Teaching Success: Traits of a great teacher

Area educators discuss how to recognize A+ teachers and measure their success

CREATING CONNECTIONS: Susan Medler has taught elementary classes at Morley Stanwood Community Schools for 21 years. She said one key trait in great teachers is their ability to connect with students. (Pioneer photo/Lauren Fitch)

This is the first installment in a five-part series discussing the different aspects of successful teaching and how to identify and reward great teachers. Join the discussion online on the Big Rapids Pioneer Facebook page or tweet along by following @pioneeernews and @lfitch319 and using the #teachingsuccess hashtag.

Twenty-one-year teaching veteran Susan Medler tries to teach all her students that fair is not the same for everyone.

“What one kid needs is not what another kid needs,” said Medler, a third-grade teacher at Morley Stanwood Elementary School. “I might need to offer tangible rewards to get one child to do something — whether it’s related to behavior or academics. I need the students to know right up front that fair is not the same. … We’re not all the same, so I have to figure out what works for each kid.”

Medler recognizes the unique needs of her students. But with the Michigan legislature’s recent push toward a statewide teacher evaluation system that will be used to make decisions about teachers’ employment, educators are beginning to ask: Is fair the same for all teachers?

Established by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011, the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness released its verdict on the evaluation process in July, leaving it to lawmakers to decide which evaluation system to adopt statewide. The council recommended any of the four teacher evaluations models piloted during the 2012-13 school year by 13 K-12 districts across the state.

Teacher evaluations should be based on two basic criteria: teaching practice and student growth, according to the MCEE report. By the 2015-16 school year, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on whether their students show “sufficient growth,” which will be measured by state assessments, local assessments and student learning objectives set by the teacher. Principals will rate teachers’ practice through a series of observations, looking for criteria listed on the evaluation tool.

However, there are factors outside the classroom that impact student learning, Medler explained, and a teacher can’t compensate for all of them.

“If kids come in and have a lot of baggage going on that day, it’s pretty hard to get that out of your head,” Medler said. “When I have kids come in who have had a pet die the night before, they are just barely getting by. That one’s easy (to address) because their mom or dad will call. But there are plenty of things going on in their home lives that I am not aware of, and it’s still there in the back of their mind.”

As long as teachers can provide evidence of the efforts they’ve made to help a student learn and the different instructional techniques they’ve tried, Medler said the evaluation system should reward their work.

“It’s one thing for me to teach, it’s a whole other thing for the kids to learn,” she said. “I can’t guarantee that I can get everybody at grade level. But if you’ve got a kid who’s not showing growth, you should at least have a record that shows ‘I’ve done this and this and this,’ so when I walk into (the principal’s office) at the end of the year, and he says, ‘this student has made very little growth in your room,’ I can say, ‘this is what I’ve done.'”

STUDENT LEARNING: Weidman Elementary School students work on a project. A teacher’s main purpose is to help students learn. Student growth is carrying increasing weight in Michigan teacher evaluations. (Pioneer file photos)

The MCEE proposed using state-given Value-Added Modeling scores that will measure the value a teacher adds to a group of students while controlling for external factors. Based on statistical models, the VAM score will take into account factors a teacher has little or no control over, like incoming achievement level, socioeconomic status, race, gender, special education status and English language learner status.

“Identifying whether educators are above or below the state average is the threshold that would likely be used (for VAM scores), though there is still room for modification,” said Joseph Martineau, deputy superintendent for accountability services at the Michigan Department of Education and a non-voting member of the MCEE, in a live chat hosted by the Detroit Free Press on Aug. 26. MCEE Chair Deborah Ball, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan, also participated in the live chat and responded to questions from the Pioneer.

In theory, the value-added score would be a fair way to measure teachers’ effectiveness, said Tim Haist, superintendent of Big Rapids Public Schools. He remains skeptical that a score can accurately factor in the impact of so many outside influences.

“We have to find a fair measurement of our teachers and what they’re doing. Obviously, you need to see student growth and student improvement. Then you know teachers are making the connections in the classroom,” said Haist, who taught at Chesaning Union Schools 10 years ago before coming to BRPS as an assistant principal. “The outside factors like socioeconomic status and disabilities and different factors that come into play — if we could hold for that, then you are able to see the true growth. But it’s finding a tool that’s able to do that and do it fairly for our teachers.”

