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The Five Most Important Questions to Ask a Teacher

Famous management author Peter Drucker wrote a book called The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization. In this book Drucker edits chapters by some of the most important management thinkers, including Jim Collins, Frances Hesselbein, and John Kotter. The result is a simple, yet extremely difficult set of questions that people can ask about their organizations. The questions are simply stated and direct. They are also very difficult to answer. Based upon the the book mentioned above, I have developed five questions that should be asked of any classroom teacher.

Question 1: What is your core business?

Of course, the obvious response would most likely be, TEACHING. Think about it for a minute. If you are reading this blog chances are that you have a close connection to the education profession. That said, really think about it. Can you define teaching? How a teacher defines their practice depends quite a bit on how they define teaching. Rick and Becky DuFour have written Whatever it Takes, a book about professional learning communities. In this book they have a section that they call "What Kind of School is This." They describe four different schools within a two-by-two matrix that places expectations and support on opposite axes. The result is four distinct views of school:

The Pontius Pilate School, where teachers present the subject and wash their hands of the outcome. If students want to learn, they will progress, if they don't it won't because the teacher didn't do their job.

The Charles Darwin School, where achievement is governed by innate ability. Those students who achieve are those that have the raw ability. Those who achieve at a lesser rate probably have reached the limits of their ability.

The Chicago Cubs Fan School, where teachers believe that everyone can learn, at least a little. This school operates on the notion that nurturing the students' self esteem is the most important work of the school.

The Henry Higgins School, where the staff believe that all students can achieve at high levels and the teachers are expected to cajole, push, support, and work side-by-side with the students.

While I don't contend that this is the only way to think about the core business of the classroom, it is a workable model from which to proceed. I maintain that teachers ought to be asked this question and that we ought to wait for an answer.

Question 2: What is it that you want your students to know and be able to do?

Once again, this is not a dumb question. Hopefully a teacher can go deeper than passage rates on standardized tests. Ideally teachers have a clear picture of what a successful student looks like. They would be able to describe work that is exemplary and would know exactly where any student's work falls on a continuum leading to exemplary quality.

When a teacher can clearly define what success means, they can also determine what students need to do in order to attain it.

Question 3: Who are your students?

Time and again, when I hear a teacher say, "That won't work with these kids." I am tempted to reply, "When you say these kids, what do you mean?" How well do teachers really know their students? Is it even possible to know your students? Think about it, not an easy question to answer.

Question 4: What are your results?

Standardized test results represent one important measure of student outcomes, but only one measure. My guess is that when a parent sends their child to school each day, they are thinking more than, "I hope my kid masters all of the grade level indicators today." Included in this question are things like:

  • Are the students better off today than they were in August?
  • Are they the kind of people I would like them to be?
  • Have I served them well?

Again, I am not completely convinced that every teacher must answer these questions. Looking back to my time in the classroom, I know I cannot answer all of them. I would feel a little bit better if I knew that my daughter's teacher asked those questions of herself often.

Question 5: What is your plan?

I am not sure that I have ever met a teacher that could answer all of the questions above. I don't think that a teacher's ability to answer them all even makes that teacher superior. I think that this question is key in that it requires reflection about the previous four questions. Based the answers to those questions, a course of action should present itself.

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