As Polk County’s Jared Bigham makes the transition from principal to instructional leader, follow his posts on the SCORE Sheet to find out what that change really means.

My mama used to make pound cakes for me when I was growing up. For those of you who are not baking savvy, I will let you in on a secret. If there is a jarring vibration on an oven just before the cake is done, it will “fall,” which means some of the not-quite-cooked batter collapses into the middle and makes a dense, sweet compilation of sugary goodness. When I was young, I would regularly jump up and down next to our oven to make this occur. If my mother caught me, she would chide me that she couldn’t even frost the cake because it was fallen and irregular, but I was the consumer, so it only made sense to me to make it the way I liked it best.

What does this story have to do with being an instructional leader? I became aware that I was leaving the consumer, the student, out of the equation when evaluating our instructional effectiveness. I realized the amount of energy and attention I was giving to instruction (the teacher) should be balanced with just as much energy and attention to the actual learning taking place (the student). I think it’s easy to get so wrapped up in best practices, shiny new technologies, and assessments that we overlook the most valuable resource we have to guide our practice–our students.

The first thing I did was hold a closed-door assembly with my students, no other teachers or staff, just me and them. I have approximately 400 students in my school, and you could have heard a pin drop in that gym when I stood in front of them with my clipboard and pen and said: “OK…between you and me, what kind of teaching engages you?” The results were not surprising because several best practices we are all familiar with were mentioned. However, what was surprising to me was how knowledgeable they were of education jargon. Words like: differentiated, kinesthetic, and peer were thrown at me. As I furiously tried to write down each suggestion, dozens of students were literally on the edge of their seats with their hands raised to share their view. I was overwhelmed by how engaged they were in the discussion (I honestly hadn’t known what to expect). For all the days of professional development I had labored over through the years, I had missed a valuable opportunity to go straight to the consumer for their feedback.

I then began talking to students about their experiences in class. I would sit down beside a student and ask them what they were learning, and then the all-important WHY question. Students could almost always answer the “what” question, but the “why” was sometimes not answered with as much confidence, so I tried a new approach. I started asking students: “What questions have you asked today?” I did this in class, between classes, and during lunch. I received more insightful feedback on where they stood as learners and the learning environment of our school than from a dozen classroom walkthroughs.

Going directly to the consumer/students has given me insight on three important things:

  1. How are they being engaged as a learner?
  2. Do they understand the concepts on a micro and macro level?
  3. What are the barriers to learning they face?

The next step is to leverage this knowledge to continually improve upon the instruction we provide.