Teaching HardDoes Not Always Equate to Teaching Well

Opinions expressed are those of Guest Blogger

Guest Post by Kwame Sarfo-Mensah, Founder of Identity Talk Consulting, LLC. (www.identitytalk4educators.com

Math Educator & Teacher Development Specialist, @identityshaper


I have been in many situations throughout my teaching career where I spent countless hours planning, what I thought, was the greatest lesson ever!   I then delivered the lesson plan with the expectation that all of my students will be successful. Over the course of the unit, I provided classwork & homework assignments, conducted small group instruction for students in need of additional support, sacrificed my lunch periods to tutor struggling students, and pretty much did everything in my power to reach all of my scholars.  After weeks of teaching my heart out, I gave my students an end-of-unit test with the confidence that all my efforts would translate to passing test scores. To my dismay, the converse of that expectation happened and that left me totally dumbfounded and wondering where it all went wrong.  


For too many of us, we’re quick to place all the blame on our students for their failures and stand on the notion that we did everything we needed to do to fully prepare our students for success.  As I write this piece, I’m not questioning the effort and energy that I exerted into our lessons nor am I questioning my dedication and love for them. The paramount question I had to ask was whether I taught the lesson well enough for my students to demonstrate mastery of the academic standard.   Given my past failures, I surmised that my students had gaps in their understanding because I had gaps in my own understanding of the academic standard. That being said, I had to ask myself the following questions:


Did I unpack the language of the academic standard? It is one thing to identify the academic standard but it’s another thing to decipher its language and develop a complete understanding of what it actually means.  I visited the Common Core Standards website to identify the standard of focus and read it carefully to identify the verbs (i.e. what students need to do), as well as the nouns (i.e. what students need to know) within it.  Some standards require students to perform multiple skills so I needed to make sure to highlight each individual skill.        


Did I identify the prerequisites of the academic standard?  To determine the starting point for my lesson, I had to figure out what prior knowledge students should already have in order to master the standard.  As I’ve taught previous lessons, I realized that I didn’t give some students a fair shot at having success because I never addressed the gaps in their basic skills foundation.  By identifying the prerequisites of the standard, I was able to determine if I needed to reteach previous grade-level concepts before formally introducing the new standard to the students.


Did I closely monitor and assess my students’ progress throughout the unit? Throughout any lesson or unit we teach, we should be actively assessing our students’ understanding of the content.  The assessment of student progress towards academic standards should be daily and ongoing. Regardless of whether the assessment is formative or summative, we should be gathering data and analyzing what type of errors they are making in their thinking.  Are there specific concepts within the unit where students are demonstrating a level of mastery? When students are sharing their thinking verbally or through writing, are we solely focusing on their response or going the extra mile by asking them clarifying questions to investigate the thought process they underwent to arrive at their response?  The bottom line is this…….if we are proactively assessing how our students are progressing throughout the unit, then we should have an accurate gauge of how well they will perform when given a final assessment.


Did I make the tasks challenging enough and accessible to each and every student in my class?  With any new standard, teachers have to thoroughly assess the scope of it and determine the appropriate tasks or assignments that our students need to complete in order to build their knowledge of the standard.  Every student enters the lesson at a specific developmental level so using a uniform instructional method probably won’t yield the best results. Some students may be further along the learning curve than their peers so teachers need to differentiate their instructional approach and create tasks that will meet the diverse academic needs of their students. To assess the difficulty level of the task, I used Bloom’s Taxonomy as a reference point.  If I’m only giving my students “easy” tasks so they can feel good about themselves, I’m doing them a huge disservice.


Teaching is a hard enough job as it is.  With the overemphasis of standardized testing, we sometimes find ourselves in a position where we don’t always have the time allotted to thoroughly assess how well we are teaching.  However, our students cannot excel academically if we don’t develop the habit of asking the aforementioned questions and take the time to evaluate our performance as facilitators. If we are bold enough to point the finger at our students when they fail, then we must be equally bold enough to point it back at ourselves when we fall short.



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