Can You REALLY Describe Good Teaching?

Do you have a great teacher in your school?  Several great teachers?   Teachers whose classes students can’t wait to get into?   I think we all have those teachers.  Teachers who get the strongest endorsement that we can give–the “I want my own child to be in his/her class” endorsement.

But now you get asked “What makes Mrs. Smith a great Math teacher?”.  What do you say?

What really makes a ‘great’ teacher?  And at this point, I want to fully acknowledge that the antecedents of the craft of excellent teaching are multivariate and as a result there are many answers to this question.  But if you were asked by a Principal of another school that question–“What makes Mrs. Smith such a great Math teacher?”–words and phrases such as relationships, engagement, interactions, classroom management, flow-based challenge, feedback and formative assessment bounce around in our brains.  And while these may be things that we observe in Mrs. Smith’s classes, I am wondering if we all make the same two mistakes (which I have on numerous occasions) when we answer this sort of question:

  • We attempt to answer through a poetic waxing and decidedly unquantifiable description that includes many of the aforementioned attributes (and perhaps many others) of that teacher through our own lens of what we believe is important in good teaching.
  • We fail to answer the question from the evidence-based perspective of the skills and attributes demonstrated by learner developed as a result of the tasks the teacher utilizes in their classes.

Perhaps you do classroom walkthroughs as I try to do (and wish I did more often).  When we walk into our classrooms, are we really sure we know what we should be looking for?  Are we confident that we know these predicates of ‘great’ teaching?  Of ‘great’ learning?  And when we walk out of that classroom, what do we do with that information?  Do we tell the teacher “Great lesson!”?  Do we tell our colleagues that we have a crackerjack teacher down in Room 11 and continue the cycle of vague descriptions that prevent any form of replication for other teachers or other schools?

In April of last year, I connected with Jamie Robinson (@_jrobinson), Principal of Glenrosa Middle School in our neighbouring of Kelowna at a Ministry of Education Curriculum workshop.  He was excited to share the work he and his district had done around a book called Instructional Rounds in Education by Harvard researchers Elizabeth City, Richard Elmore, Sarah Fiarman and Lee Teitel.  Jamie has an excellent track record of taking what is written and turning it into action, and as a result, I bought the book immediately.  And after seeing Jamie and members of his district present at the BCSSA Conference last week about Instructional Rounds (IR), I was and continue to be blown away by the concepts laid out in this book and how the Kelowna School District is implementing them to positively impact student learning in their district.

To quote the jacket description on the back cover…

“Inspired by the medical-rounds model used by physicians, the authors of Instructional Rounds in Education have pioneered a new form of professional learning known as Instructional Rounds networks.  Through this process, education leaders and practitioners develop a shared understanding of what high quality instruction looks like and what schools and districts need to support it.”

The Instructional Rounds concept is based in seven principles:

  1. Increases in student learning occur only as a consequence of improvements in the level of content, teacher’s knowledge and skill, and student engagement.
  2. If you change any single element of the instructional core, you have to change the other two.
  3. If you can’t see it in the core, it’s not there.
  4. Tasks predict performance.
  5. The real accountability system is in the tasks that students are asked to do.
  6. We learn to do things by doing the work.
  7. Description before analysis, analysis before prediction, prediction before evaluation.

Through observation, teams comprised of district leaders, school-based administration, teachers and teacher leaders use evidence-based observation to draw correlates of effective practice as they relate to the tasks that the students are doing and the resultant skills being demonstrated.  And what’s more, this is not an EVALUATIVE process, it is a LEARNING process for all of those involved in education from the teacher right on to the Superintendent.

I specifically highlighted two of the Principles of Instructional Rounds in the list above because they truly resonate with me.  From Instructional Rounds:

“In our experience working with teachers, principals. and system level administrators around problems of large-scale improvement, people tend to be much more specific about what they expect by way of student performance than they are about what in classrooms would lead to the performance that they desire.” (p. 32)

How many times have we said that we want our students to be collaborative, to be creative thinkers, to be critical consumers of information and then hand out worksheets, assign problems, or assess using matching and multiple choice questions that require few or any of these skills?

The South Lane School District has adopted Instructional Rounds as a means to improve student and educator learning, and describes the process like this:

There is a lot of work that takes place before the team goes out to observe in classrooms. The team practiced the instructional rounds protocol with videos of classroom lessons. Identifying the “Problem of Practice” is essential to maximize the effectiveness of instructional rounds. The principal, with the help of a district team (superintendent, assistant superintendent and director), identifies their “problem of practice” and clearly describes that problem to the team before instructional rounds begin. The rounds process has teams of 3-4 staff observing in four classrooms for about 20 minutes per observation collecting evidence related to the problem of practice. 

Sample “Problems of Practice”:

  • Are students being asked to do something more than remembering or literal recall?
  • Are students doing more than “sit and get?” What kinds of student engagement, participation, and equity are observed?

At our school, we have created collaborative time for teachers.  We have created intervention strategies for our students.  We have worked to engage our staff, students and community in the development of our dynamic School Improvement Plan.  We have embedded staff development within a staff meeting model that has provided authentic ownership of our meeting time by our teachers.  And yet I am so excited to contact the South Lane School District and continue to work closely with Jamie and the Kelowna School District here in BC on this concept of Instructional Rounds.

A concept such as this that allows us to qualitatively describe and replicate elements of good teaching in all of our classrooms through the optic of the skills that we want students to achieve is intriguing to me:  this looks to be an inclusive and high-yield process that engages learning at every level.

It is my hope that as we work our way along the Instructional Rounds pathway, when asked the question “What makes Mrs. Smith such a great Math teacher?” by a colleague, I will be able to more adequately describe the correlates of good teaching so that they can be spread beyond the walls of a single classroom.



  1. Kim Lifton said:

    We have many good teachers – they are the ones who inspire students to learn. They are the ones students remember. They teach our children how to think for themselves, how to find information that is not obvious, how to be prepared for an unknown future. We focus a lot on those who do not teach well; we like to focus on those who do the job well. All it takes is an ability to inspire a child.

    November 26, 2012
  2. Warwick said:

    Hi, great post!
    I really concur with the need to be descriptive and specific about WHAT good teaching is – we need to be clear about exactly what we want to ‘spread’ across the school and what we want our gun teachers to keep on doing…
    Have recently led the implementation of IR at our school and it has been a positive process for all involved so far:


    November 27, 2012
  3. […] Do you have a great teacher in your school? Several great teachers? Teachers whose classes students can't wait to get into? I think we all have those teachers. Teachers who get the strongest …  […]

    May 3, 2013
  4. Kellie said:

    I think instructional rounds is a great way to ensure that all teachers are practicing effective teaching techniques in a school. It is a way to develop a collaborative effort among teachers to teach effective strategies to all students. We are currently doing instructional rounds at my school and I have found it to be an extremely effective way for me to improve my own teaching. Through observing other teachers in my school I have learned many different techniques that I am implementing in my own classroom to improve student achievement.

    March 27, 2014

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