The Teaching Matters NSI: Learning Together with Students as our Teachers

January 6, 2022

"Individually we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean."  - Ryunosuke Satoro

The Teaching Matters Network for School Improvement (NSI) is a community of 16 NYC middle schools (spread across 11 of NYC’s districts) working together to ensure all students are prepared for high school and beyond, through the integration of culturally responsive-sustaining practices and continuous improvement methods. Our NSI launched in January 2021, is grounded in the common aim of increasing the number of Black and LatinX students, and students experiencing poverty, who end 8th grade and are  set up for future success. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for 5 years, the first 3 years focus on disparities in literacy proficiency as a problem of practice. In Years 4-5, based on network progress on ELA outcomes, we will add math support in response to relevant data.  

We anchor our work in the following theory of action:


Committed to equitable outcomes and guided by principles of improvement, we are on a learning journey. In partnership with teachers and leaders, we deeply analyze the problems our schools face and the system within which they exist, hypothesize about the biggest levers for improvement, test changes that we believe will bring us closer to our shared goals, and leverage the power of networks to understand what works, for whom, and under what conditions - recognizing that by working as a collective community, we will accelerate our progress.  

Early Learnings

We invite you to join us on this journey, as we share what we are learning in our NSI. We highlight three key learnings we are taking from the first year of our work, that we hope you can apply to yours.

1. Listening to students is at the heart of equity and improvement work.

As the ultimate stakeholders in our work, students’ perspectives and experiences are critical in building practices that meet their needs and support their growth. And, leveraging the multi-layered diversity of students’ identities as assets for teaching and learning is at the core of Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education. As articulated in New York’s Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework, “Culturally responsive education is about teaching the students in front of you.” Further, student perceptions of classroom teaching have been shown to correlate strongly with teacher effectiveness and learning outcomes.  

In the Teaching Matters NSI, we analyze a variety of data sources to understand students’ perspectives, needs, and perceptions of the classroom environment. One of the first key activities we engaged ELA teams in to understand the problem of disparities in literacy performance was to conduct empathy interviews. Sample interview questions include “What is one word you’d use to describe how you feel about reading? Writing? ELA class? Why?” and “What do you enjoy reading/learning about?”

Teams then created empathy maps of students’ responses, considering their actions, thoughts, and feelings, and how those identify students’ needs and insights for improvement for the team. Equity pauses intentionally integrated within our protocols helped teams to be mindful of the mindsets or biases they may bring to interpreting student responses. For example:

Take a moment to reflect critically and honestly: does your empathy map seem to authentically illustrate student experiences? It can be easy in this exercise for deficit thinking to sway our interpretation of what students may be thinking or feeling. Are there places where your own beliefs & hypotheses may be “filling in the gaps” or even overshadowing the perspectives you gathered from students, families and/or community members? If so, ask yourself why? Is defensiveness or deficit thinking influencing how you’ve interpreted the data?

In addition to this qualitative empathy interview data, we also leveraged a research-based, validated student survey from Panorama Education (developed in partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Education), to engage student voice directly on the extent to which classrooms are culturally responsive and sustaining, a key aspect of our working theory of improvement. Students provided feedback twice during our first year, on six topics including:  rigorous expectations, teacher-student relationships, cultural awareness and action, valuing of subject area, classroom belonging, and classroom engagement.

NSI members valued both the Panorama survey data as well as the practice of empathy interviewing, finding these to be accessible and compelling vehicles for elevating the importance of students’ perceptions of their classroom environments.  We leveraged these data sets to ground our NSI in the critical questions, explicitly answered in the words and voices of students:

  • What are our students telling us?
  • What might that mean they are asking us to do?

We again used Equity Pauses to interrogate our own assumptions, and acknowledge how we ourselves and the system at large contribute to the results we identified.  This analysis provided a compelling springboard for strategic and responsive improvements to the classroom environment. 

2. Students are telling us to improve classroom engagement, belonging, and the connection of the subject matter to their lives.

So, what were our students telling us?  In the first administration of the Panorama survey in February of 2021, shortly after our NSI launch, we saw strengths in areas such as teacher-student relationships and gaps related to classroom engagement, belonging, and the extent to which students value the subject matter and connect it to their lives.  While 89% of students responded favorably to a question about how important it is that they do well in their ELA class, only 30% responded favorably when asked how often they use ideas from the class in their daily lives.  Our network team summarized these trends in the voices of students:

  • The teacher mostly cares about me, but this content isn’t connected to my life.
  • It’s important to me that I do well in this class, but I’m not interested in what we’re learning about right now.
  • I don’t see the connection between this class and who I am as a person.
  • I am not making connections to what I am learning in the classroom to my life outside of the classroom.
  • I’m not sure how people who are different from me experience our world.