BRPS was part of the MCEE pilot program, adopting the Marzano Teacher Evaluation Model last school year. Haist said the scrutiny surrounding teacher evaluations and changes to the system can distract teachers from teaching to their full potential.

Evaluating educator effectiveness
In 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder charged the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness with the task of developing a fair, transparent and feasible evaluation system for teachers and school administrators. During the 2012-13 school year, 13 K-12 districts across the state piloted four different teacher evaluation models to provide data for the MCEE. The council made its recommendation in July, suggested legislators could pick any of the four models to implement as a statewide system.
The four teacher evaluation models and 13 districts involved in the MCEE pilot are listed below:

  • Marzano Teacher Evaluation Model — Big Rapids Public Schools, Farmington Public Schools and North Branch Area Schools.
  • Five Dimensions of Teaching and Learning model — Clare Public Schools, Leslie Public Schools, Marshall Public Schools and Mt. Morris Consolidated Schools.
  • Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching — Garden City Public Schools, Montrose Community Schools and Port Huron Area School District.
  • The Thoughtful Classroom model — Cassopolis Public Schools, Gibraltar School District and Harper Creek Community Schools.

Learn more about the MCEE and its final recommendation at mcede.org.

Getting back to basics, Haist’s educational philosophy centers on the mantra: “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

BRMS students dissect a pig lung in class. Great teachers know different students learn differently.

“When it’s not very clear as to what the ultimate final evaluation is going to look like, there is some uncertainty and some distraction for the teachers and the administrators,” he said. “We’re trying to learn the system, versus just teaching our students. We all understand it’s important to be held accountable, and it’s important to make steps in that direction. It will be nice when there’s a system in place that is clear, that we understand, that everybody is working toward.”

Currently, teachers are rated as “highly effective,” “effective,” “minimally effective” or “ineffective.” MCEE suggested teachers instead be classified as “professional,” “provisional” or “ineffective.” Ball said the three-tier system will reduce the margin of error in administrators’ evaluations.

“Moreover, the ‘highly effective’ category suggests that some educators do not need to continue to improve — that they are done learning and have attained the height of their profession,” she added. “This doesn’t align well with the MCEE’s core commitment to an improvement-focused system.”

Most of the districts in the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District use teacher evaluation tools that look at the following basic components of teaching: planning/preparation, classroom environment, instructional approach, professional responsibility and student growth.

Regardless of school district or subject area, educators agree there is one main component to being a great teacher — the ability to connect with students.

That aspect of teaching also is the most difficult to quantify and measure, which presents a challenge in light of Michigan’s increased reliance on teacher evaluations to hold teachers accountable.

“It’s not so much the academics that’s the rewarding part for me, because most of the kids who come through learn what they’re supposed to,” Medler said. “It’s those personal connections — I love that part.”

A school’s environment can help students feel welcome, secure and safe, Haist said, which can promote learning and counteract a lack of stability in other areas of their lives. Teachers should be aware of what’s going on in their students’ lives outside the classroom, he added.

The process of learning basically comes down to curriculum, instruction and assessment, Haist said, and instruction is the one area where individual schools can exert the most control.

“Curriculum is basically being given to us by what the state expectations are. The assessments are being given to us,” Haist said. “The part we truly can impact is instruction. We can be deliberate with our instruction to make sure we’re reaching kids at their level and trying to make sure we give each kid an opportunity to learn and be successful.”

Haist and Medler both referenced using a class pre- and post-test as a way to collect data on student growth and, therefore, a teacher’s performance. Portfolios of student work and MEAP or MME results also offer evidence of progress.

Through being involved in the MCEE pilot, Haist said BRPS administrators realized they need more training on how to set realistic goals for student growth from year to year. He noted issues could arise from teachers not wanting to work with certain populations of students because it will be harder to demonstrate their growth. For example, students in Advanced Placement classes may not improve as much in the course of a school year as average-performing students, Haist said.

In recognizing the complications of fairly and accurately evaluating teachers while holding them to high standards, Haist reiterated that good teaching is tied to caring about students.

“A kid isn’t going to learn in your class unless you can build a connection first,” Haist said. “It’s about caring and building relationships with kids, relationships that go outside of the classroom.”

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