There Is No Finish Line

Professor and Researcher John Hattie once said, “Only give an assessment when you want to know how you, the teacher, are doing.”  It was several years ago when I heard Hattie say this during a webinar I was attending, and I remember feeling thrown a bit off my educational balance by the statement.  Wait a minute, I thought, don’t we give assessments to see how the students are doing?  In my teacher preparation work and even in my teaching career up to that point, I had been trained to use assessments solely as a means by which to develop a series of scores or grades intended to report out on a student’s progress.  Never had I considered an assessment to be a report on how I, the teacher, was performing.  How could that statement be helpful? I remember wondering.

Years later, Hattie’s statement has stayed with me.  And I have come to realize and interpret what he said in a useful way, a way that continues to positively impact my work with students and teachers.  To me, as a writing workshop teacher and a literacy coach, what Hattie’s words suggest is that we can view students’ work as feedback for our teaching.  Writers are transformed at school; therefore, when working with kids in a classroom, I have come to view student writing as a reflection of not just what I have taught, but how I have taught.  Workshop teaching is a constant blending of assessment and instruction– seeing what kids are doing and responding to it.  It’s not meant to be a set of pre-scripted lessons to be taught in a specified order prescribed by some publisher or curriculum writer.

John Hattie’s words imply great responsibility on the part of a teacher.  And honestly, at first, I wasn’t ready to accept his words as a contribution to my teaching mindset. It felt like too much.  What if I teach the very best I know how and a student still doesn’t turn out to be a strong writer?  Aren’t there factors out of my control that would make it silly to view their work as a reflection of my teaching?  I can’t matter that much… can I?

But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I have come to perceive Hattie’s coaching as a way to empower teachers.  Just like the writing environment we all work to create in our classrooms, it is not so much the product of our teaching that matters as the process.  Let me explain: If I believe– really believe— that a student’s writing work is mirroring back the efficacy of my teaching, then that means I also believe that my teaching can impact this writer.  And that belief in ourselves matters.  It does. For it outwardly reflects a useful view we hold about who we are as teachers.

The process of teaching a writer is ongoing.  As one of my great mentors once said to me, “There is only the next step.”  There is only the next step when it comes to teaching a young writer.  There is no finish line.

What if a kid is not achieving to the level we wish they would or believe they can?  Consider the following menu of possible conclusions:

  • The teacher failed: no.
  • The student failed: no.
  • There are next steps: yes.

As teachers, we enjoy the great privilege of helping to build internal narratives, both for our students and ourselves.  We get to help construct neural networks inside human brains.  It is such an honor.  And yes, a great deal of work.  But if we keep the attention where it needs to be- on our students (something I wrote about here)- then the likelihood of moving them forward on their journey is high.

Whatever time we can find to look at our students’ work, whether in a conference or outside of class time, we can ask, “What does this feedback convey?  What is this writing suggesting I can teach?” Look for the tracks of your teaching. Celebrate them.  Then ask, “Are there tracks that should be there but are not quite showing up yet?” That could suggest new teaching (or maybe reteaching) could be the next step. 

After all, there is only the next step.

Using student work as feedback for our teaching informs us. It empowers us.  In a way, it allows young writers to become our teachers.

Teaching writing is hard.  It just is.  Author and staff developer M. Colleen Cruz, in her wonderful book, The Unstoppable Writing Teacher (2015),  asks us to consider ourselves akin to firefighters who, “when they hear of trouble, don’t turn and run away like any sane individual would do.  But rather, they tighten their laces and march toward where the trouble is” (p. 147).  That’s being a teacher.  And when we march toward that trouble believing we can make a difference… well, then we can.