What Makes a Teacher a High Performer?

We have all had teachers in our lives, good or bad, some we listened to, some we followed, some we hated and some we loved. It’s the one universal experience we all share. That is why the new K12 redesign plan cannot work unless we address where teachers fit into that plan.

When I was a student in the K12 system, it was in the 20th Century. It’s important to make that known, as kids today are going through the system in the 21st Century. When I think back on my high school experience all I can remember is I hated every minute of it. I hated the school, the teachers, the culture, just everything, except one class and one teacher.

That teacher was Mr. Swenson, who was my AP History teacher. Why do I remember Mr. Swenson after all these years? And does my remembering him mean he was a great teacher?

This is the dilemma school districts and administrators face everyday. Students remember teachers for various reasons, but is remembering them and thinking of them fondly the mark of a great professional teacher?

If you want to know the answer to this question, keep reading.

The Plight of the Teacher

Photo by Anthony Shkraba from Pexels

In Part One of this series, I outlined the overall plan for a K12 redesign plan. As you know, we already have the three key components we need to make this new plan work: the teachers, the administrators and the curriculum.

The real hurdle is how we bring these three competing interests together to form a more powerful K12 model?

What you will learn in Part Two of this series is how the success of the new K12 plan depends on the success of teachers. If they fail, the model fails, it’s that simple. In fact, teachers are the centerpiece of the new plan.

But there are some big hurdles to overcome, one of those is exposing the secrets of the current school system.

My goal is not to make you angry. I hope you can take what I show you and turn that into support and action for my new K12 redesign plan. If you have ever sat in your chair and thought to yourself, “I have no say in the school system, what could I do?”

Then get ready to feel empowered to change the system.

The fact is there is a lot you can do without putting in a ton of effort. Isn’t that the dream, to make a lot of change and impact without any heavy lifting? But over the last year I have done all the hard work for you. I have done the research, I have compiled my notes and data so that all you need to do is act.

Remember, I am an insider. I have 20 years in the K12 system. I know where the trap doors are located, so I can avoid them. I know who the bad actors are, so I can go over their heads. And I know who is asking for support, so I can give them a helping hand. If you show support for this new K12 plan, then together we can turn this whole educational system into a humming well-oiled engine.

Believe me, I know you want a better educational system. I know you want your kids to receive the best education possible. I also know that our democracy depends on better schools. But we will never have better schools if we keep our current K12 model, I hope you will realize that as you continue to read this article.

Ten years ago, I set out to formalize High Performance Teaching. The reason was simple. If I could show novice teachers the roadmap to success, then I could convince more experienced teachers and administrators, as well as parents and the public that I had found a formula that could boost student achievement.

Little did I realize a decade ago, the hard part would not be in developing a novice teacher development program, but convincing experienced teachers, administrators, parents and the public, this program benefits all of them.

That realization happened after March 2020, when all schools shut down. The shutdown pulled the curtain back on how bad things were in our schools. It was the Wizard of Oz moment, when the man behind the curtain is caught lying to the Land of Oz. Your local school is part of a grand show. You’ve heard of “Show Business”, well this is “School Business.”

Nothing that happens in school is for the benefit of your kids. And what’s worse is we have trapped teachers in the middle of this bizzaro world of school.

Let me know if you agree with this statement.

We want our kids to go to school to learn everything they will need, so they can be fully prepared for the future ahead.

We all want kids to be successful. And we know success really means being able to make enough money so they won’t struggle financially the way our generation is struggling. We know a strong educational foundation leads to better things in the future.

If you can agree with these statements, then you will be shocked to learn our current K12 school system is not designed to achieve those goals. I can only make that conclusion because I have 20 years of experience inside our K12 system, I have spent over 250,000 hours in our K12 classrooms and I have done over 10,000 classroom observations. The fact is if I don’t know what I’m talking about, then who does?

But let’s look at the data and facts. Every year, approximately 100,000 novice teachers graduate from collegiate education programs. These are young, excited, passionate individuals whose dream is to become a teacher. All they want is to help kids. They all believe teaching is the key that unlocks their future. To them, the future has less poverty, less inequality and more success for the next generation. Let’s be honest, novice teachers believe in your kids and the system.

They have no reason not to.

But what our K12 system does to them is not fair or just. After they graduate, they must pass a government sanctioned teacher certification exam so they can get their teaching license. That license says they are qualified to teach. With license in hand, they go off and interview with Principals and the best day of their life happens when they are told, “Congratulations! We want you to teach in our school.”

Can you imagine a more glorious day? You have worked hard your whole life and now you have become a teacher, it’s a dream come true.

But that dream is about to turn dark and ugly very quickly. From the minute a teacher gets hired until the first day of school, the novice teacher is given no professional coaching whatsoever. No one sits down with them to explain the issues they will face on Day One, no one outlines for them the practice areas of teaching they will need to learn. The novice teacher is blissfully unaware that getting hired to be a teacher is not the same as being a teacher.

