Sunday / July 21

How School Leaders Can Help Teachers Understand the Impact They Have on Students

“Know thy impact.”

This maxim by Dr. John Hattie has stayed with me since I read his seminal resource Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (Routledge, 2012). It continues to surface as, too often, the teacher-to-student influence is not clear. This lack of clarity has less to do with anyone’s capacity.

More often, lack of clarity is due to the sometimes obscure nature of teaching and learning.

As an example, I remember as an elementary teacher working daily with a student who struggled to comprehend what they were reading.

Their oral fluency was fine. But when I asked them to tell me about what they just read, I would get a blank look. Was this due to focusing too much on the decoding and not enough on the content of what they were reading? If yes, were they challenged by the complexity of the text? Or were they just bored by the topic?

If I had developed a better theory as to why this student struggled, I might have responded differently instead of more of the same: guided reading with contrived texts from a pre-packaged curriculum.

Hattie recognizes this universal challenge for teachers.

“About 70 percent of what happens between students is not seen or known by the teacher. This must surely give us pause for thought about the usefulness of teacher reflection on what they think happened, and the value of professional learning circles that retrospectively confirm what teachers saw.” (p. 124)

In other words, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Even when we do know something, it may not be enough to make better instructional decisions.

“Why contemplate only the 30 percent that was seen? We need to pay much more attention to evidence about the effect that we have on students, and make adjustments to our thinking, teaching, expectations, and actions in light of this evidence. Such evidence, from multiple sources, needs to be the source of our reflection and professional critique.” (p. 124)

So, where would this evidence to inform teachers come from?

This is where school leaders come in.

Leading Like a Coach – The Library Inquiry Project

In my book, Leading Like a C.O.A.C.H.: 5 Strategies for Supporting Teaching and Learning (2022), I share a core belief that leaders can be more than managers and supervisors.

This is not about adding more to our roles. It’s about reducing the silos we create within roles and expanding the notion of what it means to be an instructional leader. This expansion includes our teachers and how they can blossom into leaders and self-directed learners.

School leaders can help teachers blossom into leaders by operating as coaches when visiting classrooms.

When we aren’t there to critique, we can witness teaching and learning with curiosity.

As an example, I partnered with our school librarian, Micki, around an inquiry project she was leading. The question: How do we encourage students to read more widely? We had noticed that some students get stuck in certain genres or commit to a specific author. If the genre loses its novelty, or the student has read all the books by said author, they aren’t sure what to read next.

Our librarian had a (pun intended) “novel” idea: place related texts next to the more popular books.

My role (again, not to supervise but to support) involved co-generating some ways to measure the impact of this project, such as:

  • Examine the check-out rate for these new texts.
  • Document what students say as they visit the library with this new approach.
  • Take pictures of the students interacting with each other within the new library set up.

After the library visits and examining the data, I asked her what she learned.

“Well, I think placing the related books next to the familiar ones certainly helped. But I think that was only part of it. The way the kids were talking and interacting, I heard a lot about the book trailers they watched for these new texts. Those short videos that I shared prior to their visit seemed to spark their interest and give them background knowledge about the author and the books.”

We concluded that the combination of frontloading book giveaways with book trailers and the placement of texts encouraged students to read more widely.

This experience reinforced my belief that leaders are at their best as thought partners with teachers.

I actually did very little in the way of making recommendations or suggestions. Rather, I served as a mirror for Micki’s innovate ideas: reflecting back to her what she was saying through paraphrasing, and posing questions to help her think more deeply about her classroom research. The result was insights into the way her new librarian design affirmed her theory and accentuated current practices.

Without any evaluating or supervising, I helped her become more of a student of her own practice, to “know thy impact” from this experience and for future innovations.

Written by

Matt Renwick is an elementary principal in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Previously he served as an assistant principal, athletic director, coach, and classroom teacher in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. Matt was recognized as a Friend of Literacy by the Wisconsin State Reading Association in 2020 and received the Kohl Leadership Award in 2021. His other work includes 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (2016) and Digital Portfolios in the Classroom: Showcasing and Assessing Student Work (2014). You can find Matt on Twitter @ReadbyExample.

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