Teacher Vision: What, Why, and How?

Spencer Russell

Teacher Vision: What, Why, and How? (Part 1)

In 2016 I was invited to Austin, TX, along with twelve other outstanding teachers from across the state, to participate in a roundtable panel with Governor Greg Abbott on teacher recruitment and retention. After making my way to the waiting area on the second floor of the Capitol Building, I introduced myself to a few of the other teachers and made small talk. Eventually, we were led into a small room with a large wooden table (in the spirit, I imagine, of Exeter’s Harkness table) where we waited for the Governor to arrive.

As we waited, I perused the panel bio sheet and tried to match people to names. Directly across from me sat the 2015 National Teacher of the Year. A few seats over: the 2017 Texas Teacher of the Year. Two seats to my left: the 2016 Texas Teacher of the Year. And so it went around the table, as I quickly realized I was part of a very small and accomplished group of Texas educators.

As the governor made his way around the table, asking each teacher in turn what changes they believed could be made to improve teacher recruitment and retention in the state, I listened intently to the opinions of my colleagues. Eager to learn, I studied their affects, their mannerisms, and their perspectives. Perhaps naively, I expected to have this lightbulb moment: a sudden realization of the personality, or the passion, or the skillset of an excellent teacher.

Unsurprisingly, I never got the bold, “here it is” sort of revelation I was looking for. But, as each teacher shared their experience, one common thread began to emerge, connecting the origins of our (their) teaching prowess.

Determined to make the most of my daycation in Austin, I aimed my first question at the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, “How good were you when you started?” She laughed. Then I asked the rest of the table, “How good were you?”

In a room full of some of the most accomplished teachers in the state , not a single teacher admitted to being effective in their first year in the classroom. Consequently, several teachers alluded to a coach or a mentor who had trained them, not just in how to deliver content, but in how to think about their students and their profession.

My point to Governor Greg Abbott: recruitment and retention is a false premise. Which is to say we would not visit a college biology class and recruit the best doctors, because we know that becoming a great doctor takes years of additional education, residency, feedback, and professional development. The same, it seems, was true here for great teachers.

I came to Austin determined to make the case for teacher retention. But, I left Austin equally determined to answer this fundamental question: If excellent teaching is not innate, how do we coach, develop, and train teachers to become the champions that every child deserves?

Two years later, in my first year out of the classroom, I am propelled forward in my educational pursuit not only to help develop great teachers, but to question the very core of teacher professional learning, coaching, and development. What do great teachers really have in common? What makes a teacher great? Is great teaching context-specific? How do you coach it?

These questions, and many others, led me to a Fellowship year with Teaching Lab: an organization that is also focused on teacher development through research and inquiry.

I carry my experience as a teacher into my Fellowship year. I carry my kindergarten students who were with me before I knew what I was doing, and the six years of students and families I was privileged to grow with. I carry my own experiences with coaching and with professional development, with improvement plans and with year-end incentives. I carry the thoughts and ideas from mentors, from leaders, and from the many outstanding teachers from all over the city and state who I have had the pleasure of meeting and talking with.

I also carry curiosity and continue to return to this idea of excellent teaching. If excellent teaching requires excellent coaching, then what do excellent coaches do? How do they empower teachers to become their best selves for their students? How, when, and why do teachers improve? Is there a part of the equation—both outside of and in conjunction with— curriculum, classroom management, relationships, decision-making, etc. that is missing in our current understanding of teacher development? Is there a part that can help tie together the different components of the job in a way that is both deeply intuitive, yet challenges our current notions of teacher excellence and development?

And, I believe there is.

A teacher’s vision is most commonly and simply defined as their ideal image of their classroom practice. For some teachers, this is a mental snapshot. For others, a detailed play. For some teachers their image is literal, and for others it is conceptual. But, what is true across all teachers is that all teachers have a vision (whether they realize it or not), and that vision is critically important to the work they do with their students each day.

Researchers have long written about the power and implications of a teacher’s vision. A teacher’s vision can affect their curricular choices with their students, how quickly they adapt to changes, their decision to stay or leave their school, their decision to stay or leave the profession, and numerous other aspects of their experience that we have yet to identify.

Despite the importance of teacher vision, many teachers and coaches are unfamiliar with the term. Teachers aware of their vision are often unsure how it applies to their daily work, and those who do make the connection to their work are unsure what their vision should look and sound like in order to best serve their students.

Throughout this Fellowship year, I will be researching one of the most pressing questions in education that no one is asking: What specific qualities of teacher visions lead to excellent teaching and student outcomes?

After studying the existing research on teacher vision, my goal is to extend that research through a first-of-its-kind research experiment that collects, categorizes, and analyzes teachers’ visions based on a number of different criteria. Then, those visions will be compared with classroom observations—specifically, of excellent teachers—in order to unearth which specific components of a teacher’s vision are most salient in the strongest classrooms.

Stay tuned as I work to systematically unearth answers to the questions no one’s asking: How are teachers most commonly defining vision? What is the connection between the qualities in a teacher’s vision and their classroom culture/environment? What is the impact of a teacher’s vision on their academic outcomes? What are the most essential characteristics of an excellent classroom vision? What is necessary, what is nice, and what is no good? When, how, and why do the majority of teachers develop their classroom visions?

Spencer Russell is a Fellow at Teaching Lab

March 1, 2019

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