not learn as a result of them, it makes sense to design a teacher evaluation system that looks only at student achievement. To people with this view, nothing else should matter.

But that’s not how teacher evaluation systems work. Although we say things like, “It’s not about the teaching; it’s about the learning,” our actions betray our purported beliefs. We want to see teachers in action, and we think we can judge their abilities irrespective of how students actually do in their classes. We want to evaluate teachers based on how they perform their jobs and not on how their students perform theirs.

Every evaluation system I know of includes observations by a supervisor.  Frequently, the observations carry more weight than student performance (in my state, it’s 75% observations and 25% student achievement data). And principals aren’t watching students; they’re watching teachers. Their checklists require them to. Marzano’s Teacher Evaluation Model includes four domains and 60 elements. Every single one uses teacher-centered language. Marzano requires supervisors to evaluate teachers on what they do, not on how their students do.


Because most of us recognize that it takes two to tango and that a teacher can only truly control one of the dancers. An effective classroom has an effective teacher, but it also has willing learners, a point Jody Stallings makes in this article for the Moultrie News, which serves as a rebuttal to Kohn’s perspective.

Responding to a parent who espouses the belief that we should judge teachers on how their students perform, Stallings writes, “Teachers should indeed be held accountable for teaching their students. But that’s not what you’re demanding. You’re demanding that students learn, and that’s a very different issue.”

Stallings argues that we should judge teachers not on how their students do, but on how teachers perform their jobs. In other words, he sees no incoherence in the statement, “I taught a great lesson but some of the kids didn’t learn.” That, I believe Stallings would argue, is perfectly possible. It’s also — I can say as someone who’s taught a lot of lessons, (some great, some not) — almost always the result.

Stallings asks his readers to consider a reluctant eater:

“Have you ever tried to make a child eat something he didn’t want to eat? That’s what teaching unwilling learners is like. The reality is unless they have an appetite, you can set an entire banquet in front of them and it will go untouched. The problem is that we are slipping into a world where we don’t judge teachers by the banquet they prepare but by the appetites of the children at the table.”

To further his analogy, evaluating teachers based solely on how their teaching is received by their learners would be like evaluating a gourmet chef based solely on how diners might receive his or her ginger glazed mahi-mahi. It might be the best in the world, but some diners won’t be hungry. Some will hate seafood. Some might be allergic to an ingredient. And some just prefer cheeseburgers.

Stallings’s point, and it’s a legitimate one, is that you can’t judge teachers only on what their students learn because students, like diners, are different. A chef has total control over the dish, but no control over the people who eat it. A masterful teacher in one school may get horrible results in a different one, not because she’s a bad teacher, but because she is trying to teach students who are less willing, and sometimes less able, to learn.

This is a problem.

Because if teaching isn’t about learning, then what’s it about? And if we want to design a system to evaluate teachers, shouldn’t such a system, almost by definition, take student performance into account?

But if we are going to consider student performance, how much impact can we realistically expect teachers to have on students, given that students are very different?

How much should student performance matter, and does it matter the same amount for these students over here compared to those over there?

To further complicate matters, how many students have to “fail” before we label their teacher a failure? How many have to “succeed” for teachers to be effective?

Because here is something all teachers understand: The results are almost always a mixed bag.

I’ve taught nineteen years now, and I have probably never taught a lesson where every single student hit the learning target (if I have, the target was likely too easy or students already knew the content). I have also never taught a lesson where zero students demonstrated understanding.

Results are never uniform, which suggests that it’s not the teacher who is the ultimate determinant; it is the student. And if that is true, then how can we fairly measure a teacher’s effectiveness by looking at work she does not do?

I do not have an answer, but I suspect it lies somewhere in the middle. I don’t want to be judged solely on how other people perform (especially when those other people are easily distracted by a bee in the classroom or the crooked look a classmate gave them 40 minutes ago during lunch), but I do recognize that in order to claim you’ve taught somebody there must be evidence that they learned. That said, I resent anyone who attempts to evaluate my teaching by looking at a spreadsheet instead of stepping into my classroom. For me, it’s what students learn, but it’s also how teachers teach.


What do you think? If you could design a teacher evaluation system from scratch what would it look like? What would its purpose be? How much should student performance matter? Share your thoughts in the comments.

The Best Teacher Appreciation Gift

It’s teacher appreciation week and all across the country, appreciative parents are looking for ways to express their gratitude (at least, that’s what I tell myself). The best teacher appreciation gift I ever received cost the giver nothing but 10 minutes of her time. If you want to make a teacher’s day this week, do what she did:


1. Sit down with your children and ask them who their favorite teachers are. 

2. Ask them, “What are three things you like about this teacher?” 

3. Write an email to those teachers and tell them what your child told you.

4. Click the little CC button and enter the email addresses of the teacher’s principal and the district’s superintendent. 

5. Share this idea with five other parents.


That’s it. No trip to the store. No Internet searches. No dollars spent. As Bob Newby says:

A complimentary email that is copied to the teacher’s supervisors is the best gift any teacher can receive because

1. Teachers don’t get a lot of appreciation. Part of that is because employees in general don’t receive a lot of appreciation for their work. Part of it is because a teacher’s work is not very visible to anyone except students. Teachers often have no idea whether what they’re doing is appreciated by anyone because no one tells them.

2. Most principals know far less about their teachers than you think. Principals are busy people and few of them spend a lot of time in classrooms. When they do visit, they tend to come in, see a little teaching, and leave. I don’t blame them for this. Their presence is uncomfortable for both the principal and the teacher, especially when the visits are infrequent.

Because they don’t directly observe teachers for long periods of time, most of their judgments are formed from circumstantial evidence. They walk past Mrs. Clark’s room and it’s always quiet, and since Mrs. Clark never sends kids to the office, they assume Mrs. Clark has excellent classroom management. Mr. Hocking’s line on the way to gym is always disjointed and loud, so Mr. Hocking’s management probably needs work, which means his students probably aren’t learning as much as they could be. Test scores look good from Ms. Irving’s class, so they assume she’s an effective instructor. Joyce’s car is always in the parking lot before everyone else’s and she’s the last to leave at night, so she’s assumed to be more dedicated than her colleagues.

And principals hear things, from students, from other teachers, and from parents who call to complain (because more call to complain than to praise). The things they hear color their opinions of their teachers, but they’re only getting part of the story.

All of this results in a portrait of a teacher that may or may not be true. Principals don’t know a lot of what goes on in classrooms on a day-to-day basis, and unless someone tells them, they’re likely missing some important pieces. They don’t know that Timmy hated school last year but likes it a whole lot more this year because of his teacher’s winning personality. They’ll never hear how Mr. Johnson took the time to counsel one of his students about a personal issue and the difference that made. They have no way of knowing that Cassandra likes math now because of the way her teacher teaches it. They’re missing pieces of the puzzle, and unless someone gives them those pieces, they’ll never have the whole picture.

So tell them.

When you write an email to your child’s teacher and you copy the principal on that email, the principal has an opportunity to add more detail to the image she’s created in her mind about your child’s teacher. She has the opportunity to learn things she would otherwise not. When evaluation time comes around, she will be able to consider more factors into her assessment and the evaluation will be fairer. And that’s something all teachers appreciate.