Lots and lots of things matter a lot in classrooms. Curriculum matters, standards matter, assessments matter, the physical set-up of the school and classroom matter, the school climate and culture matter, the various cultures the students come from matter… But I’m coming more and more to agree with Steve Leinwand that good instruction a) really really matters, and b) is something that teachers can and should have control over.

Perhaps surprisingly, that’s a controversial statement. First of all, there are folks who want to make political statements about teaching and argue that the only way to improve learning in schools is to end poverty or extend the school day or to write harder assessments or to fire more teachers or to pay teachers based on test scores or… And then another kind of controversy is among teachers themselves, as they talk about what their jobs are. Should teachers be writing standards? Writing curriculum? Writing lessons? Writing assessments? And if so, what kind and how many and when?

I’ve been working in two pretty different school districts. Both have high-needs populations and would like to see improvement in their test scores. Both have a lot of initiatives going on, and a lot invested in those initiatives. PLCs, data-driven instruction, computerized formative assessment benchmarks, literacy across the curriculum, students in career-based academies, lesson-planning and curriculum mapping packages, and more.

Each district gives teachers an average of 70 minutes of teacher planning time per day (not counting lunch, because people should get to eat lunch without multi-tasking). There’s an expectation that some of that time will be in structured collaboration, and some of that time will be individual work-time. What the teachers I talk to want to be doing, first and foremost, and don’t ever have time to do, is:

  • The basics (before the school year, perhaps): Looking closely at the existing curriculum (i.e. with the the book open in front of them, reading carefully and talking over the details) and figuring out:
    • What is being taught/emphasized
    • How kids are expected to figure it out based on the experiences
    • Why it works that way
    • How to tell if it’s going well
  • Implementation details: Working with the curriculum they’ve got to figure out:
    • How to engage their kids in the experiences they’re supposed to be learning from
    • What scaffolding their kids will need to get from the initial experience to the expected outcome
    • Anticipate multiple methods students might come up with for making sense of the experience in the curriculum
    • Anticipate and structure activities that incorporate multiple approaches and multiple representations that kids can/will use to make sense of their experience
    • What will be hardest for the kids and what kids might do/say to show they’re struggling
    • How to meet kids’ struggle so it’s productive
    • Planning concise interventions for when struggle gets unproductive
    • Avoiding sloppy language that gets in the way of precise understanding
    • Good questions to engage students, focus them, redirect them, etc.
    • Key vocabulary that will help students organize their thinking and communicate better with others
  • Classroom management and routines: Looking at the curriculum experience and content to decide on & find or invent:
    • Figuring out how to make complex experiences (Barbie Bungee! Centers! Algebra Tiles!) go smoothly
    • The right blend of whole-group, small-group, and individual work for their kids on this experience
    • Classroom routines for engaging kids in the work & the discourse to most efficiently experience and harvest the fruits of the curriculum tasks
  • Looking at student work: Differentiating instruction, adjusting whole-group instruction, attending to the social-emotional needs, etc:
    • Reflecting back on student talk, written work, etc. to figure out if the kids learned from the experiences
    • Making decisions about revisiting topics, moving ahead, doing small-group interventions, asking kids to stay after school, etc. based on kids’ work
    • Noticing individual students and how they’re feeling, engaging, thinking, and learning
    • Noticing the group and group norms, behaviors, etc
    • Planning social/emotional interventions as well as mathematical interventions
    • Making notes about what to do differently next year

And sometimes, because teachers are creative and wise and fun:

  • Identifying gaps in student understanding, numeracy, etc. and figuring out if and whether to address them, and if so, finding additional resources to do that
  • Bringing in an extra activity that they found online, heard about at a conference, dreamed up, etc. because it seems like it would swap in or supplement nicely something in the curriculum
  • Making time for students to pursue projects or topics that they are interested in — sparking mathematical passions

Here’s what the teachers do instead during the structured collaboration time, which eats up most of their “planning” time (leaving about 0 minutes for making copies, grading, using the restroom, jotting notes on what just happened in class that you want to remember for next period, tomorrow, or next year, posting the homework online, responding to parent calls and emails, attending IEP meetings, making handouts/visuals, organizing manipulatives, setting up the classroom for today’s experience, and all the other tasks teachers need to do as individuals):

