The Ten Basics of High-Expertise Teaching

By Jon Saphier - October 30, 2014 

Below are the highest leverage teacher skill-clusters for impacting student achievement. Each is selected not only because of the deep research base behind it, but because it causes other shifts as well. Inevitably, each skillset pulls in, like a magnet, a set of related high-power teaching skills. For example, being proficient at giving students feedback calls on us to identify and communicate to students the criteria for success; feedback is given in relation to the criteria for success.


The teacher thoroughly plans lessons by first looking at student materials and digging deeply into their content to identify the hierarchy of concepts that may be inherent in that content. Next is identifying the most important ideas in the content of the day that need to be lifted up. Pre-assessment allows the teacher to select the most worthwhile objective for these particular students, today. The teacher also knows enough about how students learn particular skills and concepts to predict student misconceptions in advance and plan workarounds. All this translates into clear statements of what students will know or be able to do in student friendly language. As a result, students can tell you the objective of the lesson. And they can tell you why it is worthwhile to learn.


The teacher gives students skillful detailed responses to their work every day with high frequency. These responses are non-judgmental and framed with respect to the criteria for success. They are also practical and useful for the students to improve their performance. As a result, students get a constant flow of usable information about how they are doing and how to improve.


The teacher convinces students to believe in “effort based ability” and consistently sends these messages with tenacity and perseverance: “What we’re doing is important; you can do it; and I won’t give up on you”. These messages are sent through daily interactive teacher behavior, class structures and routines, and policies and procedures. These teachers take it upon themselves to teach the students explicitly how to exert effective effort and to welcome error as normative and an opportunity for learning.


This is a constellation of skills, not one skill. It is a cluster which, when assembled together, produce robust student dialog. One hears evidence-based student talk at high levels of thinking where students take responsibility for their own learning, listen to each other, and teach each other in a climate of mutual support and non-defensiveness. Students talk more than teachers do. This allows the teacher to figure out misconceptions and/or gaps in students’ understanding.


The teacher creates a climate of community, risk-taking, and ownership among all their students. Thus, the students know each other as people. They have also explicitly been taught the skills to cooperate and work as a team. The students feel it is safe to make mistakes and view errors as feedback, not judgments; thus they take academic risks and challenge themselves to do hard work. The students have voice and ownership in constructing the “rules of the classroom game”; and they also have ownership of their learning through self-scoring, self-evaluation, and goal setting with plans of action.


The teacher uses a repertoire of research-based cognitive strategies like visual imagery and modeling thinking aloud. These strategies, chosen to match the students, curriculum, and content, make concepts and ideas clear and accessible to students. When content needs re-teaching for students who didn’t get it the first time around, the teacher has alternative approaches to use. Learning experiences are framed by “activators” and frequent “summarizers”. Checking for understanding is constant.


Teachers make students feel known and valued because they know about the students’ life and culture and show an interest in their activities and success. But they also ensure that artifacts, books, and curriculum experiences connect to the students’ culture. The unrelenting tenacity and high-expectations of teachers with low-performing students also becomes evidence to the student that the teacher thinks they are worthwhile.


The teacher knows how to investigate student work all the way from item analysis of standardized tests to work samples from yesterday’s class. She can analyze student errors and identify gaps in student learning. Thus, skillful error analysis leads directly to targeted re-teaching for those students who didn’t get it the first time around.


The teacher makes literacy an embedded priority. Regardless of his subject or academic discipline, he ensures a high volume of quality reading and writing about the content, and scaffolds the students’ entry into text. Importantly, he is skilled at facilitating “literate conversations” about the text and writing with complex sentences (Writing Revolution, Atlantic 10/2012.)


The teacher is committed to and proficient in vocabulary instruction.Regardless of her academic discipline, she understand that the words and concepts they represent are intimately related and indispensable to student learning, and that far too many assumptions are made about what words students understand.