In 1975, McDonald’s put out a series of ads to entice customers to buy their Big Mac. You may recall that the ad listed all the ingredients including its “special sauce.” Of course, no one could know what was in the special sauce because they were competing heavily against Burger King’s Whopper. Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “This is an awfully strange opening for the monthly missive from a Head of School at a Jewish day school,” but stick with me, there’s a connection.
In early December, I completed my first round of teacher observations. This means that I sat in every teacher’s class for fifty minutes and observed a lesson. I reviewed their lesson plans before and then took notes during the class. Afterwards, I wrote a two-page narrative for each teacher documenting the lesson including areas of commendation and recommendation; at our weekly meetings, we discussed my observations. This may sound like a lot of work, but this is what high performing schools do. It was a gift for me as well to spend so much time in classes, amidst my many other responsibilities. So, what did I see?
I saw teachers who are passionate about their subjects and students. They teach with creativity, spark, and intentionality. Learning is visible through students’ questions, output, and engagement. What was especially heart-warming to me was that these weren’t lessons that everyone does each year. Rather, many of the teachers opted to experiment and do something they had never done before because they were eager for feedback. They feel supported, respected, and safe to take risks – yet another hallmark of a high performing school.
Anyone can find a great lesson; they are available with a click of button. But what you can’t find in a book or an internet lesson is a guide for how to have a smoothly running classroom where students are motivated, independent, and caring. This only happens when classroom routines are so finely tuned that they hum like a running engine. This only happens when a teacher knows each student so well that they are working on individualized assignments. This only happens when a teacher has created a classroom culture that encourages and reinforces inquiry and appreciation for others and their interests.
These are the ingredients of our “secret sauce!”