Sue is handed a teacher’s manual and told to keep up with the pace. Her evaluation is based upon her implementing the program her school district purchases and she is expected to teach the lessons in the order they were written regardless of whether she thinks the lessons match the students.
Noel—on the other hand—helped write her school’s curriculum, which outlines goals and standards but leaves room for teacher expertise and knowledge of her students. She sits with her students in daily conferences, listening to learn about the readers in her class and uses what she finds to decide what to teach next. Noel is trusted to be a professional with an understanding that she knows best what her students need. She is evaluated on her ability to respond to her students in ways that honor who they are as individuals and accelerate their growth.
The major difference between these two teachers’ experiences is how their role is viewed—Sue as an implementer and Noel as a decision-maker. These differences have a huge impact on student learning because one creates space for responsive and targeted instruction while the other does not.
Teachers must be viewed as instructional decision-makers with the expertise and trust that goes along with it. This is one of our core beliefs that is grounded in decades of research from the likes or Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle (1992; 1993, 2009) and makes up the foundation of our new resource, Teacher’s Toolkit for Independent Reading. When teachers are viewed as decision-makers, the day-to-day and minute-by-minute experiences with students count. These experiences about what students are already doing and just about ready to learn impact next steps for instruction.
Let’s consider the two primary paradigms of teachers as curriculum implementer and teachers as decision-maker and acknowledge the major drawbacks and consequences the implementer role entails.
Teacher as Curriculum Implementer
When teachers are viewed as implementers of curriculum they look to manuals and guides to drive the teaching each day. This means that classroom decisions are made by those who are distant and removed from students. Trust is placed in “experts” who have never met these students. A manual could never know more than a teacher about what specific students are ready to learn next. This often leads to moving on while leaving many, if not all students behind. Student learning is less important than covering lessons in this model.
Teacher as Decision-Maker
When teachers are viewed as decision-makers they look at their students as the guide for what to teach next. The instructional decisions are guided by the events of the classroom and those who learn within it. Trust is placed on students and teachers to know what is best. This leads to responsive, assessment-driven instruction targeted to the specific readers in the class. Student learning is the driving force and the pace and skills taught change day to day based on the readers in the classroom.
Conferring with Readers is Responsive Decision-Making In Action
The power of reading conferences is that they place teachers in the role of decision-maker. Reading conferences are driven by the information the teacher is gaining from the conversations with students. This leads to targeted, impactful instructional choices that honor the unique and individuality of the members of the classroom community. Noel can use what she learned about Juan’s ability to make character inferences to decide what he is ready to learn next. She can also decide when to reteach a concept or extend an idea based on his particular readiness. This is not a special way of teaching that only Noel’s students deserve. Sue too, should be trusted to use her knowledge of her students when preparing for what and how to teach.
Trust is only the first step in moving toward a responsive model of reading instruction. Conferring allows teachers to sit with students every week to participate in conversations that offer formative assessment of what and how students are currently reading. Each conference is an opportunity to really get to know the person and the reader. A few of the many ways that conferences help teachers make instructional decisions include:
- Learning about a student reader’s interests and preferences
- Co-creating goals that students are vested in working toward
- Realizing student strengths and naming what readers are already doing well
- Understanding the nuanced ways readers navigate texts, and the processes they use while reading
- Recognizing the next steps a reader is ready to learn in order to deepen and extend their thinking
It is our hope that every teacher be supported in the role of decision-maker so they can realize the power of making choices about what and how to teach that are based on the unique students in their classrooms. Conferring offers a practical way to make this hope a reality.
About the authors
Gravity Goldberg is an international educational consultant and author of five books on teaching. She holds a B.A. and M.Ed. from Boston College and a doctorate in education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She serves as a coach for Seth Godin's altMBA and is the founding director of Gravity Goldberg, LLC, a team that provides side-by-side coaching for teachers.
Cochran-Smith, M. & Lytle,S.(1993). Inside/outside: Teacher Research and Knowledge. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Cochran-Smith, M. & Lytle,S.(2009) Inquiry as a stance. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Lytle,S. & Cochran-Smith, M. (1992) Teacher Research as a Way of Knowing. Harvard
Educational Review: December 1992, Vol. 62, No. 4, pp. 447-475.