Personalization and the excellent
It’s important to put the emphasis where it belongs. More than a little harm has been done by the notion that there is one way to be an excellent teacher, and that somehow if you can only find those elusive “excellent” qualities and gather them up in an individual, you will have an excellent teacher. We can certainly define competence – but excellence? Not so easy. One of the main reasons why the description eludes us is that the answer means looking at the student rather than the teacher. Excellent teachers want to be judged by their impact on their students.
Two years ago a number of our staff went to the Harvard Graduate School of Education for a week-long workshop in “instructional rounds”. This past December another group of staff, including all our Directors of Junior, Middle and Senior school, went for the same workshop. Instructional rounds are based on the model of doctors who do rounds in hospitals, observe their patients, make notes and consult with colleagues on how their patients are improving. Likewise in instructional rounds, teachers learn to observe – not so much teacher success, though, as student success. As a process of observation and professional reflection, this is a powerful change in perspective. It shifts our attention from the habits of teachers, to the learning of students.
The practice of instructional rounds is not an “evaluation” instrument. Evaluation tools, at best, can assess competence (not excellence) on the particular occasion of a classroom visit. Credentials and degrees attest to mastery of a body of knowledge, but in fact research indicates that advanced credentials are not tied to superior teaching. What is important increasingly, now that students have dependable (and of course, undependable) sources of knowledge, is professional reflection, consultation and conversation about how students learn in the classroom.
This is the nutshell version. It has significant consequences for the practicing teacher. It means that skillful and reflective teachers will always examine what they are doing by referring to their students. They may well, and definitely should, go to handbooks and guides – some of which will profess to offer the route to excellence – but modelling the behaviour described therein won’t make them excellent. Students learn in different ways, have different strengths, and even on different days have different moods and dispositions. What worked yesterday, or even all of last year, might work again, but it might not. Excellence is a path, it is not a one-time thing, nor is it a plateau or lofty peak one attains. It is continuous work. The excellent teacher knows this.
I have never encountered a group of staff more committed to reflecting, implementing and aspiring to pedagogical excellence than I find in our School. One doesn’t have to participate necessarily in instructional rounds to become an excellent teacher. A teacher can reflect, consult, examine and improve by a variety of other means; instructional rounds just provide a model to make sure it gets done. Every day we ask students to move beyond where they were yesterday. In the personalized school, the goal of the teacher will be to make their students excellent, and take their satisfaction from the reflected glow.