Sharpen the Saw

How Teachers Can Use the KIPP Framework for Excellent Teaching to Improve Their Practice

By Jen Keyte, Teaching and Learning Labs, KIPP Foundation

One of the things I love most about being a KIPPster is the commitment we all share to continuous learning. As the KIPP Framework for Excellent Teaching (KFET) points out, an excellent teacher “doesn’t settle or sit, but grows.” As our schools and regions have matured over the years, we’ve begun to see systems and structures put into place to formalize continuous learning for teachers – coaching cycles, formal evaluations, peer observation systems, and professional development.

Ultimately though, as professionals, we are responsible for what we do with the information we receive through these processes, and for becoming the best teachers we can possibly be for our kids. KFET calls upon teachers to seek feedback and use it. It calls for teachers to research, observe experiment, share, and collaborate; to set big and small goals for professional growth. And finally, it calls for teachers to take advantage of learning opportunities both in and out of school. Overall, KFET demands that we exercise Steven Covey’s 7th habit from his widely read book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – to improve our capability or “sharpen the saw.” If you are reading this, you are on the right track!

When I first started teaching at KIPP San Francisco Bay in 2004, it was like my first year of teaching all over again (and it was my fourth year). How did I get through it and eventually become a much better teacher? Back then, my school wasn’t equipped with the coaching or support structure many of our schools have today; I had to seek out my own coaching and use it to transform my own teaching.

Reflecting on that experience, I hope to share a few key ideas for how you can work to improve independently (whether you work with a coach every day or once per month) using KFET as a guide.


1.  Seek feedback from a trusted peer.

Find the colleague in your building who you trust the most, and develop a mutually beneficial relationship in which you can give each other regular and honest feedback, and hold each other accountable. Make a commitment to get into each other’s rooms for 10-15 minutes per week, and talk about it over lunch, happy hour, or a walk around the block. Become each other’s lifeline.

I had a relationship like this with another teacher on my fifth grade team. Eight years later, I still remember two pieces of feedback he shared with me on two separate occasions: 1) Your kids seem a little unfocused, and 2) Your objective and where you were headed was unclear for you, and therefore unclear to the kids. Ouch! I knew he was right both times, but having a trusted colleague point it out to me put me on the hook to fix it. Because he was my peer, I didn’t feel like I was being evaluated or judged.

Hopefully, a coach has helped you identify areas for improvement that you could ask your lifeline to look out for when visiting your classroom. If you still aren’t certain, use this KFET self-reflection exercise to help determine the competencies and behaviors on which you’d like to focus. (Note: this tool isn’t 100% comprehensive, but focuses primarily on behaviors that could be observed during a classroom observation. Use it 3-4 times within a month to reflect on your day, and then look for trends). If you want to go even further, try this classroom walk-through tool that a peer or coach uses to observe you and then compare your findings.


2.  Ask your KIDS.

Recent findings from the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching Project indicate that after value-added data, student surveys are the strongest predictor of a teacher’s success in raising student achievement (classroom observation comes in third). Researchers concluded that the average student “knows good teaching when she or he sees it.” This is a sample of a student survey that I got from KIPP Co-Founder Dave Levin and KIPP NYC, which I’ve adapted to match our KFET language. Does your perception of your own teaching match the experience your students are having?


 3.  Observe excellent teachers.

During my first year as a Teach For America corps member, I was overwhelmed by everything I needed to work on and I struggled to prioritize. Of course I had to hone technical skills like planning and assessment, and I had to become intimate with all 6th grade content (from ancient China to writing workshop to photosynthesis), and I also had to work on my tone, relationships with students, and the overall culture in my classroom. The veteran teachers in my building seemed to offer a lot of advice, but not a ton of support. But one piece of advice stuck and really got me through that first year. “Find someone to imitate – a teacher who you admire and want to be like. Just borrow her style until you find your own,” said Mrs. Caggiano, who had been teaching in that school for 18 years. So I imitated her until I found my own true teacher identity.


4.  Build a new routine.

It probably feels like there isn’t enough time to engage a lifeline and offer support to each other, and there isn’t enough time to watch videos. My recommendation would be to build it into your routine, and for you and your lifeline to support each other. It’s like having a gym buddy – it’s hard to get up and go to the gym, but if you have a buddy meeting you, then you’re accountable. This year, my manager and I are planning to start each of our weekly meetings with a 5 minute video protocol. We’ll watch a 2-3 minute clip, and discuss for two minutes. Can you build a routine into your week that will help you “sharpen the saw”?


Becoming a truly excellent teacher is career-long pursuit, and each teacher’s journey is filled with experiences, mentors, colleagues, parents, and students who offer valuable professional and life lessons. Seeking feedback, observing others, and building routines to help hold you accountable are just a few ways we as teachers can be proactive about independently sharpening the saw in service of our kids.


KIPP supports educators in their journey to master the art and science of teaching. Learn more about what it is like to work at KIPP.