The Best Teaching Tool I've Found

I got into teaching English with visions of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society running through my head. I would lead students on motivational learning trips through the school, stand on desks and recite love poems, and throw textbooks out the windows. I would wear corduroy jackets with leather patches on the elbows and smoke a long pipe, exhaling tight smoke rings while we discussed Chaucer and Baldwin.

I was inspired by Frank Mccourt in Teacher Man, so I imagined I would go to a pub every night and spin magical and exquisite tales about public high schools. People would listen and they would buy me beers because I would be so engaging. Then, we would all laugh together, toast our drinks recklessly, and sing songs about freedom as we walked out the door. My teeth would be decaying from all the smoking, but you would not be able to tell because they would be hidden behind a thick and slowly greying intelectual beard. That’s what Frank McCourt said teaching was, and I had no reason to question his memoir.  

I thought I would make teaching look cool; like a tortured, starving artist except with social skills.

I never did any of those things. In fact, I get leery of staying out past 8:00 on a school night, let alone telling loud stories at a bar until closing. I would regret that lack of sleep for the next three weeks. After teaching all day, other people’s voices kind of annoy me. And schools are way too hot to wear thick jackets all day, so I end up looking more like nerdy intern than a seasoned academic. My beard grows really slowly, leaving me looking more like Harry Potter than Jeff Bridges. And I’m not even talking the older Harry Potter, he had a dark cool about him. I’m thinking Harry in the first and second book.

My favorite teaching tool isn’t a pipe. In fact, tobacco kind of irritates my stomach.

The thing that has helped my teaching the most is a spreadsheet.  

I know. I had you at tweed jackets. But the thought of another teacher blog post talking about numbers and spreadsheets feels impersonal and disconnected. I’ll survive if you suck your teeth and hit the back arrow right now.

There are certainly times that I wish that teaching and learning was based on gut feelings and hunches, but I just haven’t found that to be the case at all. It would make for more stories that I could tell at a pub at night. There are certainly stories, but just like every other field and every other problem worth solving, growth, improvement, and in turn, the best stories always starts with evidence.   

That is what my spreadsheet is. It is a list of each of my students populated with all the evidence I can find on each person that fills my classroom each day. I happen to work in a really great department that is starting to put this into practice for every student in our school. We start with all the stuff you can find on paper: state test scores dating back to the third grade, diagnostic tests in our class and other classes, attendance indicators, and GPAs. We add writing scores from our own class with notes on writing strengths and weaknesses.  

We get a wide array of information from this alone. I learn about some students who were excellent readers in 5th grade before they gave up on school. I use that information to try to convince them that we can pretty easily get back to that level. In many cases, they tell me why they gave up at school at a certain point. They talk about teachers and classes that were difficult or hurtful. Sometimes they talk about things that were happening at home and in their lives that may have changed their performance in school. The opposite is true as well, they talk about really great teachers and classrooms that pushed them to their best. They talk about why their grades fell in a certain year, or why they started to disconnect from school.

When you talk about these numbers with students, you are telling the student that you care enough about them to look at all this. They are often shocked that teachers believe in them enough to look for their absolute best. I use this information to tell them why I believe in them. It’s not because of my reckless optimism, although I have a little bit of that, it is because I found real evidence to believe that a student is capable of achieving. Telling a student you believe in them is great by itself, but I have learned that showing a student why you believe in them carries more weight.

The process would be helpful if it stopped there, but it doesn’t. On the right of our spreadsheet we add columns and columns of notes and interventions. We write them all in student friendly language, and share our notes and observations with each student and our team. We notice strengths and use and qualitative evidence that we have. We ask other teachers to help us fill in our gaps. Why is this student sleeping all the time? Why isn’t she coming to school? He seems angry, what is going on? We discuss how we can help students improve and what interventions may work in individual situations. It’s probably the kind of simple application that should be happening in every department to make all of us better. In short, we take notes, we use them, and we share them with everybody. It’s the kind of open air data that pushes student learning.

Unfortunately, in classrooms everywhere, too many teachers rely more on our gut feelings or hunches than real information. We forget about evidence.   

This would be a fireable offense in most fields, and it probably should be in education. We would never forgive a doctor who didn’t look at any evidence before trying to help a patient. Doctors look at charts, they use research to make sure their actions are grounded in past practice, and they ask questions to gather any personal or qualitative information. They don’t give medicine that will cause an allergic reaction, or try the same intervention that has failed in the past. That would be malpractice. They would be sued. It’s probably time we see some teachers and schools sued for seeing the same problems, trying the same solutions, and continually seeing the same results. I’m not suggesting that we should all be perfect or that we get positive results every time. Doctors certainly aren’t perfect. I am, however, expecting that educators have a reason and some evidence for what we are doing. It just makes good sense.

Spreadsheets, and the relational use of data and information therein, have been the best way I have found to avoid educational malpractice. It starts in the small conversations that we can have with each student in our classroom, and builds to more accurate and evidence-based instruction.

It’s not easy, and it certainly doesn’t fit in a memoir quite like corduroy jackets and reciting poetry while standing on desks, but it might just be a lot better for our students.