As the former Vice President of Education and Program Operations, as well as the Head Start/Early Head Start Program Director, of a large Chicago Agency, I am often asked the question, “How did you get your CLASS scores to rise so much?” Our Pre-K Instructional Support scores rose from a 2.65 to a 3.74 the first year, and from a 3.74 to a 4.17 the second year. It wasn’t an easy process. And it was up to us to show our teachers the importance of teacher-student interactions and slowly introduce how CLASS scores could be used to improve these interactions.
Below are three steps we took to introduce the importance of CLASS and interactions to our teachers and, ultimately, raise our CLASS scores.
Our first change was semantic. I never want scores to be something that teachers see as a “gotcha.” At the start, we didn’t talk about raising CLASS scores. What we talked about was the CLASS research detailing how improved interactions with children lead to improved student outcomes. By coming from this angle, my leadership team and I could talk about best practices and effective interactions, instead of numbers and scores. I was trying to create a data-based culture in the least threatening manner possible. If we made our focus about increasing the quality of teaching, we knew an increase in CLASS scores would follow.
We talked about the difference between planning things for children to do vs. planning what we want children to learn. Intentional teaching matters. I wanted the staff to start planning with the intention of learning, not the intention of keeping children busy with fun and exciting activities. I had to flip the mindset. Teachers needed to start viewing the fun and exciting activities as a way to teach children. I asked the staff quite openly, “Do you want to be considered high-quality childcare providers or high-quality early educators?” That question began to resonate with them, especially as we talked about raising up the profile of the profession.
Following the discussion about raising the quality of instruction, we started discussing the CLASS domains and dimensions. While the leadership team was used to looking at data, teachers were not quite there yet. Our focus with the teachers became interactions first and data second. We knew if we increased the quality of the interactions, we could then introduce positive data increases, which would make it much easier for us to integrate data into the culture with the teaching staff.
We started with some of the emotional support dimensions of Teacher Sensitivity and Regard for Student Perspective, where we had scores in the 6’s. We had teachers talk to each other about all of the things they were aware of and responsive to, as well as each time during the day where they felt that they were following the lead of their students. This allowed the teachers to feel affirmed and be able to say, “We already do that!” It was our “doorway in” with the staff.
Next, we moved to Concept Development. Instead of trying to change everything teachers did, we would ask questions like, “This is a really great activity, what do you want the children to learn from it?” and, “If that is what you want them to learn, how can we tweak what you have planned to assure that this happens?” Finally, the most challenging question we asked was, “This seems like a rote or memorization type of thing that you want children to learn, how can we make a few more changes so that it becomes a thinking activity?” We were trying to re-frame the teachers’ thinking around the CLASS definition of Concept Development and indicator of Analysis and Reasoning.
We used math as our starting point. We modeled the use of sorting activities and made them rather complex by using only natural materials and not allowing the sorts to be by color or shape. The children started thinking and sorting the materials by the way in which they could be used, or from where they actually came. When teachers saw that children were capable of these higher-order thinking skills, their attitudes began to change. They saw themselves differently. They began to see the act of planning differently. And most importantly, they saw interactions and intentional teaching differently.
While the staff had been introduced to the CLASS framework of interactions, we had not yet introduced our scores. We waited until after the first year to explain and introduce that scoring process, and we were able to show the amazing gains that had been made in only one year. Our scores became something to celebrate and not a “gotcha.” Teachers were encouraged and began to strive harder to raise the numbers. They could easily identify how they were already demonstrating CLASS indicators and behavioral markers. This allowed them to say, “We do that!” which served as motivation to reach for even higher levels of success. They were now motivated to do more, dig deeper, and continue raising quality.
They were also interested in seeing their scores and looking at data. However, for us, it was never about the scores. The scores were simply an outcome. These higher scores were a reflection of our teachers’ consistent focus on intentional planning, and high-quality interactions and teaching. The real, and most important, outcome was what our students were achieving and learning.
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