Becoming an Expert Teacher Was My Biggest Mistake!

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By Jennifer Cleary, co-author of Classroom Techniques for Creating Conditions for Rigorous Instruction

Like most teachers, I’m the type of person who takes pride in hard work, and I want that hard work to show. When I take on a new project or learn a new skill, I want to become an expert.

So when I began teaching, I learned from my early blunders and quickly became—you guessed it—an expert.

I became an expert in instruction

After seeing that my students lost control when I wasn’t in charge, I made sure to ALWAYS be in charge. I was in charge of what the students were taught, how they were taught, and how they demonstrated their learning. I had strict guidelines for how to answer questions and how to have occasional conversations with tablemates.

Order your copy of Classroom Techniques for Creating Conditions for Rigorous Instruction by Jennifer Cleary, Terry Morgan, and Robert Marzano.

I was in charge of every minute of instruction, because I had to be. After all, my students were behind, so they needed me to teach them as much as I could in our short time together. If it was in the book, it needed to be covered—no ifs, ands, or buts! Sure, I attended workshops that taught me about releasing ownership to students, but they didn’t know my students and what they needed. I did, and what they needed was me—teaching them NONSTOP!

Next, I became an expert in assessment and data

I had mastered instruction. But if you recall, I thrive on everyone KNOWING I’m expert. I mean, John Hattie even found that “the key to making a difference is making teaching and learning visible!” So what did I do? I became an expert in assessment and producing reports!

I don’t know about you, but in my school, it was very important to show student gains. After teaching as hard as I could, for as long as I could, I halted instruction for an entire lesson, sometimes for an entire day. I read a lot of books and articles about how to help students perform well on assessments, so I handed out mints, and gave students a pep talk about how it was their time to shine. After all, I had taught them all they needed to know for THE TEST.

After several weeks of nonstop instruction, I waited impatiently for the day to end so that I could grade THE TEST. I was often surprised (not in a good way) and found myself saying the same thing over and over again. “I know I covered this. Why didn’t they get it?”

If you are reading this, you’re likely nodding your head knowingly. I think we’ve all said this a time or two. But there wasn’t much time to ponder this question, because the next and more urgent question was, “What are we going to do about it?”

So, I became an expert in intervention

I spent hours poring over my data, and encouraged my teammates to do the same. We spent hours perfectly forming intervention groups based on test scores. Then there was the debate. “I don’t care what the test says; I know my students and what intervention groups they belong in.”

We spent what felt like hours arguing over who would take the dreaded “low group.” Of all the students, these students were in the greatest need of an expert, so of course I volunteered. When it came to intervention time, my students were lined up and ready to switch classrooms right on time. They didn’t dare make a peep in the hallway. The students entering my room for intervention knew exactly where to pick up resources, where to sit, and were always ready to listen. Listen to what? The expert instructor!

Being an expert teacher is exhausting

And you know what else? It didn’t prove that I was a hero and it didn’t result in those amazing increases in achievement. I got so tired and so frustrated that I burned out. As much as I loved teaching, and I loved my students, I no longer loved being an expert, so I decided to leave the classroom.

I found my way to an international education research and development company. To introduce me to their work, they brought me through several classrooms that were using their strategies. I was shocked! I didn’t see a single expert teacher. You know what? Everything these teachers were doing was the opposite of what I knew to be effective teaching. And since I was the expert, I knew expert teaching when I saw it.

What I witnessed in classroom after classroom was disturbing

Instead of listening to the teachers, students were talking… to one another! The teachers were only talking to one group at a time, very briefly, and then moving on.

I don’t mean like centers or work stations, where the teachers were actually instructing at a table in the back of the room. No! I mean, the teachers were floating from group to group, stopping briefly to mark something on a sheet of paper or tap a spot on their iPads, occasionally making a comment to the group. They didn’t even look tired!

In fact, I visited several times, and never saw a single full-length lecture; never saw a single intervention switch. I was sure there wasn’t a single expert teacher in the bunch!

It turned out that I was right

There were no expert teachers as “I the expert” defined them, and that’s exactly how they wanted it. What had happened instead is that the teachers had cultivated EXPERT LEARNERS.

Teachers instructed, but not every hour of every day. Rather than teach from the textbook cover to cover, they identified the important content based on learning targets developed from the standards. This allowed them time to deliver small chunks of information to their students. Once the important information was shared, students took over.

Teachers were provided with the original learning target as well as success criteria. These included student-friendly descriptions of exactly what they needed to do to show mastery of each target, so they were able to communicate expectations with complete clarity to all learners. Groups of students had taken ownership for each member’s learning and demonstration of that learning.

You may be asking yourself the same questions I was

What were teachers doing if they weren’t lecturing? What happened to intervention? Why were the teachers just walking around? They were monitoring.

Those same success criteria that guided the students to understanding their expectations also guided the teachers to know when they needed to adjust instruction or pull a small group. The records they kept during monitoring served as a predictor of how students would perform on THE TEST.

Because they had the preview to student mastery of each standards-based target, there were no surprises when they scored THE TEST.

And the amazing increases in student achievement we all want? They had those too, because they were able to support students DURING INSTRUCTION instead of waiting for an assessment and then providing intervention as an afterthought.

The moral of the story: It’s harder to be an expert teacher than it is to cultivate expert learners!

Jennifer Cleary is co-author of the new book, Classroom Techniques for Creating Conditions for Rigorous Instruction.  ORDER YOUR COPY HERE.