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.

 

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