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Getting to the Heart of Quality Teaching

29 Jan 2015 by Rebecca Berlin
Originally featured by the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership.

Program leaders’ understanding of what it means to provide quality teaching has changed quite a bit over the past twenty-five years. A focus on quality used to mean providing a safe place for children to play with plenty of stimulating materials and books to read. Now that most programs provide these basics in their early childhood classrooms, our focus has shifted from the what to the how of quality.

Administrators are interested in how teachers interact with children, how they use time and materials to get the most out of every moment, and how they ensure children are engaged and stimulated. Program leaders are interested in these things because research has shown that these interactions really impact short-term gains in children’s learning and long-term gains in their academic and social success.

Let’s compare two classrooms, both equally safe and well-organized environments, with equally high-quality resources and materials.

Rainbow Preschool Classroom
  • Teachers are actively engaged with the children, encouraging children with verbal support (“You’re working really hard, Jenny.”), asking follow-up questions to keep conversations going, engaging in their play, and helping children brainstorm solutions to problems.
  • Children are deeply engaged in activities and eager to share their ideas. They’re learning to regulate their behavior while establishing peer connections.
Sunshine Preschool Classroom
  • Teachers take a less active role in children’s activities. Although they are invited into play, opportunities are often missed to take interactions further. They ask questions, which encourage children to participate but they’re closed-ended in nature so conversations never seem to fully develop.
  • Children are safe and comfortable, but they don’t stay engaged with activities for long and seem to wander from one thing to the next. Some children hover at the edges, not sure what to do.

The teachers in the Sunshine classroom aren’t “bad” teachers. They have established a safe environment for children to learn and play, and they try to engage children in activities and conversation. However, amid the hustle and bustle of a busy classroom, they miss opportunities to connect with children and seize on teachable moments and therefore opportunities to increase learning. The teachers in the Rainbow classroom maintain the same level of safety, but by engaging fully with children, they make the most of every moment and impact the quality of learning in their classroom.

What makes the difference in the quality of teaching practices in the two classrooms?

Teachers in the Rainbow classroom are likely to have the support of an instructional leader (e.g., supervisor or coach) who routinely spends time in the classroom closely observing the teachers interacting with the children. The instructional leader uses a valid and reliable assessment tool to provide the teachers with objective data to help them make decisions about how to improve their practice.

How might early childhood leaders make the switch in their programs?

Many early childhood programs are utilizing the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) to support growth in this area. This observation tool was developed to make effective teacher-child interactions objective and measurable. It is based on many years of studies and publications and replications across different classrooms which verify that the interactions measured by the CLASS tool make a difference in children’s learning and development. With professional development and ongoing support from an instructional leader, teachers can improve these interactions. CLASS-based professional development gives teachers and instructional leaders the chance to learn about what makes an interaction effective (or not), and provides them with a roadmap to improve the quality of teaching as we understand it today.


CLASS Implementation Guide Call to Action