Translating educational buzzwords into teacher growth

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By Thomas Sauer
thomas.sauer@gmail.com

Engagement, higher-order thinking, rigor, project-based learning, 21st century skills learning targets …

It doesn’t matter if you are a teacher, a principal or someone supporting teachers and principals, educators are asked every day to process the deeper meaning of an ever-changing world of educational concepts.

Every month, educators attend multiple meetings that often are designed to identify solutions for schoolwide problems. Every year, educators attend hours and hours of professional development. Many of these opportunities for professional growth are labeled as a “best practice,” yet seldom are they explained at a level that empowers teachers to truly make changes in their classroom.

Simultaneously, there is a growing body of research that points to teacher effectiveness as the single most critical factor in student achievement. While a solid foundation in subject matter content is clearly important for any teacher, research suggests that it is not so much what the teacher knows, but what the teacher does in the classroom that maximizes student achievement. 

This renewed focus on teacher effectiveness, combined with increased accountability measures at both the state and national level, has left many teachers to grow their instructional practice in novel ways.

Defining effectiveness
With this in mind, the Teacher Effectiveness for Language Learning (TELL) Project is a collection of products and processes that world language educators and those supporting them can use to enhance their effectiveness as teachers and leaders. Three core beliefs guide the development of all tools:

  1. the criteria contained within the framework represent the model world language teacher;
  2. ALL world language teachers can become the model if the model teacher is defined; and
  3. the identified characteristics and behaviors are intended to guide individual teacher growth toward the model and are not necessarily tied to teacher appraisal.

In order to describe the model world language teacher, the TELL Framework catalogs teacher effectiveness criteria into seven domains across three focus areas. Each domain of the framework provides opportunities for deep thinking about what effective teachers do within each domain through a guiding question about observable teacher behaviors or characteristics. Specific criteria and sub-criteria clearly delineate the model teacher behaviors for each domain.

To facilitate teachers’ professional learning, TELL Project tools allow educators to compare their current practices to the framework, set goals for their own professional growth and plan pathways to become a more effective world language teacher. This suite of tools has been reviewed and revised based on feedback from leaders in the profession as well as by thousands of teachers, making it a true grassroots model for teacher empowerment.

From framework to feedback tools
The TELL Project tools and resources are designed to empower educators to become reflective practitioners in order to grow in highly individualized plans, while providing school and district administrators the support necessary to help teachers through the process.

While the TELL Framework outlines the characteristics of the effective world language teacher, most teachers will want to take advantage of the wide variety of easy-to-use tools designed to help them reflect on their own practice, get feedback on their current practice from others, and begin to outline a professional learning plan that will lead to a higher level of effectiveness.

Dennis Groters, a Spanish teacher at Arlington High School in Texas recommends the tools, “be used like a pilot uses his checklist before, during and after flight as a guide to focus on all the many facets that are instrumental in assisting our kids navigate their journey as they learn a new language and culture.”

Tools developed by the TELL project include the following:

  • Foundational Criteria: A document that identifies those criteria that a teacher should consider first when exploring the TELL Framework.
  • Reflection Guide: A series of self-assessments and goal-setting forms that a teacher may use to measure his/her current performance.
  • Correlations: A series of documents that have aligned the TELL Framework criteria to other well-known teacher effectiveness frameworks used in the field. These can be used by a teacher to validate their practices within a larger context.
  • Feedback Forms: A collection of observation and walk-through documents that a teacher or administrator can use to observe and provide feedback.

Putting the spotlight on effective strategies
Without a doubt, it’s the many feedback forms of the TELL Project that garner the most response and are credited for helping teachers make sense of expectations for becoming an effective world language educator at the strategy level. To date, the following problems of practice can be accessed as feedback forms:

  • Providing Comprehensible Input & Target Language Use
  • Student Language Use
  • Checking for Understanding
  • Developing Performance Assessments
  • Facilitating Learner Interactions
  • Learner Engagement
  • Pair & Small Group Work
  • Physical Environment
  • Modeling & Giving Directions

These documents allow teachers or observers to quickly visit a classroom and collect information on specific criteria for the purpose of gaining a snapshot of the degree to which those characteristics are evident across numerous teachers and classrooms, or over time within one classroom.

Whether you are a seasoned, reflective practitioner or new to the field, the TELL Project provides research-guided support to help world language educators and those who support them translate educational buzzwords into focused strategies that are not only “best,” but also empower them to become more effective practitioners who can support the growth of global competency in Kentucky’s learners.

Thomas Sauer is an independent world language consultant. He previously held positions as world language specialist in the Fayette and Jefferson County Public School systems. Sauer taught German at the University of Kentucky, Georgetown College and Kentucky Educational Television. He was named the 2011 Pearson/National Association of District Supervisors of Foreign Languages Supervisor of the Year and a 2010 Global Visionary by the World Affairs Council of Kentucky and Southern Indiana. He also is one of the founding partners of The TELL Project.

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