What the novice teacher does not know is they are about to get hit in the face with the biggest dose of reality they’ve ever encountered. The lesson plans they write don’t seem to align to the learning objectives. The way students learn in class seems to be at odds with the theories they learned in college.

Novice teachers are beginning to realize it’s a lot harder to get kids to pay attention everyday. All of a sudden, everything they were taught in their collegiate program seems useless. So panic sets in, then a feeling of drowning, followed by anxiety and a sense of being completely overwhelmed.

What actually happened?

If you think this is the teacher’s fault, you’re just guessing.

If you think the Principal’s might be to blame, then you would be accusing the Principal of purposely holding back support, which is not what happened.

So what really happened to the novice teacher?

The answer is there is a huge gap between graduating from a collegiate education program and being a professional teacher. The gap doesn’t exist because collegiate programs don’t do a good job, on the contrary, novice teachers are qualified to teach. The issue is that teaching is a real profession, like the law or the field of medicine.

And just like a first year law associate or medical intern, there’s still more they need to learn.

A Bridge Too Far

If we know there is a gap between graduating from college and being a teacher and we recognize the first year is a transition year for all novice teachers, it begs the question, “why don’t we fix the system?”

It’s a smart question and you make a good point. If we know the problem, why aren’t we actively fixing it? But the reason will surprise you.

In order to understand the reason, I need you to look at the K12 system from a different perspective.

In the world of education, we don’t make decisions unless they are data-driven or researched based. So it would shock people to realize that the decisions the K12 system has made are based on backwards data and misinterpreting the research. That’s the real answer. Our K12 system will not change because some highly educated and intellectual people made a huge mistake and they are unable to see what they missed.

More importantly, no one around them wants to embarrass them by pointing out how massive an error they made.

Maybe that’s the huge advantage I have over everyone else. I am a no-name educator, from no-where, who no one cares what I have to say. I have nothing to lose by pointing out the error.

So here’s what happened. Our government tracks the number of teachers who survive their first three years of teaching. According to the US Department of Education, 1 in 5 teachers quit the profession before the end of their third full year of teaching. (Source: NCES).

Additionally, it is common knowledge among teacher circles that it takes a teacher a full five years to even consider themselves a full professional teacher. This common sense is supported by the Teachers Union, educational experts and the leading researchers. All of the data shows teachers don’t begin to show true signs of expertise until after their fifth year of teaching.

Here’s where they made the huge error.

The reason it takes a teacher five full years to develop into an expert is because the K12 system provides zero teacher development support.

The reason experts don’t question the data is because they don’t know my novice teacher development program exists. Every expert is under the assumption that it’s impossible for teacher’s to develop faster than five years. The problem is my teacher development program proved the data wrong.

When you have no alternative data to compare to, as an expert, you have to believe the data you are using must be accurate. But over the last 10 years, I have been proving that data is inaccurate over and over again.

The fact is my teacher development program, now called the High Performance Teacher (#HPT) program reduces the development time of teachers from five years down to two. That’s right, teachers that have gone through my High Performance Program are more capable than teachers who have five full years on the job.

This revelation shouldn’t be big news. Think about it, why should it take five years to become a professional teacher?

Photo Courtesy: Boston Herald

If Tom Brady didn’t take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Super Bowl in his first year as quarterback, I think it would be impossible for anyone to believe my #HPT program had any chance of working, but Tom Brady proved working on skills development in a serious and professional way works. That’s the secret.

To explain why we have low test scores and why so many teachers quit the profession is to realize the main problem is that teachers receive zero teacher development once they get hired.

As an administrator who cared about his teachers, can you see why I made this a huge priority for my school? The program worked really well for novice teachers, so I expanded it for all teachers. All teachers deserve professional coaching.

If we look back at the data, 1 in 5 teachers quit the profession before the end of their third year, which seems to suggest that 80 percent of teachers are fine. But when we look at that data from a different perspective, we can begin to see that the teachers who “survive” are not better teachers. In fact, according to the experts, all of those teachers still have three more years before they have a real clue as to what they are supposed to do.

What if we implemented a #HPT program? What if we could develop teachers in two years? Would the data continue to reflect that 1 in 5 teachers were quitting the profession?

There is nothing wrong with using data to make decisions, but if you rely on data, it’s crucial you interpret the data the correct way. And our K12 system seems incapable of reading data accurately.

The #HPT Program

At this point, you may be asking, so what is the High Performance Teacher (#HPT) program?

Overall, there are four main areas of focus.

First, we provide teachers with the Four Practice Areas of Teaching. In the next section, I will go into more detail, but for now, it’s important to know that teachers need specific goals to achieve.

