Using Data to Support Teachers and Students

by | 11.13.18

How can we use data to guide us in supporting our students? How can we have conversations about data that feel empowering, and not judgmental? A lot of educators I know wrestle with these questions. At times, I think we focus on how to gather the information, put it in spreadsheets and make all these great charts, but then we lack the guidelines and expertise to talk about it and use it in ways that can lead to great support for our students.

In education, we are data rich. We have so much information available to us – as teachers, as administrators, and at the district level. We have demographic data, data on scores, data on enrollment and on attendance. Teachers are constantly collecting data in all forms – and some of it is anecdotal or observational. But it’s hard to say that any one type of data is “good” or “important.” What matters is how we use the data as educators. In other words, how does it guide us to better support our students?

Data can get a bad rap when it’s used in ways that don’t feel healthy for a school community. It’s important to be intentional about how we approach data conversations. I had to learn this – sometimes the hard way. There were times early in my career when I just put out information and said, “This is where we’re at. What are we doing?” I could have handled those conversations in a way that felt empowering and supportive of my fellow educators – and not judgmental. We all have the same goal: to support our kids as best as we can, using all of the tools we have as educators. We have to approach discussions about data as a team.

I want to share some of what I’ve learned about approaching data conversations in a way that builds trust. I’ve found that all of these approaches help us grow together:

1. Acknowledge anxiety around data.

I think anybody who is a first- or second- or third-year teacher or administrator feels some anxiety around data conversations. The first thing I’d say if I were having a conversation with an anxious colleague is, “That feeling is normal. You’re doing what you’re supposed to do, and you care about your work. If you didn’t have a little anxiety, I’d be worried.” Communicate openly about what the purpose of a conversation about data is, and make it clear you’re on the same team.

2. Emphasize that data is a starting place, not an ending.

In my mind, the best conversations around data start with this question: How can we use this data to move forward as a community centered around students and their needs? We can say, “This is information. It’s not bad. It’s not necessarily good, but it’s a way to talk about moving forward for our kids.” It’s never an “I gotcha.” It’s about how we can help each other, how we can support each other and how we can make stronger decisions for everyone now that we have useful information in front of us.

3. Talk about data points as pieces of a larger story.

All our kids have stories. All our colleagues have stories. Our school buildings have stories. Our school districts have stories. And all data tells a story. But a single piece of data only tells a single piece of these larger stories. We need to be able to look at it and ask, “Are there pieces of information we might be missing in order to see the whole picture?”

4. Build a culture of observation.

Talk with colleagues in your department or teacher grade level. Talk with your administrator and encourage them to come into your classroom and give feedback. It’s as simple as saying, “I’m going to try this new activity, and I’d love if you stop by and give me some feedback.” This a way to build the feeling of teamwork around lots of parts of our practice. If we’re in each other’s classrooms, if we see each other interacting with kids and doing our work, then looking at data will mean more than a bunch of numbers on a page. It will have a context.

Educators are great people. It’s inherent that we want to help. So we need to let ourselves be helped, too, and data is one tool we have for growing together.


About the Author


Justin Tarte
Justin Tarte

Justin Tarte is an educator in St. Louis, Missouri. Follow him on Twitter @justintarte.


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