Am I a good teacher? Part 1 of 3

“Mr. Orphal, I’ve been in your room several times this year,” said my new vice principal over at Skyline High several years ago. “Every time, the students look like they are working hard, but I’ve never seen you teach!”

Obviously, in my mind, he had.

For me, teaching isn’t about me being on a stage. It isn’t about telling the children what I know, in hopes that they will remember it come test day. I’m not interested in my students filling in the correct bubbles to show the powers-that-be what they remember from my lectufying.

That’s why my kids write papers. No quizzes, no tests, just papers.

Sure, I do quite a lot of direct instruction in the first several weeks of my course. My students need to learn how to read a primary-source document. They need to learn what bias is, how to see it, and how to deal with it in their research. They need to learn how to analyze their evidence so they can explain to their reader both what a quote says, in plain English, and how it supports their argument.

And, they need to learn how to write. They need to learn how to write a compelling hook as well as a clear and concise thesis. They need to learn how to organize their evidence in a way that is both logical and powerful. They need to learn how to use sentence stems that clearly show their reader that some analysis is coming.

  • “In this, one can see,”
  • “From this quote, we can infer.”

Finally, they need time and space to practice.

When I was in my high school history classes, we got one chance to read and remember the material. After the exam was over, the class moved on, regardless of how well or not-so-well anyone understood the topic. We wrote one paper in each class. The paper wasn’t so much a learning process for me as it was an opportunity to achieve or fail. Everything was high-stakes. On every assignment, I had one chance to sink or swim.

In contracts, my students write five papers in my history class. Each paper is graded using the exact same rubric, so students see and can make informed choices on what areas they want to focus on and improve for the next paper.  Each paper is worth more points that the last, so the stakes grow along with their skills and experience. I tell my students, “Your first paper is like a pre-season game or a rehearsal. Yes, you want to do your best. Yes, you want to get it right. However, if you mess up, it’s not a big deal. Scrimmages and rehearsals are exactly where you want to make your mistakes, so you can learn from them before the stakes get high. Your final paper, “I continue, “That’s the championship game. That’s opening night. That’s the time when you want to be perfect.”

I think it works. Over the last ten years: with freshmen and sophomores in inner-city Oakland and now with juniors in suburban North Carolina, I watch with some pride as students improve their writing and their historical reasoning skills.

“You want to know if I’m any good at teaching?” I asked that vice-principal years ago. “Here is a student’s first and fifth papers. Read them, then come tell me if you think I’m a good teacher or not.”

My habitual readers know that I talk about my students’ papers and projects a lot on this blog. However, I’ve never offered you the opportunity to look and judge for yourself.  This month, in celebration of another academic year completed, I offer you, dear reader, two papers. Next week, I will publish the first paper, on the mystery of the Roanoke colony. A week later, I will share that same student’s final paper.

I hope you enjoy!

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” If you could choose any system by which the powers that be would judge you as a teacher, what would that be?

  • LizPrather

    I’ll Come Back When You’re Teaching


    I had a principal come into my room when a writing workshop was going on. The piece under consideration was a student’s short story and the class was engaged in a fantastic discussion about the merit of first person versus third person to create the narrative distance that the student writer wanted to achieve with this piece.   I was tickled he had decided to drop in for an evaluation on this day, instead of the previous day when students were petulant and weird, farting and barking, and being 14, and were off task numerous times.  But what did he say?  “Hey Liz, I’ll come back and do your evaluation when you’re teaching.”    

    I died in the corner. 

    To answer your question, I would love to be judged by the growth of the writing from my students.  Or their own reflections on their writing confidence and their ability to self-motivate, their ability to narrow choices, and all those other things that are bugaboos for even accomplished writers.  

    Looking forward to your Parts 2 and 3. 

    • DaveOrphal

      Thank you for your response!

       “Hey Liz, I’ll come back and do your evaluation when you’re teaching.” Wow!  Just. Wow. 

      This is exactly what I was talking about and it’s exactly what’s wrong with the system. We hear that teachers should be judged based on student achievement data, but too often this only means the test score. We hear that teachers should be facilitators of learning and not the “sage on the stage,” but then “lecturing” get relabled “direct instruction” and becomes a “best practice” again.

      I’m excited about parts 2 and 3 as well. If you’ve followed my blog over the years, you’ll find that some of the very best articles are ones writting by my students. 

  • JustinMinkel

    Love the student focus.

    Dave, I really love this piece. It’s such an accessible best practice: having students write papers, graded by the same rubric, with successively heavier weights to each paper. 

    Underlying your approach is something simple but profound: You ask us to judge your teaching based on the work students produce.

    Seems obvious, but consider all the other all-too-common options:

    *Judge you by how passionately or brilliantly you lecture–YOUR charisma, YOUR brilliance, rather than the students’.

    *Judge you by how many of the right bubbles your students picked on tests measuring basic skills.

    *Just trust you that you’re a good teacher based on anecdotal evidence that your students have “grown so much.”

    You propose what we need: it’s a kind of accountability or at least assessment of effective teaching, but it’s based on the complexity of student growth that is possible when you look at a substantive paper or project.

    I have a friend who is already a good teacher and will become a great one, but I’m trying to find a gentle way to point out that every time he tells me about a great moment in his classroom, he focuses on his own monologues/soliloquies–it’s always about what amazing thing he told the students, not the amazing thing THEY said.

    Some teachers may just grasp that student focus from their first days in the classroom, but most of us, I think, go through that gradual trajectory of shifting the focus from ourselves to our students, and realizing that some of the best moments of our teaching happen when we’re not saying a word.

    • DaveOrphal

      You are too right!


      I love how you point out the narrative of traditional teacher evaluation:

      Seems obvious, but consider all the other all-too-common options:

      *Judge you by how passionately or brilliantly you lecture–YOUR charisma, YOUR brilliance, rather than the students’.