We translated their asks into the following:

  • Make learning fun.
  • Connect learning to my life.
  • Connect me to other students.
  • Choose content that’s relevant to me.
  • Continue to build trust in the classroom.
  • Take the time to get to know me more.

At our first network convening, teams built from their synthesis of this data to create “elevator pitches” that seeded subsequent improvement work, such as these examples:

Breakout Group 1 Elevator Pitch

Guided by the voices of the students we serve, and informed by the wealth of research showing the importance of engagement, belonging and students’ perceptions of the purpose and relevance of what they are learning on student success, our improvement teams then set out to make changes to the classroom environment to make it more inclusive, focusing on classroom routines that build community, affirm student identity, and allow students to give feedback about the classroom environment. Our second administration of the survey in June 2021 showed early but promising increases in engagement and belonging, that we hope to build upon as we continue to track this metric over the 5 years of the initiative.

3. Coaching accelerates learning and supports critical mindset shifts

At Teaching Matters, we prioritize intensive, job-embedded, student-centered coaching.  Our coaches, such as NSI Senior Educational Consultant Lance Ozier, bring their content expertise to synergize with the deep practitioner knowledge in our schools, anchoring the work in relationship and responsiveness.  As we supported schools through the first year of our NSI, we found that these relationships between coaches and practitioners were critical to the success of our work.

In particular, coaches supported educators in examining and unpacking their identities, with the rationale that educators who have a better understanding of their identities are better positioned to understand and teach all students, especially BIPoC students. Engaging in their own self-examination and critical consciousness work alongside their teams, coaches facilitated activities such as:

  • Asking teams to unpack the layers of their identity onion.
  • Engaging in dialogue and personal reflection about experiences of feeling different.
  • Unpacking how our own identities or experiences may bias our perceptions towards students.
  • Studying important scholarship by authors such as Gholdy Muhammad, Adeyemi Stembridge, and April Baker-Bell.
  • Identifying shifts in understanding of students that resulted from the empathy and survey work, articulating what “I used to think” as compared to “Now I think.”

Through this work, we heard teachers say things like “I used to think students did well in a class that they enjoyed. Now I think students work well when they are given the tools and encouragement to succeed.”  Having a greater awareness of their own role in establishing classroom systems and culture to bolster student engagement is just one way in which teachers began to develop an increasingly nuanced understanding of their students and their experiences of the classroom.

It was encouraging to begin to see preliminary shifts in mindsets through this work. And, we recognize that there is much more work to be done and a need for continued identity and cultural competence work for us all, as we collectively seek to internalize culturally responsive-sustaining practice as a way of being that informs our doing. 

Stay Tuned:  Looking Ahead

We are currently mid-stream in our Year 2 work, where we are testing and refining promising practices to create more inclusive, culturally responsive-sustaining classroom environments, rooted in the voices and experiences of our students.  Many school teams are working to include identity questions into their lessons, which prompt students to connect content to their own identities, making connections between the themes, characters or concepts in the texts they are reading and their own lives. Others are experimenting with a protocol to build empathy and provide students with structured ways to understand the experiences and perspectives of their peers. We are working intentionally to measure the impact of these practices in the classroom, and to mine our data for “bright spots” to examine and celebrate, as we seek to understand what changes lead to improvements in classroom engagement and belonging - and ultimately literacy proficiency. To this end, teams will also begin to test promising strategies related to improving literacy instructional practices, integrated within a shared high quality curriculum. We are also studying what proactive supports improve attendance, working with leadership and attendance teams to closely track attendance data using the New Visions Data Portal.

Stay tuned! We will share what’s working, for whom, and under what conditions, as we strive to create inclusive classroom environments that engage students in rigorous and relevant literacy learning that improves their well-being, achievement and future success.

To support you in learning about and from your students, as the foundation of improving teaching and learning in your schools or districts, we offer this mini-course on Empathy Mapping.  It provides actionable guidance and tools to support your schools and teachers in affirming students’ identities and understanding their perspectives. This course and many more resources are available through @SchoolAnytime, our powerful online professional development platform. Connect with us to learn more.

I'd like to learn more

All Kids are Math Kids: Fostering Belonging in the Math Classroom Through Intentional Planning

Project-Based Learning as an Alternative Assessment Tool

Using TikTok to Teach Math

Recent Posts