The Two Measures of Teacher Success

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January 16, 2018

Several years ago, one of my respected teaching colleagues came to me with a very simple question:
“What makes a great teacher and how will I know when I get there?”
Ask students and they will give you one answer. Ask administrators and you might get a totally different answer. To arrive at a more holistic answer, let’s step back and think about this question from the perspective of the community we serve. Most parents and community members will agree that the goal of education is to produce informed citizens with the knowledge and skills to be happy, productive, and successful in life. In order to reach for this outcome, we need to set our sights on two specific goals.

(1) Student learning

One of the primary intentions of education is that of learning. The specifics of what this means depend on a lot of variables, including subject area and grade level. But ultimately we want students to learn something from their experience in our classrooms. They should be learning content, but more importantly developing thinking and reasoning skills within that content. We can’t limit ourselves to thinking that the standardized test is the only measurement for student learning.
How to measure: formative and summative assessments, student writing, student speeches, student projects, student discussion, one-on-one conferencing with teacher

(2) Lasting impact

For most of us, this is exactly the reason that we got into teaching. We had a teacher in our educational experience that had a lasting impact on us as people, and we want to have that same positive influence on others. We want to inspire our students to reach for success and empower them with skills and strategies to get there. We want students to leave our classrooms with life lessons that will help them to make good future decisions. We want students to remember that single moment that we introduced them to an idea that continues to guide them throughout the rest of their lives.
How to measure: student long-term success, student letters/emails of appreciation, visits from former students, students seek you out at graduation

(1) Learning without (2) lasting impact

This teacher does well to deliver content to students enough for short-term success. They cram in all the content from the course just in time for students to be successful on the assessment, only for them to forget the material the next week. At the surface level, these teachers look successful, but don’t we care about student success beyond our own classroom?

(2) Lasting impact without (1) learning

This teacher is often very inspirational and provides a positive role model for students to admire. The teacher cares deeply about students and works hard to develop relationships that will motivate students to long-term success. But this teacher has missed one of our primary intentions: for students to learn content and the thinking and reasoning around that content.
Are you reaching for goal (1) or goal (2) or both? What can you do to get better at achieving each of these goals? Staying focused on these two goals can help us to guide our own work as well as the work we ask of our students. Ultimately, this framing will help us to lead our students to long-term flourishing.

Luke Wilcox is Michigan’s Teacher of the Year for 2017-18, and Meemic is proud to partner with the Michigan Department of Education for the program. He’s the mathematics department chairperson at East Kentwood High School in Kentwood Public Schools, where he’s spent his entire 16-year career.
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