How do we know what good teaching looks like?
How could defining educator competencies contribute to a learner-centered school culture?
How can we design competencies that are inclusive and supportive of each educator’s professional growth?
As a teacher, I always wanted to do a good job. However (confession!) I wasn’t always sure what that meant. What does it mean to be a good teacher? Is there one universal standard, or is the definition of good teaching community-specific? My school had a few clues in place. I could look to our Portrait of a Graduate and backwards-design my idea of a good teacher based on our shared vision for our students. Or I could consider the catchy, three-word motto that was invoked at faculty meetings: successful teachers were “happy, healthy, hardworking.”
Catchy as it was, that motto was insufficient, and I was always troubled by what was implied about a teacher’s ideal traits. If I wasn’t as cheerful (or strict, or talkative, or organized, or charismatic, or jazzed about going to conferences) as the teacher down the hall, was I still a good teacher despite those differences in style or approach? More troublingly, if I was a teacher with a chronic illness or disability (and I was, and am!), would I ever be viewed as “healthy,” not to mention hard-working?
Biases within traditional conceptions of good teaching
As I moved from a teaching role into overseeing curriculum and instruction, I became captivated by the challenging task of unpacking these questions: What do we specifically want to see–and cultivate–in teachers? How can we support faculty in reaching meaningful goals for their professional growth and learning? And, perhaps most importantly, how can we make sure that our definition of excellent teaching is inclusive of every teacher and recognizes the unique instructional capabilities that they bring to the classroom?
Too often, in my experience, “good teaching” is broadly assessed on a subjective gut basis (“I know it when I see it!”). One of the many problems with that approach is affinity bias: humans tend to like people who remind us of ourselves or, in this case perhaps, our favorite teachers. Beyond personal cognitive bias, though, the gut-instinct, personality-driven approach is vulnerable to systemic biases in our culture. If, for example, we think teachers ought to be dynamic, energetic, and inspiring for their students, does a soft-spoken teacher who uses an assistive device to move slowly around the classroom fail to get seen that way, despite the high quality of her lessons, teaching materials, and interactions with students? Culturally, and specifically within teaching, there remain deeply entrenched biases toward whiteness, able-bodiedness, and extraversion.
If we don’t carefully interrogate what our catchy slogans say (and don’t say) and unpack what we mean by “good teaching,” our determinations, and therefore our schools, are likely to retain those dangerous biases within our judgments of teachers. Defining educator competencies–when focused on the real dispositions, attitudes, skills, knowledge, and teacher “moves” that research shows have meaningful positive impact on student learning, engagement, and belonging and not on abstract ideals or fuzzy aspirations–is key to identifying and articulating those often tacit values and expectations. Through that process, we can also explicitly counteract implicit bias and systemic discrimination.
How can defining educator competencies help?
Competency-based learning (CBL) is central to reDesign’s philosophy, design work, and partnerships with schools and districts. In our work with our friends at the South Carolina and Idaho state departments of education, Singapore American School, Marin Academy, and Children’s Day School–as well as our own Whole-Child Competency Framework–we’re concerned with what learners need to get really good at in order to prepare for post-secondary learning, careers, and community and civic life. We are committed to keeping learners at the center of our discussions and our designs.
So, why are we now pouring energy into building complementary sets of educator competencies that unpack the specific, observable skills that drive the dynamic complexity of good teaching? Simply put, because:
- Research continuously shows that when teacher competency is high, student engagement and learning are also high.
- New possibilities for models of hybrid and online learning (and unforeseen disruptions like COVID-19) mean that we need to get clear on exactly what the work of teaching entails, and all the different forms it can take, apart from the immediately recognizable trappings of traditional school (desk, desk, pencil, test). We sometimes mistake schooling for learning. When we are forced (or choose) to divorce learning from the immediately recognizable settings and routines of schooling, we have an opportunity to examine what the core elements of teaching and learning actually are–and what we want them to be.
- The values that underpin learner competencies (a growth-oriented, asset-based, inclusive view of individualized growth) apply to adult learning as well. People don’t need to attain a certain age before they deserve to be treated with respect, compassion, and support–but they also don’t outgrow those needs. What’s good for the gosling is good for the goose!
- The teaching profession remains overwhelmingly white, female, middle-class, and abled, despite what we know about the benefits to all students, but to students of color in particular, when they have diverse models of skilled teachers. As a feminist, anti-racist organization, we are committed to disrupting all inequitable paradigms and policies in education and designing inclusive, learner-centered tools for professional growth that intentionally address the limitations of our current standards for teaching.
There is a tension here: Educator competencies by definition spell out a discrete set of skills that “good teaching” entails. And, we are also calling for a broadening of our vision about what good teaching looks like and feels like, and who we think is capable of it. However, this is a productive tension: Well-made educator competencies unpack the essential elements of good teaching without pinning those elements to a particular manifestation. As a result, more teachers’ good work can be recognized as such.
Within that framing, educator competencies aren’t merely a tool for teacher evaluation, but they can help make evaluation more equitable, transparent, and appealing. Instead of an observer determining solely on the basis of a 10-minute classroom visit whether a teacher “fosters a culture of learning and growth in the context of caring relationships” (remember, affinity bias and cultural stereotypes distort perceptions of performance, culture and relationships), a teacher empowered by competencies can assemble a portfolio of artifacts that show how she practices crucial pedagogical skills in her own way, and can be an agentic participant in professional growth.
As we build educator competencies with our partners and as part of our grant-funded social impact work, what do you think are the universal and context-dependent features of good teaching? What do you think our designers should keep top-of-mind in order to ensure that educator competencies benefit learners? How do you see educator competencies functioning as a tool to disrupt systemic inequities in the teaching profession and in our school communities?
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