      *Judge you by how many of the right bubbles your students picked on tests measuring basic skills.

      *Just trust you that you’re a good teacher based on anecdotal evidence that your students have “grown so much.”

      But before I go on, I need to clear up something:

      I AM terribly charismatic AND brilliant. AND humility is like my 3rd BEST character trait!

      Now that I’ve put that potential controversy to rest, let me just say that my kids’ papers are the student-achievement data I want to be judged by. More than anything a bubble-in exam can show, these papers give me a glimpse at their thinking, curiosity, and determination. 

      • Gayle

        Literature and History

        Fabulous and wise — you're spot on with the analogy that "…lecturing has become relabeled as a best practice…"; sigh! It's all part of this madness to 'standardize' everything. We want to use data but we don't 'peer review' what has gone before. Research gives evidence that lecture is the least effective way to learn most things! And … yes, administrators are stuck in the 'performance' of the instructor. Dr. Harry Wong,, have given us great models for classroom management. Great tools, for sure. But, really,if someone who is charismatic and dramatic is what your principal is looking for in 'good teaching', then remember that not all performances receive Academy Awards and many solid and extraordinary roles are not recognized. Are we doomed to subjective evaluations?

        And…isn't the ultimate goal of all instruction to engender comprehension and studied application?  I, too, look at my students' writing and growth over time. That, in itself, is invaluable data to me and to each student. The intrinsic drive to achieve one's personal best in meaningful work is at the top of the list.

        I worked in a school district in California when I first began my career. This district required that administrators/principals would return to the classroom every fifth year as an instructor. Afterwards, they were placed at another school in an administrative role again in the cycle. I would love to see the data on that district's successes and challenges.

        Thank you all for the work you do.  

    • SusanGraham

      A Lesson Learned the Hard Way

      Dave, your post and Justin’s comment brought back memories of just how lucky I was to have learned a hard lesson early. I remember it vividly.

      In the high school classroom where I did my student teaching, there were blackboards on the wall at the front, windows and bookcases on the back wall, a bulletin board and doors on one side, and a bank of mirrors on the fourth wall. I was wearing my new, very professional and not-too-short red dress, not-to-high heels, and a perky scarf to draw attention to my face. I began the lesson with a short real life scenario from my own experiences to engage learners. Then, moving around the room, and using visuals for reinforcement, I delivered what I thought was an especially profound presentation. I followed up with one of a carefully prepared and particularly insightful question. And then, Yes! The girl at the middle back table,  who usually appeared somewhere between bored and surly, raised her hand. Yes! I had engaged a relunctant learner! I wished my supervisor was here to see this triumph teaching moment!  I called on her, smiling and nodding encouragement.

      And then she said, “Why do you keep watching yourself in the mirror?” 

      She smirked. There was a hush. The class turned and looked at her. Then they turned at looked at me. I looked at them. I noticed more than a few raised eyebrows and amused smiles. I thought they had been watching me teach.  In reality, they had been watching me watch myself. It was a raw and humiliating exposure. I don’t remember how I responded but I regret that I lacked the courage or maturity  to admit, “I’m watching at myself in the mirror, because I’m trying to see if I look like a real teacher. I want to be good at this, but I don’t really know if I’m doing it right. Can you tell me how to do it better?”

      It has been more than forty years since that girl outed me for playing teacher. I still probably owe that class an apology for my self absorption. I also owe them thanks for teaching me one of the most important lessons of teaching, even if it was painful and public.

      It was never about me. The measure of teaching is student performance.


  • MarciaPowell

    The change comes from within

    I can share the pain of the evaluation discussions shown here.  Here’s my thought, though.  I have never seen a great evaluation done by someone else who did not have a great relationship with me.   That means that the best evaluations I have ever had came from a) students; b) peers; c) myself.  

    Students can tell you when you have had a great day, and I hear that in the anecdote Liz shared.   Whether that principal got it or not, we see it in the enthusiasm.  We see that Liz has stored that in her memory.  It will be an idea to try to recreate in further classes.  That’s a perfect fit, and often, those great lessons happen when we let our guard down and build the community to the point of trusting.

    And community leads me to my second point.  It really is essential that we have groups like the one on this thread, so if we can’t be there in person, we can hear your perspective and voice.  A friend of mine and I have agreed to look for one facet in each other’s classes 3x per year.  His was student reflection.  I went into schedule with him, and he told me he had tried something different, showing me a GO-Pro video that he had created over seven days.   One picture, every two seconds, strung together to form a video.  Wow.  What an interesting piece.  At  first, I just thought of it as a cool promotional piece, but now I can see that the students and working with the teachers to be the architects of their OWN learning (I know that is a buzzword phrase, but I don’t remember where it is from).  There is evidence of the kids doing things, and those kids can explain what it is and why it mattered.  As I looked at the video, the instructor was there, but mostly is off-screen, directing the learning for self.

    My final thought is that Dave’s I AM matrix of ideas and Gayle’s honesty on ‘teacher pretend’ are the best types of evaluation–providing self-feedback. Now, realistic perception and a sense of humor are a great toolset in both of these examples–acknowledgement of self, followed by a recognition of a fundamental truth.  Dave shared his dream eval (kid work) and Gayle shared that honesty about self led to the same realization.

    Ultimately, teacher evaluations are a struggle for me, because they have never been valuable due to the work of my administrator.  They are valuable because it’s a chance to change, but from the inside-out.

    • DaveOrphal

      Thanks for the comment

      I think you’re right on the money. I advocate that nothing can better evaluate my overall teaching like looking at the growth in my students’ work over the course of the semester. However, your ideas of video, peer observations and student evaluation are a great way to get some fresh eyes and perspective on the processes of the classroom.