Today’s guest blog is written by Dr. Timothy M. O’Leary, director, Educational Data Talks, and research fellow at the University of Melbourne in Melbourne, Australia.
Do you remember your first few years of teaching? At the time, we felt like we could take on the world, but as we look back, we were probably just treading water. When I began training as a teacher, I was overly optimistic and somewhat idealistic. I was fresh out of what I then called my quarter-life crisis, because I was 23 years old and already in need of a new career. Having originally graduated with undergraduate degrees in engineering and science, I had taken a job as an IT consultant.
Unfortunately, I found this work to be interesting but disappointingly soulless. At that time, when I reflected on what I enjoyed doing, what I arrived at was the time I had spent working as a tutor whilst at university. I had enjoyed sharing my technical knowledge and expertise and helping students to understand and make sense of the world. Mathematically speaking that is.
I turned to teaching.
After the conclusion of a nine-month initial teacher education certification, I started work in a hard-to-staff pubic school. It was a low-socioeconomic status school, with students from a diverse range of ethnic, cultural, and language backgrounds. There were also a lot of single-parent families. It was a tough placement. For example, my firmest memory from that school is not, sadly, about teaching. It was about having to physically restrain a student’s stoned 19-year-old friend from attacking a fellow teacher before the police arrived; this will haunt me forever.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t think my students learned much through me at that time, at least not because of me, perhaps despite me? I did not learn much about teaching either during my time at this school. I did, though, learn about managing difficult behaviour, maintaining order, and about keeping kids under control.
Looking back, I realized I lacked a bit of credibility and clarity as a teacher. I wished that I had someone around that could have provided me with effective feedback as to how to improve my teaching. I also wish that I had the foresight to take my students’ behaviour, or lack thereof, as direct feedback to my teaching. Instead, I moved on to a different situation.
Different Situation, Same Results
After that year in a difficult setting, I transferred to a high fee-paying independent school. Kids are, of course, still kids, but gone was the need to manage extremely challenging behaviour. Now what emerged as a new difficulty for me was the need to cultivate a culture of learning in my classrooms.
Where I had been ‘successful’ in maintaining a sense of control (or so I thought), I now struggled and found students did not respond well. Nor did their parents—in high-fee-paying schools this can be a challenge for teachers. Fortunately for me, I had some good mentors through those challenging years who supported me in becoming a much more effective teacher.
Back then, I assumed that my deep understanding of the content was all I needed, but what I learned is that just because I had the understanding of the content didn’t mean I knew how to get it across to students. The more I struggled to get it across, the more some students took advantage of the situation. What I really needed to focus on was my credibility as a teacher and my clarity to get across what the students should learn.
It begins with understanding the culture in the classroom, which is the atmosphere of the classroom as communicated to and perceived by its students. It does not just happen. Rather, it is the consequence of the relationships we as educators cultivate with our students. It is also about the competence, passion, and clarity we demonstrate through our practice.
Taking this one step further, I now use a set of lenses that focus on tangible, visible, observable elements of a classroom that are, thanks to the research of John Hattie (and others), known to have a significant positive influence on student learning.
Two of the most important influences required to create a classroom culture focused on learning include:
Teacher Credibility is an umbrella term used to describe whether a teacher is considered by their students to be “believable, convincing, and capable of persuading students that they can be successful". Research has shown that Teacher Credibility is a vital factor in supporting student learning and is not simply a matter of students “liking” a teacher. Rather, it is about whether they perceive them as someone who will enhance their learning. Teacher Credibility is made up of four core aspects including Trusting Relationships, Perceived Competence, Passion for Teaching, and, Immediacy.
Teacher Clarity is “a measure of the clarity of communication between teachers and students" and is a vital factor in promoting student learning. Teacher Clarity is more than whether a teacher speaks clearly. For a teacher to have clarity means they have complete understanding about what students are ready to learn, know, and be able to do in an upcoming unit of work before they plan any instruction and assessments. Teacher Clarity is comprised of four components including Organisation, Explanation, Examples and guided practice, and, Assessment of student learning.
Research to Provide Feedback
If you’re a teacher or school leader reading this, what is the level of credibility and clarity in your classrooms? Do you believe you have a high level of credibility and clarity? If your answer is yes, can you follow up that belief with evidence that you have credibility and clarity?
Teachers are crying out for actionable feedback related to strengths and weakness in their practice that help them improve, especially during the time of the coronavirus. What many need to understand is that student perceptions of teaching have been shown to be one of the most reliable forms of feedback a teacher can get (Balch, 2012, Kane & Cantrell, 2010) and also a useful source of ideas about how to improve their teaching (MET Project, 2012). Those teachers who understood that before the pandemic are having an easier time engaging students virtually during the pandemic.
In order to get a better sense of credibility and clarity in classrooms, I have designed a survey, which you can check out here www.classroomvibe.com.au. This survey has been used in schools across the world. The use of such forms of feedback to teachers is of critical importance.
Where my thinking has turned to recently is what classroom culture looks and feels like in the context of the remote and online learning that is increasingly taking place across the globe in response to COVID19. Indeed, I am now curious if my previous work might be adapted to provide teachers with feedback, from their students, with regards to their online delivery of learning experience for their students.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
 Fisher, D & Frey, N (2018) Show & Tell: A Video Column / Boosting Your Teacher Credibility. Educational Leadership. 76 (1). Pages 82 - 83.
 Fendick, F. (1990). The correlation between teacher clarity of communication and student achievement gain: A meta-analysis. Unpublished Ph.D., University of Florida, FL.
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.