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Teacher clarity is key to instructional success

It’s not generally a topic of conversation in PLC, but it should be. Let’s start talking about something that is foundational to instruction - teacher clarity.

It should go without saying that teachers have clear expectations, directions, and explanations. But with the rush to get through curriculum and activities, it doesn’t always happen. I have sat in classrooms where students are chided for not following directions, when I, the experienced adult sitting attentively in the back, have no idea what they are supposed to be doing either. If I can’t figure out what the students are supposed to be doing, can they be expected to figure it out? This goes for learning objectives and quality expectations as well. If I can’t figure out what they are supposed to learn, and I know those standards, the students, who couldn’t care less about standards, surely don’t either. So what do we do? How do we not get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the day and forget to be clear? Teacher clarity is at the core of instruction, and sometimes, we need to take a break and remind ourselves just how important it is.

So what do I mean when I talk about teacher clarity? There are many different levels and they are all important to ensuring quality instruction.


This is the most basic, but it is still sometimes sped through. Directions need to be clear. You need to have all students’ attention. You need to stop and have all eyes on you. You need to state the directions, have them posted visually, and ask what questions students have – or ask them to explain them back to you.

But sometimes in the rush to finish, we give directions “on the run.” We don’t post them. We move around the classroom while passing out papers, giving directions as students put away papers. Or we give them directions when they are still finishing up the last assignment. And then we tell them to get started we wonder why they stare blankly at us.

Student attention matters and we have to have it before we give them the very important guidance for the day.

Learning goals & success criteria

Students need to know what they are learning and why. It’s why during walkthroughs I ask students, “What are you learning today?” Sometimes they can tell me without hesitation – which tells me the teacher was clear about the learning goals for today. But sometimes they stare blankly, stumble over their task, or just plainly say “I don’t know.” When I get this answer from several students, it means the learning goal is lost on the students. And unfortunately the positive impact on learning is lost, too.

Teachers need to clearly articulate to their students what they will be learning that day. Many times this is not the standard, but a break down of the standard. Here is how I break it down in my book Guiding Questions:

First things first: define your standard. What standard or standards do you expect your students to master in this unit? Where will they start? How will you order the learning for maximum effect? Narrow those standards down to what you will focus on first.
But your learning outcome is not the standard. When I’ve asked the question “What was your learning outcome?” many teachers point to the standard on the pre-printed strip taped to the board. Most standards are deep and complex and aren’t going to be mastered in one day. When I say learning outcome, I mean what the students are expected to learn that specific day.
For example, here is a standard from the new ELAR TEKS for 8th grade:
7(A) Analyze how themes are developed through the interactions of characters and events
Most likely, students are not going to master that standard in one day. How can you break up that learning? What from that standard can you expect them to learn in one day?
It might be broken down like this:
Students will identify key characters in a short story
Student will identify key events in a short story
Students will explain the significance of characters in a short story
Students will explain the significance of events in a short story
Students will determine the theme of a short story
Students will analyze how the author used the interaction of characters and events to develop theme
Students will use text-evidence to support their conclusions
Notice these outcomes, taken individually or in a small cluster, are clear to both student and teacher. They are achievable in a day or two depending on your students and your timeframes. They are assessable.

And what about those success criteria? Here’s more from my book Guiding Questions:

If you really want to ensure students know what they need to do in class that day, go beyond the learning intention. Create success criteria.
As an example, let’s pick one of the breakouts from the learning intention above.
Let’s go with:
Students will explain the significance of events in a short story
Potential success criteria:
Students accurately identify three significant events in the short story
Students accurately explain what makes the events significant
Student accurately use text evidence to support their explanation

Clarity in planning

But it’s not just what happens in front of the students - it’s also what happens during the planning process. Teachers need to be clear on what standards they are teaching, how they will be assessed, and what learning experiences will best help the student master those standards. Basically – how does everything go together? So you might ask yourself “How does this lesson help my students master the content? How will this activity help my students be successful on the assessment for these standards? How does this lesson provide what students will need to know for the next lesson?”

Bottom line – Teachers need to have a deep understanding of the curriculum, their students, and the assessment. This will ensure instruction is as effective as it can be.


So how clear are you? Take a moment to think about the following:

  • How do I present directions? Do I stand at the front of the room and get student attention? Do I post directions?

  • How do I present the learning goal for the day? Do I post it? Can the students understand it? Is it what they will learn today?

  • When I plan, do I clearly understand how the curriculum and assessment go together? Are my activities and experiences clearly linked to the learning outcome and assessment?

It’s never too late to work on teacher clarity! What action steps can you take to make sure you are rocking your clarity?

Talk a minute – or an hour – to discuss teacher clarity during PLC or planning this week. It is time well spent.

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