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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Teaching and Learning

I have a friend who is a special ed teacher in one of the lowest performing districts in the state of Missouri. All of the students in her elementary building qualify for free and reduced lunch. They are also the highest performing students in the district in large part because of the principal at her school. Two of the qualities that make this principal so effective might not translate to other environments. She is, for one, a micro-manager, but in a district that is more often in her way than supportive, and at a school where hiring is extraordinarily difficult, her engagement with details is an asset. She also has an unsustainable work ethic, straight out of the "work's over when the work's over" playbook, on average at least 70 hours a week. The quality she possesses that does translate across all school environments, however, is her intense focus on teaching and learning. The two questions that dominate the yearlong converation she has with faculty are: What does good teaching look like? How do you measure its impact on student learning and develop a virtuous feedback cycle?

In consulting, I work with schools on the opposite end of the resource continuum, but I think about my friend's school a lot and what we can learn from it. Most importantly, I think parents and guardians, regardless of their resources, have the same elemental questions: How do I know that the adults at school will know my child and have the skills to help him learn? and, How will I know that my child is learning? Teaching and learning. A more arcane message might have brought them to your admission office, particularly if you are in a saturated market, but once there, what they really want to see is teaching and learning.

Because of their resources and prestige, independent schools have the potential to get themselves twisted into knots earnestly trying to market educational philosophies and curricula, or niche programs they've developed to distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace, and mistake them for being more important than these two essential elements. Your Reggio approach, your project based learning strategies, your IB curriculum, your IDEA lab are only as good as the teaching that brings it to life and the measurable student learning it generates. These assets might get prospective families in the door, but once there, you've got to show them outstanding teaching and the results it produces.

I say these things at risk of oversimplifying, or leaving out schools with very specific missions, but I beg you to consider some nuances. You don't have to make standardized tests your measure of learning, but you've got to give kids and parents something more than vibes. And, you've got to demonstrate to families your convictions about good teaching and then ensure that you're supporting and evaluating classroom teachers to bring it about, whether you're an arts academy, an expedition school, a school for kids with learning disabilities, or a school with a traditional approach.

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