Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

Deciding on Destinations

Last week you considered some potential areas for growth on the path toward teaching excellence. When you look at the benchmarks you identified, do they seem doable, or possibly too comprehensive? If they seem too broad, you and your mentor may want to brainstorm for the smaller steps along the way. These could be articulated as outcomes or essential questions, each leading toward benchmarks which in turn head toward a final destination.


The mentors I’ve worked with have inspired me to see the similarities between planning for teaching and for professional development. When you’re designing your courses, you organize units/lessons around aims. You and your mentor can also plan your professional development around outcomes. Like your lesson objectives, “they can be SMART[1] and follow a SWBAT-pattern[2] or a pattern you have developed for your own teaching that you’re more comfortable with. Like benchmarks, they can encompass knowledge and skills aims as well as affect and values.” [3]

Essential Questions

Last year a colleague introduced me to essential questions. They’re outcomes reformulated as questions that present learning as problems to be solved rather than knowledge to be gained. They are particularly suited to professional development contexts where you and your mentor are engaged in co-inquiry that leads to solving classroom issues and learning teaching.

Part way through my Teaching Methodology course a year ago, I started reframing each unit’s outcomes as essential questions. The table linked here—Outcomes or Essential Questions—shows my original outcomes for a unit on teaching speaking and their reformulation as essential questions.

The Final Destination

On my way to this semester’s first Teaching Methodology class, I realized that when I reframed course outcomes as essential questions, I’d forgotten one. I decided I’d ask my students to do the work for me. (Don’t tell them that wasn’t my original plan.) Together we came up with the fourth. All four are listed below:

  1. What do current approaches to English Language Teaching (ELT) encompass?
  2. How well do these approaches fit into ELT in China?
  3. How could they be integrated into your teaching context?
  4. What does 教书育人 (Teach books, cultivate human beings.) mean to you?

My students labored over the fourth question, but their struggle laid the groundwork for our course design. It gives them ownership of learning as they complete activities that help them figure out answers to each unit’s essential questions.

When thinking about the final destination of professional development, one thought that comes to mind is teaching excellence. Stretching beyond that goal is autonomy and taking responsibility for learning. In other words, ownership of your growth as a teacher is your final destination.

[1]   Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Reasonable, and Time-limited..
[2]   Students will be able to…
[3]   Melissa K. Smith and Marilyn Lewis, Supporting the Professional Development of English Language Teachers: Facilitative Mentoring, (New York: Routledge, forthcoming).

Further exploration

  • All of the posts in this professional development series draw from a forthcoming book:  Supporting the Professional Development of English Language Teachers: Facilitative Mentoring by Melissa K. Smith and Marilyn Lewis, (New York: Routledge). We’ll let you know here on Master Teaching when it’s available for purchase. (Both paper and e-versions will be published at the same time.)
  • For more on essential questions.
  • For more on learner ownership.

What’s your perspective?

We welcome your comments on any of the ideas in this post or in answer to the questions below.

  • Have you used both outcomes and essential questions in your teaching? Which do you like better? Which seems to fit best as you and your mentor identify smaller steps that lead toward benchmarks?
  • Which way of articulating goals seems to encourage taking ownership of your professional development?
  • As we’ve stepped toward professional development, who has taken more ownership, you or your (peer) mentor? Is this a good balance? What might need to change (if anything)?
  • What destinations is the Master Teacher taking you toward? How might He want you to take ownership of your growth?

Try it out

1. Working with your (peer) mentor, refer back to last week’s Potential Areas for Growth, and choose one benchmark to work toward.

2. Brainstorm together for some of the smaller steps that would take you toward your chosen benchmark.

3. Decide with your mentor whether you will use outcomes or essential questions to articulate these smaller steps.

4. Make a list of outcomes or essential questions to work toward over the next few weeks of stepping toward professional development.

5. If you adapted the mentoring contract template two weeks ago, you can now finish it (the mentoring plan) by describing benchmarks and outcomes/essential questions you’re working toward.

Post Author

Melissa K. Smith

Photo Credit: Mimadeo Flickr via Compfight cc

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This entry was posted on October 4, 2017 by in goals, learner ownership, learning teaching, Melissa K. Smith, professional development.



Photo Credit: Eric Fischer via Compfight cc
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