At the InterAct Summit 2016, Bridget Hamre delivered a powerful message during the opening keynote. We pulled out some of her key points into a two-part blog series, Interactions Are Our Core. 

When Bob and I developed the CLASS tool and then founded Teachstone, it all began with the seed of an idea that the interactions that children have with adults are one of the most important ingredients to children’s healthy development and learning.

We always knew that interactions among teachers and children mattered, but prior to the CLASS, we didn’t have a way to quantify them, or a common language to discuss them, or data to make the case to legislators that they mattered. We certainly didn’t invent teacher sensitivity, or quality of feedback, but just helped bring them into focus in new ways that have really had an impact on the field.

Teacher Interactions Matter

I often ask people to think about a teacher who really made a difference in their lives. Why was it that this person was so phenomenal? I usually get similar answers—and that is one of the coolest parts of doing this work. Let me tell you about two teachers who made a difference in my life.

In 2007, I was interviewed for an article in the New Yorker. About a month after the article came out, I received an email from my kindergarten teacher. She had seen the article and thought about me. We’ve kept in touch on and off since then. Last year, she sent me another email. She had been cleaning out her house and found some photographs of the two of us working together in the classroom from so many years ago. It was amazing that she still had these, and that she had kept them. The quality of the relationships that are formed between teachers and students—like the one between me and my kindergarten teacher—are the things that kids remember. They are the things that teachers remember, too.  

When we first started doing MyTeachingPartner™ (MTP™) Coaching, I was working with another teacher, Bonita. Like so many of my coaching relationships, Bonita didn’t need a coach. She was coaching me about what it means to be a good teacher. What I loved about her was that she spoke to her preschoolers in a way that made them feel important. They weren’t just little kids. She didn’t talk down to them. Every single interaction conveyed to these children that they were important people and had interesting things to say. She was funny and impactful in so many ways, but this respect she had for each child in the classroom really stood out to me.

We all have these teachers that we hold in our mind. I wish that all children were so lucky to have teachers like my kindergarten teacher or Bonita who nurture relationships and interactions in the classroom.

We've Made Progress

Sometimes, at least for me, it seems so obvious that interactions matter. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that when you said the word “quality” almost no one thought of the daily interactions between teachers and children. There were (and still are) a lot of different definitions for quality— teachers qualifications, the materials in the room, the ratio. But we weren’t paying enough attention to the interactions that were happening in the classroom.

We’ve made a lot of progress. Head Start, QRIS across the country, organizations like First 5 California and Georgia DECAL, and many others are finding ways to focus on interactions and supporting improvement efforts in the classroom. Partners like The Ounce for Prevention help us leverage some of these changes across the landscape. If you mention the word quality today, you’re much more likely to have someone think about interactions and what’s happening in the classroom than in the past.

But We’re Not There Yet

I was reminded of this when I recently taught an online course. What was fascinating was reading through the conversations people were having. In some of the opening materials, we shared some basic data about how often children are interacting with adults, how much time they spend in transitions and routines, and the quality of their interactions.

Here’s an example of what one teacher said:

As a teacher, I always felt that children learn best from other children and they learn through play.

This is true. Children learn from each other and through play, but the interesting part of this comment was that this teacher didn’t realize that what she did in the classroom mattered to child learning.  

Here’s another quote:

I did not stop to think about how important the verbal interactions between the teacher student are throughout the day.

While the importance of verbal interactions may be obvious to us, it might not be as obvious to all teachers. We have to do a better job of supporting and communicating to our teachers that what they do matters and has an impact on the children.

...Children can learn and not know that they are actually learning. When engaging with children playing games, counting, stacking blocks, etc. children are in fact learning, however it is done in a fun, fulfilling way that children are unaware of this is indeed a golden opportunity that is overlooked.

Children do learn through play and we don’t want to counteract that. But so many teachers have been taught that interacting actually interferes with children’s learning. Teachers haven’t been taught how to interact, and furthermore, they have been taught that if they do interact they will interfere with what is a natural learning process. This is a great challenge right now. How do we convey the importance of interactions in all of their complexities?

All of these teachers are right. Children learn through their peers and through play. Beyond letting people know that interactions matter, the challenge is this: how do you put play and instruction together in a way that is developmentally appropriate?

We Need to Find Balance

We have a lot to do to move the field in this direction. We have to find the right balance. The seed that started CLASS and Teachstone—that interactions matter—continues to grow.

There are three things that still form the core of what we are doing:

  • What is it that teachers are doing that matters?
    • We need to unpack and understand the specifics behind what’s happening in the classroom.
  • How do you measure that?
    • Science moves forward through measurement. Measurement can be a painful process and measuring something as complicated and complex as teaching can seem impossible. With the CLASS tool, we’ve simplified that process. It’s not perfect. There is some messiness when you try to put a number to something as complicated as teaching. But if we don’t try, if we don’t start somewhere, then we don’t know what’s going on and where we need to focus.
  • How do we support teachers to improve their interactions?
    • Measurement is great, but it’s all to leverage improvement. After we heard CLASS was included in Head Start regulations, there were many conversations about how it would work. From the beginning, Head Start and we were very clear that if the process was just about holding programs accountable, it would fail.  We have to equally invest in and support improvement efforts and give people the tools that they need to know and understand what interactions are and improve them.

Today, I invite you to join us. Help us grow the seed that interactions matter. We need to continue focusing on what teachers are doing, measuring it, and then supporting teachers in a way that helps them improve their interactions.

I’m excited to see how this seed will continue to grow.


Continue to the second post in this series...