The Most Important Element of Good Teaching – May 13, 2016


In a few weeks, I will be wrapping up my sixteenth year of teaching. If I could share just one tip for new teachers, I would say to be clear about what students are expected to learn in your class.

  • Organization of your class, documents, and materials is critical.
  • Classroom management is important.
  • Consistent discipline procedures are essential.
  • Communicating with parents is crucial.

But you can still be a good teacher without some of these IF the students know you care about them. And as long as  you provide meaningful, engaging activities, the misbehavior will usually diminish or disappear completely.

The Most Important Element of Good Teaching

So, assuming that you do care because you entered the field of education, I think the most important element of good teaching is providing clear expectations.

To be effective and powerful, students need to know which standards you are teaching (what they are expected to learn – not all schools have formal standards).

The work requirements must be clear. They must know on which criteria they will be graded. They must understand how they can specifically improve their skills.

In order to do this, teachers should know which skills and concepts they are teaching. They should break down these skills and concepts to clear target elements upon which students will be assessed. I spoke with a Twitter follower who said that his program does not encourage testing – they have a different model of allowing students to try to complete tasks with hands-on experiences. However, to clarify, when I say “assessed,” I don’t necessarily mean “tested.”

Swim School Skills

Learning must be measured, but we don’t always need to measure on a written test.

I like to compare classroom learning to my own children learning to swim at Noonan Family Swim School. The classes are arranged around concrete skills that students must be able to demonstrate before moving on to the next level. For example, one of the kids cannot move to the next level until he can do a back float for ten seconds.

If the teacher said, “you need to improve your swimming before you go to the next level,” then he would have no idea what she meant. Students are observed once per month by a supervisor who checks whether the child can complete each task at that level for the designated period of time. Once he can do all the tasks, he is ready to join the next level to build upon those skills. Good swimming isn’t one thing. It is a complex combination of skills, tasks, strokes, kicks, breathing, form, and other elements. We don’t tell kids to “swim better,” so why do we tell them they need to “write better?”


Why Do I Care About Standards-Based Instruction?

When I worked at the Los Angeles Unified School District, auditors came to our school to collect the assignments we gave and our resulting student work. These individuals looked at the assignments and the students’ performance on them and tried to connect them to the standards for our grade levels. We realized we did a lot of art projects without a clear connection to our subject areas. The kids were having fun, and we liked assigning and grading them, but students were not learning what we were supposed to be teaching. What might happen if you were audited on your teaching of the standards and how well your students were progressing towards proficiency on the standards?

Now, don’t get me wrong…I highly value the use of multimedia across the curriculum. There are artistic, musical, cultural, digital, and many other fun and interesting cross-curricular connections to every subject. You CAN and SHOULD incorporate all these areas of interest into your class, and work with other teachers to create cross-curricular units that weave together many areas of study as well. I am only saying that you MUST connect what you are doing to your standards and be able to explain how the connections improve students’ understanding in your content area.

What is “good writing?”

So, how do we assess writing? (Or most other skills?) Many teachers look at the writing and determine if it is “good” by their own perception of good writing. The students do not know what the teacher’s perception or definition of “good writing” is. The teacher must provide a list of specific skills that describe what the student must demonstrate.

In California, we use Common Core standards (now renamed California State Standards) to guide our teaching. I clearly write out on the board both the standard number and short summary of the skill we are targeting, which unit we are studying and which performance task we are currently working towards completing. I refer to the standard number and concept occasionally throughout the unit to remind students about their focus.

When we complete writing assignments, I (usually!):

  • Provide the rubric in advance and review what the paper needs to include in order to be a proficient paper.
  • Try to provide a graphic organizer or prewriting format suggestion.
  • Obtain a student sample or write my own sample of a completed paper to demonstrate my expectations.
  • Walk the students through the process of writing the different parts of the paper on the overhead and walk around to help them as they are writing.
  • Usually have them use a self-assessment checklist or invite them to exchange papers for peer editing and review before I receive it. This step is to (hopefully) ensure that the paper includes all the elements it needs prior to crossing my desk.

(If you post student work after it is graded, you might be interested to know that when I worked in Los Angeles, after the audit, student work displays were supposed to include the assignment sheet, rubric, and examples of both proficient and non-proficient work.)

Rubric Mania!

When I grade the paper, I assess the standards on the rubric. Each standard states what must be done to obtain proficiency.  I am thankful that I had the opportunity to be on the Units of Study team and was able to learn about clear, objective grading with specific learning targets. I learned this formula in this training. See samples below:

  • Here is an example of the rubric format for the first standard in the first stage of a World Language: World Language Rubric
  • This is not a rubric, but it is an assignment sheet that I developed for the complex design of the eleventh grade ERWC (Expository Reading and Writing Curriculum) unit. Each unit has dozens of tasks all written out in one large packet. I broke it down into specific tasks and removed the ones I was not going to check. Each of these tasks was for credit, so I did not provide a rubric because I do not assess proficiency on these small tasks. ERWC Unit Checklist
  • Students are graded on a rubric to assess their essay at the end – here is that rubric: ERWC Essay Rubric
  • Here is another checklist I think I may have shared earlier. I am currently in the process of designing it, so it is not finished yet, but you can see the standards laid out in a clear chart for each unit and students can assess their understanding of the standard.  Student-friendly Standards Self-Checklist

So, just like good writing, good teaching would by my definition have to have a discrete set of skills, a way to measure them, and clear targets for improvement. I would definitely put the following on a teacher self-evaluation form:

  • I can create a clear progression of tasks and knowledge required for proficiency on the priority or focus standards
  • I can break down the necessary elements for each of the tasks in the standard to create a rubric.
  • I can clearly define proficiency for each element.
  • I know how to show students what skills they need to be proficient in a given task, knowledge, or standard.
  • I can quiet the voices in my head that tell me to focus on elements other than those assessed in the standards. (Fine, circle the misspelling. The student won’t care, but it will ease your own mind.)

Add to the above list: “I can eliminate activities that I’ve always done in the class just because they are fun that do not meet any of my required standards.” (So hard! I clung to that Animal Farm New Country Flag assignment for many years.) So, challenge yourself (if you dare…) with this question: Is everything you do in your class specifically designed to support the content area standards for your grade or skill level?


Have a great weekend!




2 thoughts on “The Most Important Element of Good Teaching – May 13, 2016

Add yours

  1. Agreed. John Hattie found a very high effect size in his meta-analysis when a learner understands their goal and also understands objectives to reach their goal. There is potential for more than two grade levels growth in one year with clear student outcomes and visible feedback between teacher and student and student and teacher.


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