Great Teachers Are Made in the Smallest Moments


Audrey Breen

Retiring dean Bob Pianta’s career researching teacher-student interactions turned into a key to unlock effective teaching.

We all can describe how a great teacher made a positive impact on our lives. In 2008, writer Malcolm Gladwell was on the hunt to learn more: What exactly makes a teacher great? And, if they aren’t yet great, could they learn to be? His questions led him to the University of Virginia where he sat down with Bob Pianta, dean of the School of Education and Human Development and expert on effective teaching.

In his article, Most Likely to Succeed, published in The New Yorker in December of 2008, Gladwell recounts sitting with Pianta as the two reviewed videos of teachers. Occasionally Pianta would pause the video, describing how the teacher leveraged a particular moment for greater impact. Over four decades of research, Pianta learned that great teachers are attuned to the small, individual moments of interaction with their students and intentionally focus on those moments to reinforce their connections with students.

Pianta began unlocking the answers to Gladwell’s questions during his very first teaching experience.

A newly minted middle school special education teacher in Connecticut, Pianta was assigned a cohort of sixth grade boys, who he would ultimately teach for three consecutive years. It was toward the end of the first year he noticed something shift in his classroom.

“I realized toward the end of that first year that I was no longer focused on or worrying about students’ behavior or my classroom management skills, issues that concerned me at the start of the year,” Pianta said. “I was able to spend most of my time just teaching, and my students were learning, and I wondered why.

“As a teacher, the most important thing to me was my connection to kids. And on some level, I realized this shift to being free to focus on teaching was about my relationship with these guys. We had a connection in which I trusted them, and I think they trusted me to have their best interests in mind.  I think this gave us all a sense of security with one another. Something about relationships matters for teaching and learning.”

Not long after, Pianta was in graduate school studying psychology, specifically parent-child attachment and how it affects child development. During the hundreds of hours he spent coding videos of parent’s and children’s interactions, he was reminded of his classroom experience.

“As I watched those videos, I noticed the incredible scaffolding by parents coming alongside their children when working on a tough task, helping nudge kids along with the right attention and emotional support,” Pianta said. “I saw that and said, ‘Oh! That’s really good teaching!’”

From there, Pianta began applying the psychology of attachment and child development from the context of parent-child relationships to teacher-child relationships.

“Coding those videos taught me that a connection between an adult and child is something you can see and measure,” Pianta said. “I also realized you can describe it so others can see it as well. If you can do that, then you can create a system of tools to help people, specifically teachers, develop their skills in a way that is strategic and can become scalable.”

In other words, Pianta saw it was potentially possible to define and measure the connection between teachers and students through observing their interactions and in turn, to help teachers develop better connections with their students.

Testing the Idea in Charlottesville

Upon arriving at the University of Virginia in 1986, Pianta partnered with Nancy Gercke, the director of the early childhood education program in Charlottesville City Schools. Together, they launched a project screening incoming kindergarteners and Pianta created a questionnaire for teachers to report on their relationships with students in their classrooms. That questionnaire ultimately became the Student-Teacher Relationship Scale that today is used worldwide.

Pianta began the project by observing the incoming kindergarteners doing puzzles with their parents or adult caregivers during kindergarten orientation sessions. He then conducted studies that observed teachers doing the same task with these students. The projects centered on this question: How does a teacher-student relationship in school build on the capabilities children have developed through interactions with caregivers?

“The teachers were really interested and helped us think through what we were observing,” Pianta remembers. “They offered valuable and unique insights into how they perceived the value of their relationships with the students.”

Pianta’s research expanded from these first small-scale studies into large-scale data collection when he joined a national study of early childcare being conducted through the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The University of Virginia was one of 10 sites across the country collecting data. When the senior UVA researcher relocated, a young Pianta was asked to become the principal investigator at the UVA site.

“In that moment I found myself sitting across the table from scholars in my field I had been citing in my own research.  It was an incredible learning experience.”

Tasked with measuring the quality of preschool and childcare, the team developed a set of scales that were applied across the range of  Head Start, public PreK, community and private preschool classrooms. Pianta then collaborated with colleagues at a newly funded research center at the University of North Carolina to further develop those scales to measure teacher-child interactions. The resulting assessment was the first iteration of the tool that has come to define Pianta’s career: The Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or CLASS.

Measuring & Improving Teacher-Student Interactions

The Classroom Assessment Scoring System is the observational tool that measures those moment-to-moment exchanges between teacher and student in the classroom. Trained observers watch teachers working with their students and assign a score indicating the quality of their interactions.

