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Four Essential Components ALL Classes Need to Function Well           

As professionals who make approximately 1,500 decisions per day, so many teachers suffer from extreme fatigue. The expectation is that we deliver instruction, do it well, and be able to figure out how to course-correct with students on a moment-to-moment basis. Having to be so quick on our feet might help us fall asleep each night from sheer exhaustion, but it can be too easy to forget the fundamental pieces of effective teaching when there is so much on our plates. One helpful way to grab onto what really matters and ground ourselves in the most important aspects of our work is to make sure we keep our focus on the most essential components of good instruction. That way, on those days when we make too many decisions and the world i spinning, we will know for sure that we made a positive difference.

Mastery Objective           

Teachers might understand the purpose of class each day, but do kids have that same advantage? When I was a student, I wondered every now and then how my teachers planned lessons. Was there some bigger goal, some larger purpose? All I knew at the time from my limited perspective was that very little we did in class seemed to be useful in the world outside of school. How can we bridge the gap between our intentions and what students understand? When we design our lessons, part of the importance of communicating a mastery objective each day is that we are fully aware of what students should accomplish in that specific class period. That is why mastery objectives should not be weekly or monthly but should rather change daily. The goal is to divide our instructional outcomes into smaller, digestible pieces that are couched in clear language that kids understand. If we consider our audience when we write our objectives and hold ourselves to making sure that each one leads toward a larger learning target, we will have set both our students and ourselves up to be successful. Conversely, if kids in our classroom cannot tell us what they are learning and why, we have done something wrong.

Criteria for Success           

When I eat a chocolate chip cookie, I have very specific criteria for what makes that cookie worth finishing. It has to be recently baked, contain a hefty number of chocolate chunks or chips, and be crispier toward the edges but chewier toward the middle. Yes, I am high maintenance. The point is that if we want to know what makes a product meet any kind of ideal standard, we need a list of descriptors that help us reach a common understanding. Students have the same need for clarity. The tasks we assign should come with a list of specific criteria for success that is appropriate given the learning goal. If we think about a rubric as representing all levels of performance, the criteria for success is that highest level. Suppose our rubric goes from one to five, with five being the best score. The descriptors for a score of five define success. When we attach these criteria to our assignments, we make the target transparent for kids. To that end, we should phrase our language in simple, kid-accessible terms. That way, we are not just sharing what kids need to do to achieve growth; we are also making sure they are clear on how to move forward, since they are the audience we serve.

Formative Assessment           

If we take a road trip to a new place, we need to know if the car is headed in the right direction. Otherwise, whether the tension escalates as everyone fights about directions or not, we all get lost. If we have a clear mastery objective and specifically delineated criteria for success, developing quick formative assessment measures becomes easier and more helpful for us and for students. In an ideal situation, no single class period should end without some type of formative assessment. That could be a summarizer, a game, an exit ticket, or any other measure that allows students to share what they know, and what they find confusing. No matter the specific device we use, the important part is to gather the data from whatever mode of formative assessment we administer. If we miss that step, we will get lost, and so will our students. Being effective with assessment is not about whether the process is lengthy and formal or casual and informal, but more about our analysis of the data we have and the consequential follow-through we design as a result.


One of my core educational beliefs is that to win the people, we must understand the people. In other words, teachers exist to serve students, and we get nowhere unless we make significant progress with engaging students on their terms. How do we make that happen? The key is not just to build relationships, though that is important; we must also ensure that our instruction is relevant to student experience. Whether that means gathering more feedback from our classes about what they are interested in or remaining open to change as we move forward with teaching each day (or both), flexibility and responsiveness are two important keys to facilitating student engagement. Most importantly, students who see our visible efforts to include them in the learning in a way that is meaningful will be more likely to make gains in achievement. The best way to increase student engagement is for us to talk less and allow students to take the lead more. It sounds like a simple charge but is actually rather challenging. If we are conscious about stepping back, listening more and thinking about places in our lessons where we can let students drive the class, we will see gains.           

All of us get overwhelmed on an almost constant basis. No matter what we teach, who we teach, or where we teach, the four components of instruction above need to be present for prime functionality. When things get a little rough, going back to basics is never a bad idea. Think of the four areas above as home base that are always there to come back to. When the building blocks of instruction are solid, we make more meaningful change. Then, once we feel comfortable that our foundational pieces are in place, we can start to add in more bells and whistles as we hone a craft that has endless opportunities for growth.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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