Next, teachers need to be observed. The difference between these observations and the ones that administrators do right now is the purpose of the #HPT observation is to provide the teacher with data. Every month, I would sit down with each teacher in my school and go over teacher data with them.

Next, teachers then need to be evaluated. Here again, this is different from the type of evaluations administrators are doing right now. The purpose of these #HPT evaluations is to show the teacher their strengths and areas for improvement. Some teachers pick things up quicker than others, so there were novice teachers I only observed three or four times during the school year. But I also had novice teachers that I evaluated every month because they needed more support.

And lastly teachers need encouragement. Hopefully as you have been discovering the world of teaching with me, you are realizing how difficult a job this is. Every teacher has strengths, which means administrators need to acknowledge them with the teacher. Probably the hardest part of my job was convincing a teacher they did something well in class. This might sound counter-intuitive, but the vast majority of teachers are highly self-critical. As a group of people, they do not take compliments very well. A lot of time, I needed to get a teacher to stop thinking for a minute, listen to my sincere praise, help them take it in and then encourage them to keep going and stop beating themselves up over every mistake they make.

For the teachers who are reading this, folks, there is no such thing as a perfect teacher.

The difference between a High Performance Teacher and a struggling teacher is not the number of mistakes they make in class. All teachers make mistakes, it’s unavoidable. The difference is High Performance Teachers catch the mistakes as they are happening and know how to fix them before the end of the period.

As an administrator, when I observed teachers who were catching mistakes and then adjusting on the fly, it’s like poetry in motion. Quite honestly, it’s a beautiful thing to watch. And here’s a secret for parents, kids are completely unaware mistakes are being made. Students are so focused on understanding instructions and lesson objectives that the mistakes that happen are without their full awareness.

This whole #HPT process takes a full two years for teachers to get the full benefit, but it’s night and day once a teacher finishes this two year development program.

Abusing the Teacher Evaluation System

In the last section, I mentioned teachers need evaluations in order to complete my #HPT program. But under our current K12 model the way administrators conduct teacher evaluations undermines a teacher’s skills and talents.

This is another reason why we can’t tweak the current K12 model, but we need a brand new plan. My new K12 plan can work because we have all the tools we need. The current teacher evaluation rubrics that are available are outstanding for supporting teachers, if they are used correctly. The problem is that administrators are forced to use them incorrectly.

Who is forcing them? The K12 system.

Why do we force them to use evaluations incorrectly? The answer to that question is a phrase known as “teacher accountability.”

The Accountability Myth

Photo Courtesy: edweek.org

As a country, we fell in love with this phrase around 2002, when former President George W. Bush signed into law federal education policy, “No Child Left Behind.” What that piece of legislation ultimately did is turn the K12 system into a prison and made teachers, administrators and students criminals in that system.

If you don’t believe me, then ask yourself this question. “Why do we hold people accountable?”

The only answer to that question is people who break the law. Let’s take a look at our country’s history. We hold criminals accountable, white collar, petty crimes, traffic tickets. You name it, if you break the law, we want to hold you accountable.

Now apply that mindset to the school system. Are teachers criminals? What about administrators? Now think about your own child, are they a criminal?

You already know the difference between a High Performance Teacher and a struggling teacher is not the number of mistakes they make in class, but how many they catch. If that’s true, do you want to punish a struggling teacher, or do you want them to get more coaching?

The public isn’t to blame for this debacle. At this point, you also know the leading educational experts misread the data, so the best thing to do is slow down and take a breath. The best solution to this epic fail is to follow my K12 redesign plan.

In Part One, you learned we have all the parts; teachers, administrators and curriculum. So far in Part Two, you can see how boosting teacher skills will boost student achievement.

In Part Three, you will see how crucial school administrators will be in keeping the schools on the right path into the 21st Century.

The last thing we want is to ruin it with punishments and “accountability.”

But I want to make it clear, I understand why you fell in love with “accountability.” You are angry. You are pissed off. The K12 system is horrible. I know it is. If you’ve read Part One and Two, you have already invested about 60 minutes of leisure time with me. So I know how much passion you have for this issue.

But I also know you “get it” now. Yes, it’s emotionally satisfying to have something to hold over schools and teachers. I get it. But is that logical? Is treating schools and teachers this way netting us the results we want? And the answer is no.

We have held schools accountable along with teachers for the last 20 years, and every student data metric proves this way of thinking fails. It’s producing the opposite result. The more we hold schools and teachers accountable, the worse our students are doing in school. It’s time to stop.

Before you read my redesign plan, I could understand your frustration. If we remove “accountability” what will happen? But now you have a K12 plan that works. You know what will happen. With a full comprehensive Teacher Development program, teachers are going to be working really hard to improve their performance. All of that hard work translates into higher student performance and achievement.

We have to stop looking at the symptoms and start solving the underlying problems.

