Angela Freese is an author and speaker with expertise in assessment, leadership, system improvement, and strategic planning. Most recently, Angela served as a director of research, assessment, and accountability, as well as a director of learning analytics and systems improvements for school districts in the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Calling the Audible: Be the Playmaker for Instructional Agility

Here we are again. Back-to-school season! For some students, this a highly anticipated time of year. Who are my new teachers? Will I know anyone in my class? When is recess? Where will I sit in the cafeteria? How will I remember my locker combination?

I absolutely love the rejuvenation and anticipation of a new school year. But I’ll admit. My geeky “director of research, assessment, and accountability” self also has a bit of sporty spice side. Fall brings out that sporty spice with the anticipation of another favorite season: football. Yup, pigskin. Love it. Plan my Sundays around it. And because I also have the common ailment known as “everything-always-connects-back-to-education,” I started making some connections with my current conversations at work as I was watching a preseason game this year. This connection hit me with a force as strong as a 300-pound tackle sacking a quarterback.

Teachers are playmakers.

Now, I think most of us already knew this about teachers.

So how can we give teachers permission—with intention and purpose—to be playmakers for our students? We need to make sure they know how and when to call the audible.

“Calling the audible” is a term used in American football. When a team’s offense is ready to run a play, but then decides at the last minute to change it, the quarterback gives a verbal instruction. This is called an “audible,” which changes the play in favor of a new plan. A better plan. The quarterback can see how defense is lining up and quickly determines whether or not the predetermined play will be successful. If not, he will likely “call an audible.”

While the quarterback might be the one who actually calls the audible at the line of scrimmage, the whole offensive line needs to understand what new action is being taken. The receivers need to understand the new routes. The offensive linemen need to understand the blocking patterns. The running back needs to know if he is getting the ball or blocking for someone else. Everyone understands that there was a need for change, and—because they have anticipated the potential for in-the-moment changes—no one panics. In that moment, the quarterback may indeed be the only person who can see the need for change. Yet each player trusts the quarterback, and therefore trusts the change. Each player also knows their role to ensure the new play is successful.

For some kids, the anticipation of stepping up to the educational “line of scrimmage” and heading back to school is completely overwhelming. They wonder: Will people make fun of me because I’m still learning to read? Am I going to be able to register for my electives instead of having to register for that math intervention class? Who will help me if I don’t learn it as fast as the other kids? Is anyone going to ask me how I learn best? Which teacher is going to ensure that I get the things I need to learn my best? Which teacher will be my playmaker?

Implementing Instructional Agility

As we consider the six tenets of assessment, some of the best playmakers in the classroom will be those who learn how to successfully employ instructional agility. These playmakers expect change. They are solid in their teaching and learning intentions. Yet when the kids show up and present differing skills or competencies than anticipated, it is necessary that the well-intended plans change to more efficaciously respond to the observed needs of the learners. “Being instructionally agile means teachers have the capacity to use emerging evidence to make real-time modifications within the context of the expected learning. Whether at the classroom or school level, the true power of assessment comes when emerging results determine what comes next in the learning.” (Erkens, Schimmer, & Vagle, 2016)

Like we would unpack a standard, let’s unpack this definition of instructional agility:

Use emerging evidence

This means, what are you learning from how students are responding to your instruction? What are you noticing about how they engage with the content? How are students able to communicate the degree to which they are learning what you are teaching?

Have you ever been part of a phone conversation where the person on the other end just keeps talking … and talking … and talking, without ever checking to see if you are still on the line? You don’t have a chance to get a word in edgewise, let alone provide affirmation to the person or stop to ask a question. I know that you know the days of stand-and-deliver are long gone. The persistence in gathering evidence of student learning while we are teaching has become an expected part of our instructional delivery model. We need to come up for air at well-timed moments during instruction to gauge how students are connecting with our instructional intentions. Evidence of student learning provides insight as to whether our teaching is having the necessary impact.

To make real-time modifications

This means, in the moment. Sometimes, yes, that means you put down the lesson plans or the textbook and choose a different strategy or pathway. As you observe the behaviors of students when they engage in the learning, what signals are they giving to indicate that your teaching is indeed translating into learning? How might you course correct to adjust your instruction to better satisfy their current needs?

Consider what happens every time you get behind the wheel of your vehicle. You hop in the car and take your normal route to work. Along the way, you encounter an intersection that is impassable due to downed power lines and branches as a result of last night’s thunderstorm. Do you decide to go for it? Take a chance and cross over the power lines and “off-road it” over the downed tree and broken limbs? Of course not. Because your planned route for getting to work is no longer an option, you begin to consider alternatives. Whether through your keen sense of the neighborhood or the trusted navigation app on your cell phone, you chart out a detour that still enables you to get where you are going even though it’s a different pathway to getting there. You allow yourself to make that in-the-moment decision because you have a clear destination … and you intend to make it there.

Within the context of the expected learning

One of the most important conversations I have with teachers is regarding the outcomes for expected learning. Many teachers express feeling an enormous amount of pressure to get every student to end-of-year mastery for expectations they are just introducing in October and November. While this tenacious pursuit of mastery is commendable, we must humbly remind ourselves that not all students learn in the same way, and they certainly don’t learn at the same speed. “Within the context of the expected learning” can certainly be interpreted as ensuring student performance is within the expected levels of mastery given the time of year it is first taught. Relieve the pressure by setting individual and team expectations for when mastery of particular learning targets is expected, so that all students can successfully reach the levels of performance we desire by the end of the course or grade level.

Knowing what to do in response to our learners when they demonstrate difficulty is far easier than understanding how to respond and then acting upon what we know. As you welcome students in your classrooms this fall, how will you gather evidence of student learning in order to recognize when it is the right time to change the plan?

Adult actions directly impact student outcomes. So, go forth and be amazing for kids this year! You know what to do. When you observe the need, call the audible. Be the playmaker your students are counting on!



Erkens, C., Schimmer, T., & Vagle, N. D. (2017). Essential Assessment: Six Tenets for Bringing Hope, Efficacy, and Achievement to the Classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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