Teachers and Their Students Practice, Not Perform

December 4, 2013 — Leave a comment

“A bad dress rehearsal foretells a great performance.”

red curtain

This theatrical superstition is a great comfort to those who botch lines, drop lines, break props, or miss entrance cues before performing in front of an audience. Rehearsals are for practice, to fix what could go wrong so that the performance before a critical audience is perfect.

In contrast, there are no “rehearsals” in the classroom, yet the language of teacher evaluation standards repeatedly uses the word “perform” and “performance”.  There are teacher performance standards, and there are student performance measurements.

Perhaps the most authentic way to describe what happens in any classroom is that each lesson is a dress rehearsal. A teacher can plan the elements of a lesson, ( objective, resources/materials, directions, and assessment), and those scripted elements can look good on paper. A teacher can design a lesson for for a particular audience,  but what can happen in the classroom is a guess. Sometimes, a lesson plan fails; a teacher has a bad dress rehearsalEven if that lesson plan is repeated over the course of a day, there was a first audience of students that was engaged in that dress rehearsal of a lesson.

What teachers do is practice teaching, and practice is another word repeated in teacher evaluation. There are, however,  two meanings of the word practice, each depending on its syntactical use. When the word practice is used as a noun, as in the “practice of teaching”, then the word means:

  • the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method as opposed to theories about such application or use.

When the word practice is used as a verb, it means:

  • to do something again and again in order to become better at it
  • to do (something) regularly or constantly as an ordinary part of your life

The language of teacher evaluation focuses on the word practice as a noun. There is limited use of the word practice as a verb except as an expectation. A teacher is expected to have practiced, or rehearsed, teaching strategies with a group of students. For this reason, teachers try to schedule a “no-fail” lesson plan for a formal observation, perhaps a lesson that has been practiced successfully in previous classes. This small advantage means that an evaluator will see a lesson with all the bells and whistles, a kind of performance.

But what about the “drop-in” evaluation? What kind of teaching practice will an evaluator see in the raw rehearsal environment of the classroom? What happens when a lesson goes horribly wrong, and an evaluator is in the room?

At a session offered by the Council of English Leadership at the National Council of Teachers of English Conference held last month in Boston, Massachusetts, nationally recognized teacher of the year Sarah Brown Wessling openly admitted to lesson failure. Wessling, a English/Language Arts teacher in Johnston, Iowa, was being filmed by The Teaching Channel when the lesson she designed went wrong, a true bad dress rehearsal taking place in real time in front of the cameras.

“I knew they (Teaching Channel) would want this footage,” she admitted laughing to crowded room of teachers, “Oh, I knew they would want this failure!”

The videos that resulted from her failure are some of the most popular on The Teaching Channel website. There are uncut versions plus the final production video (16 mins) that records how she quickly reconfigures the lesson for a different class. The transcript from the video is included on the website. 

Wessling’s voice-over begins:

For a teacher, some days you win, some days you lose.  My third hour tenth-grade English class came completely unhinged, and I had five minutes in which to repurpose it for fourth hour.

She readily admits that even the most veteran teachers experience problems:

No matter how accomplished you are or how effective you are as a teacher, I think these days are going to happen, so when they do, you have to make adjustments.

In her narration, she noted that, “By the time we get to this point, I’ve been in front of the class almost the whole class period, and that was not my intention.”

The video shows her trying to re-engage students in her planned activity. She considers:

Then there was this moment where I realized that I had completely misfired because one of my students did start to read when I asked them to, and she read the first paragraph, and she raised her hand and she said, “I don’t know what any of these words mean.”

Wessling’s final analysis of the lesson’s failure is her admission that:

I opted to try to meet the standards, make sure that the common assessment that I share with the rest of my department meets the criteria of what we had talked about earlier in this year.  In thinking about the adults, I compromised the needs of the kids.

The power of this video is that while this nationally recognized teacher’s bad dress rehearsal informed her practice, it is her training in classrooms that allowed her to redesign the lesson on the fly. Wessling’s second attempt, five minutes after the first class left, is much smoother, as she admits:

We have to be careful with our expectations and realize that we can still teach to these heightened expectations, but it’s going to have to come at a pace that makes sense to the kids who are in front of us.

So how would an evaluator who dropped in on Wessling’s first attempt rate her as a teacher? Would there be a consideration of this first lesson as a “dress rehearsal”?More important, what is the possibility that an evaluator could have stayed to watch the redesign of the lesson to see how her repeated and authentic training in the classroom, her practice, helped her with her teaching practice, her application of teaching methods? Wessling’s first attempt would not meet the criteria in the higher ratings (proficient, exemplary) of many teacher evaluation programs, but her training allowed her to address the needs of the students in subsequent efforts.

The video captures Wessling and her students a rehearsal of learning, which is what happens in every classroom everyday, to nationally ranked teachers, to veterans, and  to novices. Teachers and their students are always rehearsing. Evaluators must consider that the language of teacher evaluation should not be misconstrued. 

There is no performance in the classroom, and even a bad dress rehearsal can still be a great lesson.

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