‘You ain’t all that’: Looking closer what value teachers add in high-performing schools

There was this saying that got thrown around when I taught at one of the elite selective enrollment schools in Chicago: “You can throw a book in a room with these students and walk out and close the door behind you and they will still learn.”

Who doesn’t want to work in a school like this? Compliant students who perform at high levels, students whose great grades validate your career choice. It is extremely self- gratifying to teach students who don’t seem to require much. You show up, teach them, they “get it,” and you are by definition a great teacher. While this was a statement about the self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation of the students, it is also an indictment on the value add of teachers in these kinds of environments.

Getting folks to make changes can be hard in these environments. They have a belief in their strategies due to a false sense of achievement. We are in the Information Age. Students have access to the world at their fingertips. When you examine growth data you can see in many schools and districts, that students with high attainment levels often have lower growth levels. How can we get more from all of our students and what levers need pulling to change the way we look at the classroom?

In resource rich-environments with involved parents, students are reading at night, getting tutors, and engaged in intellectual dialogue at home. So I ask my teachers: Do your lesson plans accurately reflect their need? Are your students meeting “standards” because of you or in spite of you? And if you ask them a question on homework or a test than can be easily Googled, then you need a better question. We’ve been teaching this way for decades, so many teachers fall very easily into outdated model.

What happens when the students already know what you planned to teach?

So how do you aggressively change your approach to get more from students in a highly motivated learning environment? Task predicts performance. I repeat this daily to my team. Students will become great at whatever is placed in front of them.

If we create sit-and-get environments, they will excel at waiting for the teacher to give them something. But if we create lessons that are rooted in a larger global context and ask students not only factual questions, but offer them a chance to debate conceptual questions, we have a better chance of activating student inquiry and interest.

I have now worked in two International Baccalaureate schools–where schools wanted to dramatically improve instructing by shifting how lessons are created. This shift is rooted in the teacher practices and requires a new kind of educator–one that is part researcher, part tech specialist, part behavioral scientist, and part citizen of the world.

The researcher looks for multiple sources for students to access the content. The tech specialist understands how to use technology to increase student intellectual engagement. The behavioral scientist understands the emotional development of students and uses this to design experiences and not activities. These experiences allow students to get to know themselves as a learner and how they fit into the larger community.

Lastly, the teacher needs to be internationally minded. If we have any hope of molding freethinking citizens of the world, the adults in front of them have to be in touch with the world around them.

What does it take to get there? Teachers examining their practice with a critical eye, asking questions like: Does this experience reflect the many cultures in the room? Are there many ways for students to access the content? Do the questions have multiple correct answers? Is there a clear reason “why” for the task? Does the activity cross academic disciplines? Is there a clearly measure for success?

Only when educators are in the same room, sharing ideas, pushing and challenging each other’s thinking, and evaluating each other’s work, do we get closer to our goal.

That goal means challenging all students to grow at higher levels through a well designed, inquiry based, student-centered and student-led classroom. Redefining what success looks like. Providing access for each and every student to content and skills. Focusing on growth and improvement, not attainment.

So what do I want our classrooms to look like? A classroom so well designed that students learn even when teachers are not calling all the shots.


Photo courtesy of Impact School

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LeeAndra Khan

LeeAndra Khan

LeeAndra Khan is CEO of Civitas Education Partners, a charter management organization in Chicago. She served two years as a middle school principal in Oak Park, Illinois and formerly spent ten years in three Chicago high schools as a principal, assistant principal and math teacher. Before beginning her journey into education, she spent 10 years as a civil engineer designing roads, highways, gas stations and bridge inspections. LeeAndra is the mom of one son and the daughter of a retired Chicago Police Officer. She recently delivered a TEDx Talk on teacher voice and leadership beyond the classroom, where she tells a story about how a school culture transformed through more teacher influence.

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