“The observer looks for loops of when a teacher notices and responds to a child’s cue,” Pianta explained. “For example, a teacher may notice a student’s eye gaze wanders off. How does the teacher respond to bring back that student’s attention? Does the teacher respond in a way that also enables the student to feel affirmed to be involved?”

With the CLASS tool taking shape, Pianta and his team sought to understand the impact higher quality interactions had on students. Drawing from studies using the CLASS across more than 3,000 classrooms, analyses showed that students in classrooms with teachers whose interactions with students scored higher on the CLASS tool also realized greater academic and social-emotional skill development. Effective teaching is, in part, a cumulation of these moment-to-moment interactions.

“The goal of this work was always more than just measuring great teaching,” Pianta said. “It was much more about creating a tool that could show teachers when they were engaging students well and helping them to do it more often.”

With this evidence-based, validated measure of effective teaching, Pianta and his team created an online coaching model that allowed teachers to work with a coach to review video footage of their teaching. The system, called MyTeachingPartner, allowed teachers to focus their attention on very structured, organized information on their interactions. With their coach, they could see clearly those moment-to-moment interactions essential to effective teaching and then consider how they could improve that interaction in the future.

“It really does seem to be the case that these interventions enable teachers to view the moment-to-moment interaction using a language and lens that help them understand what it is they are seeing,” Pianta said. “It creates something like a compass that allows them to be intentional with their teaching practice in the classroom.”

The impact of  MyTeachingPartner coaching was immediate and then led Pianta and the team to develop a course for teachers based on the same principles and methods.

“Valid, standardized observations connected to student outcomes is a way to gain actionable information for teachers to improve upon with the kids they’re teaching right now. Teachers were having these ‘Aha!’ moments that drove improvements in the quality of their teaching during that current year. We also saw that teachers were still improving a year later.”

The majority of Pianta’s early work was focused on early childhood education and early learning. But a study published in Science in 2011, showing improved academic outcomes for secondary students whose teachers received coaching, revealed that meaningful interactions between teachers and students made a positive impact even in the later grades.

“Even though it may seem that interactions happening in early childhood education are primarily social-emotional and that secondary teaching is about instruction in content, that is not actually true,” Pianta said. “Interactions between teachers and students from preschool to high school have both socio-emotional and instructional features and value.

“Observing how teachers engage and interact with their students offers teachers of all grades and subjects a type of information they can utilize immediately to improve their teaching in real time.”

As the reach of Pianta’s work expanded from early childhood into elementary and secondary grades, it also expanded across the country and even the world. From its use in states like Arizona, Georgia and Virginia, the CLASS tool extended to every Head Start classroom in the U.S. But it is some of the international collaborations that are particularly meaningful to Pianta.

In Chile and in Colombia, Pianta has worked with educators to develop similar observational tools that have become an important part of the early childhood education systems they are building. Across the Atlantic, Pianta has worked alongside colleagues in Norway, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands for nearly 20 years and CLASS has been widely used in Australia as well.

What Comes Next

Although not entirely sure what role he will play after stepping down as dean this summer, Pianta is excited about the next generation of work in observations and the CLASS tool. He plans to collaborate with colleagues at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, the research center Pianta founded at the School of Education and Human Development, and he is interested in updating and refining the CLASS tool.

“There are ways to make it more effective and efficient, especially the way technology is unfolding,” Pianta said. “For example, using heart rate monitors on students, we can measure their reactions to their teacher’s tone of voice or if they respond differently to a teacher’s verbal cue versus when the teacher comes alongside them to support them. Using heart rate monitors on teachers can help them understand aspects of interactions that are particularly challenging. I also think we can use new technologies to study how teachers’ interactions impact students’ cognitive processing in real time.”

Pianta also hopes this work can support efforts to create more equitable classrooms. He views the fact that a disproportionate number of Black and brown boys are disciplined for problem behavior as in part, a relational and interactional problem. According to Pianta, one of the most important findings of the study published in Science was that there were no instances of harsh disciplinary practices used by white teachers in classrooms with predominantly Black and brown students when those teachers were engaged in the coaching program.

“Effective teachers make instruction relevant for students, taking their students’ perspectives into account,” Pianta said. “That can be hard to do. When teachers’ stress levels are high, or they are over-focused on content, their capacity to see the student can shut down entirely. Our coaching program seemed to help scaffold teachers’ capacity to see their students’ interests and meet students where they are.”

And it is meeting students where they are and creating meaningful connections with them that is at the heart of effective teaching. Pianta has spent a career building an evidence-based toolkit that helps good teachers become great teachers. It turns out that happens one meaningful interaction at a time.