  • Teachers writing or aligning curriculum maps, scope and sequence, etc. Unless teachers are getting extra money and extra release time and extra professional development and working with experts because they like this sort of thing, it’s the wrong level of granularity. It’s like asking physicians to be medical researchers, too. People who write curriculum are smart enough that teachers shouldn’t have to rewrite it to make it usable (one hopes, and if not, buy a different curriculum) and it’s not that hard to make sure the stuff on the end-of-year test is covered before that test by re-ordering chapters with a sparing hand. Teachers should be focused on implementing curriculum to meet the needs of their specific group of students, which is NOT trivial!
  • Teachers writing tests, called formative assessment tests, but which aren’t used to figure out why kids are struggling and what to do about it. If all the time is spent writing traditional tests and quizzes that won’t be recorded in the gradebook, and not talking about why students are making mistakes and what can be done to help them the next day then writing paper-and-pencil formative quizzes is not so useful.
  • Teachers meeting to learn about new school climate, routines, rules, initiatives, etc. This stuff is important, but good instruction is probably the main contribution to school climate. If classrooms aren’t places where kids are invited to work hard and supported to succeed, then they won’t want to be there, which impacts climate. Of course, like eggs and chickens, it’s hard to get kids to work hard and succeed if their overall experience of school is chaotic, unsafe, etc. I’d caution administrators to make sure that teachers have LOTS of time to plan & reflect on instruction, and be frugal in the amount of time spent engaging teachers in face-to-face meetings about school climate.
  • Teachers going over statistical data about which broad topics students don’t know. Data-driven instruction is only as good as the data. I think most teachers already know what their students don’t know. I think it’s harder for teachers to know what their students do know, and why their students can’t do the things they can’t do. Do students have “buggy algorithms” that they think work? Are they giving up before they begin? Do students know they don’t know but are trying something anyway? An exercise I love to do is ask, “What way of thinking about the math makes this student’s work coherent to them?” I can’t easily do that if all I know is that they chose C instead of B on this problem, and I definitely can’t do that if all I know is that 25% of them missed 80% of the “measurement items”
  • Teachers filling out paperwork, like lesson planning templates. Teachers are often good at following instructions and crossing t’s and dotting i’s because they’re told to. It’s how you survive a job in a bureaucracy! Lesson-planning forms are only useful if they’re part of a focus on good instruction, and every nuance of the form is pointed towards encouraging dialogue about good instruction, and grounded in teachers’ concepts of good instruction. I’d lean towards introducing forms the way I’d introduce any procedure: start with the concept of the good instruction, solicit teachers’ current lesson-planning methods, talk about what works well and what we could improve, and generalize to a form that works for our community and our definition of good instruction.
  • Teachers meeting in cross-discipline groups to discuss student behavior problems or school-wide, non-instructional or supplemental initiatives. Again, fine stuff, if there’s time for it. But right now, there’s not enough great math instruction happening in so many high-needs schools that I’d prioritize instructional planning and reflection over all this stuff. Squeeze in the conversations about tricky kids, how the 4th grade is doing overall, or cool cross-curricular projects after planning and reflecting on good instruction. Otherwise, planning and reflecting on good instruction (which is kinda the whole point of being a teacher) is what gets pushed to the side.
  • Teachers doing work for extra initiatives such as finding readings for the reading across the curriculum initiative. Again, cool stuff, but not as important as good instruction.

(Almost) none of the above is a total waste of time, but none of it is the stuff that research on teacher collaboration actually suggests is useful. Considering how little time teachers get to plan, let alone collaborate, it’s frustrating to me how much of that time is wasted time. It’s also frustrating to me how much time teachers spend writing lessons or searching the web for lessons. I’m certainly very guilty of that — I tend to start with a vague sense of the topic, Google for it, and then try to do what I find on Google. My main focus is on what to do, not how to do it.

What I should be doing is starting with the curriculum, figuring out what kids are supposed to be doing & learning from that doing, and then applying my particular expertise to how to get my kids from A to B. It’s really concrete — should they be reading the questions and writing answers, or is this piece best done orally? Should students work in small groups on the main task and then share out, or should I lead the group through a demo and then have them try on their own? If small groups are right for this task, what will it take to keep them working productively, and how long can I expect each group to stay on task? Will it work if the groups are random? Will I need to make sure Keion doesn’t work with Marvin, or can they get it together today? If a group finishes early what should they do? If a group gets stuck, should I tell them what to do, ask a question, have another group share out, or something else? How many different “kinds of stuck” can I anticipate and how many different responses can I prepare? How long can I wait for a group to catch up before moving on? Will students’ struggles with integers get in the way? Will I let them use calculators? If students use Guess and Check to solve all the problems on this page, what are three things I could say/do to help them look for and find a more efficient approach? The list goes on and on… And I haven’t even scratched the surface of student-work questions like, based on what I asked them in their exit ticket yesterday, who needs more time grappling with yesterday’s concept? How can I help Deshaun get more fluent with division facts so he can make sense of one-step equations? What does this class believe counts as a right answer to an inequality — do they get that it’s a range of numbers that make the inequality true? If not, is there something in my language that could help them access that, or is there some challenge I could engage them in that would bring that point home? How does my curriculum make that idea “pop” and why did they miss it the first time through? Why does Emily consistently evaluate 2x when x = 5 as 25, but can solve 2x = 10?

If teachers don’t have enough time to ask, answer, reflect on, and revise their thoughts about the questions above, then we shouldn’t be filling their time with things other people get paid to do, like writing curriculum, writing fancy-schmancy benchmark tests, looking at data that’s not useful on the individual student level, or discussing which minutes of the day the bathrooms will be open to students.