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A Big-Picture Look at Students’ K-12 Journey

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “The Big Picture: How Many People Influence a Student’s Life?” by Kim Marshall in Phi Delta Kappan, October 2017 (Vol. 98, #2, p. 42-45),
In this Kappan article, Kim Marshall shares a visual display of the proportionate amount of time a student moving from kindergarten through 12th grade spends with each teacher. Some takeaways:
• There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. At least 66 different educators work with each student through the grades, and that doesn’t include pullout and push-in teachers, administrators, athletic coaches, nurses, counselors, custodians, cafeteria attendants, security officers, tutors, volunteers, and others. All told, there might be as many as 100 adults contributing to a student’s education.
• It’s a team effort. All these educators’ efforts combine to prepare students for their future lives – “all those lessons, discussions, worksheets, lectures, demonstrations, projects, labs, compliments, reprimands, push-ups, museum visits, homework assignments, quizzes, and tests that teachers orchestrate period by period, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year,” says Marshall, “totaling about 15,000 hours… Everyone contributes in some small way to growing students up.”
• Self-contained elementary teachers have more time with students. “For good or ill, elementary teachers can have a major effect on individual children,” says Marshall, “while middle- and high-school teachers see more students less often, affecting four or five times as many students in a less time-intensive, more subject-specific way.”
• Some teachers have an outsize effect. Marshall’s son David was inspired by a high-school history teacher to shift from what seemed like an inevitable science-math trajectory (he’s now a high-school history teacher). Conversely, one of Marshall’s acquaintances was told by a second-grade teacher that his handwriting was atrocious and he would never amount to anything. Decades later, this man still broods on the comment and is painfully self-conscious about his handwriting. “It’s impossible to predict which teachers will have this kind of life-changing effect on which students,” says Marshall, “but we know it happens in every school.”
• Good teaching really matters. This is especially true, studies show, when students have several effective teachers in a row – and the opposite is true when students have several less-effective teachers in succession. Rick DuFour and Mike Mattos said it well: “The key to improved student learning is to ensure more good teaching in more classrooms more of the time.” Students with any kind of disadvantage – a learning disability, learning a new language, conflicts at home, childhood trauma – particularly need effective instruction.
• The supervisory challenge is daunting. Many school administrators work with 25-35 teachers, and given that each one teaches about 900 lessons a year, meaningful supervision seems impossible. “And yet,” says Marshall, “the whole K-12 enterprise comes down to the quality of each lesson, accumulating over time.” A lot depends on teachers’ professionalism, training, and judgment – and on supervision, support, and collaboration that principals orchestrate.
• Coordination is key. Given the number of adults interacting with students within each school – and the tendency of some teachers to close their classroom doors and do their own thing – it’s especially important that school leaders bring curriculum coherence to the enterprise. Robert Marzano calls it “a guaranteed and viable curriculum,” so students learn what matters most and don’t waste time on what they already know. “Balancing the need for a solid grade-by-grade curriculum with the benefits of creativity and innovation at the classroom level (the perennial loose-tight dialectic) is one of the trickiest parts of the principal’s job,” says Marshall.
• Every student should be known. In the elementary grades, a lot rests on the shoulders of homeroom teachers. In middle and high schools, grade-level teams take on this challenge, making connections between subject areas and keeping an eye on each student’s intellectual and personal growth. School leaders strive for “synergy,” says Marshall, “making all those adults’ contributions to students’ lives add up to more than the sum of their parts.”
• Progress is seldom dramatic. Student learning is often frustratingly slow, and Hollywood-style epiphanies don’t happen too often. Teachers need patience, diligence, sometimes-irrational faith, and plenty of support.
• Schools are only part of the story. Educators’ impact is enhanced when they make connections to what’s going in students’ outside lives: family and home environment, homework, TV, Internet, friends and social media, after-school sports and other programs, music lessons, religious instruction, and more. “Educators somehow have to connect as many of the strands as possible,” Marshall concludes, “making sure that every child has the support to grow into a well-educated, decent human being.”

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