Typical Reading Instruction
A typical elementary school teacher is still generally responsible for about 25 kids, with a wide range of skills and abilities. Her most important function is to teach her students to read. Students who can't read proficiently by the end of grade three will struggle throughout their educational careers and their lives.
The elementary school teacher's job has become much more complex, now including standardized assessments, data analysis and daily lesson planning based on that data. However, the basic tools and materials she uses to provide instruction, particularly in the area of reading, have remained the same. Although more technology is usually present in elementary classrooms, sometimes including a few computers for the students and an interactive white board, these tools have not altered the role of the teacher, nor made her job any easier. In fact, I would argue that her job is much more challenging than it ever has been. She is expected to group and regroup students throughout the year based on the assessments she administers. These assessments are often very time consuming (robbing students of critical instructional time) and yield massive amounts of student data. The teacher is expected to analyze the data and then sort students into small groups based on the data. She is expected to provide targeted, direct instruction in the small groups. This usually takes the form of a guided reading lesson, when the students read a story or passage together and discuss it with the teacher. While she is working with each small group, the other students are typically in "centers" completing independent activities that are supposed to be carefully aligned with the student data. Teachers are expected to do all of this in order to maximize the amount of time each child spends on instruction that is exactly what is needed, when it is needed.
Reality Does Not Match Expectations
Planning for this type of instruction is incredibly time consuming. The teacher is left to figure out (every day) what each student has completed during the previous day of instruction, what skills need to be mastered, and what needs to be learned next. She must then match students with others who have similar needs. She must consider the social implications of grouping to ensure that students who have trouble working together are separated. She must consider the various scheduling needs of students caused by "pull-out" services. She must ensure that every child has a "just right" book to read independently and that the guided reading materials can be used to focus on the skills to be learned by each small group. She must design and set up appropriate activities in "centers" so that students can move from activity to activity fairly independently.
This type of planning requires a massive amount of time and therefore does not always happen. Further, most teachers have not received the training necessary to engage in this type of planning, particularly in the early years of their careers. It takes a typical elementary teacher about five years to become proficient in all of this, so those who are in the beginning stages of their careers are simply not able to do what is required. Teachers agonize over the fact that they just cannot do all that their students need them to do. They feel guilty on a daily basis that they are not doing enough. Many leave the profession due to this frustration.
What is needed at this point is a redefinition of the role of the teacher. An elementary teacher should not be required to be an educational researcher, curriculum planner, and lesson designer. She should be the facilitator of instruction ensuring each child is engaged in learning throughout the school day. This is a full-time job all by itself. It requires the skill set and personal qualities that most elementary teachers have on day one of their careers. They know how to relate to kids. They have incredible empathy and patience and are able to get kids excited about learning. They know how to manage groups of children and move them seamlessly through the day.
Assessment, data analysis and planning need to happen in a different way. Technology can be harnessed to manage these functions. Professionals who are not teachers could play a different role in schools to manage these functions. An example of this type of redefinition is happening through the Teach-to-One program, which has changed how middle school math is being taught. Their results have been very positive and can be a model to be used for other age groups and subjects.
Better tools are needed to assist teachers with daily instructional planning and delivery. Last year at a technology workshop at Harvard Graduate School of Education, participants concluded that teachers need an "instructional recommendation system that concisely guides teacher instruction." You can read more about this on Education Week's technology blog. If we can create these types of tools to help us plan our next vacation and access just the right movie to watch, we can develop them to help teachers meet the needs of their students.
Personally, I am devoting that next stage of my career to doing exactly that. I am in the process of developing technology tools for teachers that will help them assess students and plan instruction based on daily data analysis. Stay tuned to this blog to learn more about it.