Susannah O’Bara is area superintendent for the Denton Independent School District in Texas. She has been an elementary school administrator for more than 15 years.

Overcoming the Assessment Practices of our Youth

As a classroom teacher I studied, routinely, how to become a better teacher. I constantly questioned how I could improve instruction so that the students I was teaching could learn at high levels. It was important for me to improve my craft so that I could help my students maximize their potential. When I became a campus administrator I began thinking about my teaching in a different way.

The “students” I served were now adults. The learners in my audience were now able to “vote,” so to speak, with their feet. If they didn’t value, appreciate, and feel safe learning the information being provided, they had the ability to leave. If the staff development provided was not relevant and applicable, my adult audience demonstrated significantly lowered engagement and frequently would find conflicts preventing their attendance. This led me to question what makes adult learners different than children: How do I influence their change in instructional practice? As a campus leader, how do I help teachers learn and adopt new skills and instructional practices?

As a teacher I had relatively “new” learners. Students that were simply in the learning cycle naturally by their age and stage of development. In working with adults, I was dealing with people that carried with them years of baggage related to how they were treated as students. In his book Transforming School Culture, Anthony Muhammad shares the sociological study conducted by Dan Lortie (1975) that reveals teachers have been socialized in the field where they will practice since they were five years old. He calls this “apprenticeship of observation.” Empowered with this information, I began to reflect on what practices would be so deeply ingrained in teachers since childhood? What experiences had teachers had as young learners that were impacting the learning of their students 20, 30, or even 40 years later?

It was during this period of reflection that my two goals merged as one. I was working diligently with teachers to help them transition their frame of mind around assessment practices while trying to improve my instructional practices as their leader and guide. I had an epiphany! It was time to apply best assessment practices with teachers, so that they could personally learn to value and deeply understand the purpose and process. I had years of “un-doing” the early training they had for their entire schooling career, but it was the most powerful way to help adults learn to value best assessment practices.

It was important to start with a task that was of critical importance to teachers: their evaluation tool. In my desire to communicate to teachers the critical importance of helping students understand the clear criteria for which they would be assessed on any given task, we began the conversation about what clear criteria would look like for a classroom learning walk conducted by a campus administrator, colleague, or visiting personnel. This topic was deeply personal and it was evident that teachers were quickly engaged by having ownership in establishing the criteria.

We began the process by viewing brief video clips, 5–7 minutes of teachers conducting a brief introductory lesson on varying topics. After viewing each clip, teams worked together to list each characteristic or quality observed during the lesson introduction on a separate sticky note. Each team collaborated for five minutes to categorize and group the criteria identified. After watching 3–5 clips, teachers had collected enough criteria to begin to synthesize this information into a rubric. Teams were allowed time to draft a rubric that communicated a continuum of clear criteria for a successful lesson introduction. To conclude this task, teams then worked as a large group developing one campus rubric for a quality lesson introduction. By using the assessment strategy of developing and communicating clear success criteria with teachers, they embraced use of the strategy with students. By overcoming the “guess what quality looks like to me” phenomenon utilized routinely during our own childhood educational experiences, teachers understood the value of this assessment practice and developed a sense of ownership and security in defining a quality lesson.

As Rick Stiggins states, “You can enhance or destroy students’ desire to succeed in school more quickly and permanently through your use of assessment than with any other tools you have at your disposal.” Through the practice of using best assessment practices with teachers, mindsets began to change about what best assessment practice really means in the development of our young students. Not only did teachers value their own learning through this process, but I believe their desire to succeed personally and with their students was forever enhanced.

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