The reason students perform poorly in school is because it takes teachers five years to become High Performance Teachers. Because it takes teachers five years, 20 percent of our teaching force decides to quit. I can’t make it any simpler to understand than this.

The only way to improve student outcomes is to improve teacher performance. And there is tons of data to support this premise. Leading educational data expert Dr. Robert Marzano and his research center have proven student outcomes are directly impacted by the quality of the teacher in the classroom. My #HPT program can help teachers reach the highest levels of performance in two years. Think about all of the students who would be learning with a High Performance Teacher. What could they be capable of doing?

The Four Practice Areas of Teaching

Without getting too technical, you may be interested to understand “WHAT” a teacher needs to know in order to become a High Performance Teacher. As I outlined earlier, this is one of the first keys to beginning the coaching program.

Teachers need goals to achieve. The goals of the #HPT program is developing the four practice areas of teaching. For quick reference they are:

  1. Lesson Planning
  2. Delivery of Instruction
  3. Making Connections (The “Ah-ha” Moment)
  4. Classroom Environment

There are thousands of books written about the teaching profession, but the problem with all of them is they assume nothing is wrong with the K12 system. That’s the biggest difference between anything I’m writing about and what you already know.

I assume we will use my new K12 redesign plan and throw out the broken K12 system we currently use. I don’t see why we would continue to keep it. But that’s just me.

Under my new K12 plan, teachers are given support and respect. Under my plan, teachers are professionals. Under my plan, teachers must learn the four practice areas of teaching. No exceptions.

Teaching is a Profession

As I’ve stated before, I have coached teachers of every skill level for the last ten years. The very first lesson teachers need to realize is teaching is a profession. Why is this realization so critical for teacher development and growth? The reason is when you look at yourself as a professional, you realize that there are specific practice areas to learn and develop.

For example, first year law associates learn about research, then about legal writing, then about drafting a brief, and so on. Medical interns first learn the medical terms, then practice diagnosing patients and so on.

Teachers are no different. Teachers must first learn how to lesson plan, then deliver those lessons in class, then help students make learning connections, and finally design a classroom environment that surrounds the student with love and support. These are the four practice areas of teaching.

I’m hoping this is what you are thinking right now, “when you say it that way it doesn’t sound so complicated?”

That’s the point I’m trying to make.

Teaching is a profession. It’s a hard profession, but it doesn’t also need to be complicated on top of that. Our current K12 model has made teaching a complete complicated mess that no one can explain to anyone else. Go ahead and try.

It’s so convoluted and confusing, it took me a full year of research and writing to publish this 4-part series. Pardon my French, “But that’s Ridiculous!”

When you realize how poorly designed our K12 model is, can you understand how the smartest people in our country can misinterpret data so easily?

What I want to do is implement the new K12 model and then put all the same smart people inside it and let them go to work. I promise you, if you put the same brains to work on creating new ideas for the 21st Century there is nothing your kids can’t accomplish.

But right now, our K12 system forces the best and brightest minds to run a hamster wheel with no relief in sight. Enough is enough already.

Time for Change

I know you are ready for change. I know you want a better K12 model for your kids. In order to do that, it’s really important you get behind this new K12 plan. Our Constitution gave all of the power in our society to “The People,” that means you.

If you are tired of the low student test scores, you need to act. If you are tired of seeing teachers struggle in schools, then you need to act. If you are tired of the negativity in education, then you need to act.

So what can you do? Remember, I said I did all the heavy lifting for you. I have.

We needed a new K12 system. I created a new K12 plan. Check.

We needed a way to improve teacher performance. I created a #HPT program. Check.

We need school administrators to keep the schools on track. As you will see in Part Three, I already created a Principal’s Academy. Check.

And we need to teach kids 21st Century skills. As you will see in Part Four, I have outlined a 21st Century curriculum schools can implement immediately. Check.

What’s left to do?

It’s up to you now. You need to talk about this K12 plan with your friends and neighbors. You need to share these articles with colleagues at work and elected officials. Tweet, post, share, comment, do everything you already do on social media, but just get the word out there about the new K12 plan.

The only thing holding this plan back is awareness.

I have 20 years of experience inside the K12 system. Like I said before, I know where all the trap doors are and where there are secret passageways. I know how to implement large scale programs and plans. This will not be hard for me to do. But I just need you to give me the opportunity to do it.

Let me fix the K12 system for you, for your kids, for America’s future.

Coming Up

Stay tuned for part three, where I will show you how administrators can be the best friend or the biggest enemy to a working K12 system.

If you want to be alerted for when Part Three will be published on Medium.com, follow my account.

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Former Superintendent | Ed Consultant | Speaker/Author — Go to my homepage at https://leafacademy.org

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Professor Schwartz

Professor Schwartz

Former Superintendent | Ed Consultant | Speaker/Author — Go to my homepage at https://leafacademy.org

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