Educators have used student portfolios to assess student performance for many years. Recently, they have turned their attention to portfolios for teachers.1
Why the interest in teaching portfolios? Although portfolios can be time-consuming to construct and cumbersome to review, they also can captures the complexities of professional practice in ways that no other approach can. Not only are they an effective way to assess teaching quality, but they also provide teachers with opportunities for self-reflection and collegial interactions based on documented episodes of their own teaching.
Essentially, a teaching portfolio is a collection of information about a teacher's practice. It can include a variety of information, such as lesson plans, student assignments, teachers' written descriptions and videotapes of their instruction, and formal evaluations by supervisors. If not carefully thought out, however, a portfolio can easily take the form of a scrapbook or steamer trunk. The "scrapbook" portfolio is a collection of eye-catching and heart warming mementos that has strong personal meaning for the portfolio owner. The "steamer trunk" portfolio is a large container filled to the brim with assorted papers and projects.
Unfortunately, these kinds of portfolios do not allow for serious self-reflection, and others cannot examine them in an informed way. They do not illustrate an underlying philosophy of teaching, and they provide no information about instructional goals or teaching context. They do not explain the contents of the portfolio or connect them to intended instructional outcomes. Perhaps most important, such portfolios contain no written reflections by the creators on their teaching experiences.
A teaching portfolio should be more than a miscellaneous collection of artifacts or an extended list of professional activities. It should carefully and thoughtfully document a set of accomplishments attained over an extended period. And, it should be an ongoing process conducted in the company of mentors and colleagues.
Why Develop a Portfolio?
Teachers create portfolios for a variety of reasons. In teacher education programs, students develop portfolios to demonstrate their achievement. Later, they may present these portfolios at job interviews. Experienced teachers construct portfolios to become eligible for bonuses and advanced certification. And, some administrators have invited teachers to become architects of their own professional development by having them create portfolios based on individual growth plans.
In Colorado, for example, teachers are preparing portfolios in many different settings. In the Douglas County School District south of Denver, teachers submit portfolios to demonstrate their teaching excellence. Those who meet district standards receive annual performance bonuses. Some teachers also are striving to earn national recognition by preparing portfolios for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. And soon, Colorado will require all educators, including administrators, to develop portfolios in order to renew their professional licenses.
Selecting the Contents
A portfolio might include items such as lesson plans, anecdotal records, student projects, class newsletters, videotapes, annual evaluations, letters of recommendation, and the like. It is important, however, to carefully select the contents of the finished portfolio so that it is manageable, both for the person who constructs it and for those who will review it.
While the specific form and content of a portfolio can vary depending upon its purpose, most portfolios contain some combination of teaching artifacts and written reflections. These are the heart of the portfolio. The introductory section, in which the teacher broadly describes his or her teaching philosophy and goals, and the concluding section, which contains evidence of ongoing professional development and formal evaluations, provide a frame for these artifacts and reflections. (Figure 1 provides a suggested outline for organizing a teaching portfolio.)
Figure 1. How to Organize a Teaching Portfolio
Table of Contents
I. Background Information.
- Background Information on Teacher and Teaching Context
- Educational Philosophy and Teaching Goals
II. Teaching Artifacts and Reflections. Documentation of an Extended Teaching Activity
- Overview of Unit Goals and Instructional Plan
- List of Resources Used in Unit
- Two Consecutive Lesson Plans
- Videotape of Teaching
- Student Work Samples
- Evaluation of Student Work
- Reflective Commentary by the Teacher
- Additional Units/Lessons/Student Work as Appropriate
III. Professional Information
- List of Professional Activities
- Letters of Recommendation
- Formal Evaluations
Here's (in part) how Susan Howard, a pre-service elementary school teacher at the University of Colorado at Denver, described her philosophy of teaching:
Visitors to my classroom would see a supportive, risk-free environment in which the students have an active voice in their learning and in classroom decision making. Students would be engaged in a variety of individual and collaborative work designed to accommodate their diverse learning styles. Curriculum would combine basic skills, authentic learning, and critical thinking. Finally, visitors also would see parental involvement demonstrated in a variety of ways....
Students should help establish class rules, have a vote in the topics for the year, and have a voice in as much of their learning as possible. I believe it is important to use a variety of presentation styles and provide a range of learning experiences to support students' diverse learning styles...
In my classroom, language arts would pair phonics with literature enrichment. Math would combine basic skills and application. Science and social studies would emphasize application and problem-solving exercises while targeting basic area knowledge.
I would invite parents to share information about hobbies, skills, jobs, and cultures. I would communicate with them frequently, and would encourage them to become involved in their child's learning in as many ways as possible.
Artifacts (unit plans, student work samples) are essential ingredients in a teaching portfolio, but they must be framed with explanations. For example, Linda Lovino, a high school English teacher from the Douglas County School District, included surveys of students, parents, and colleagues in the portfolio she submitted for the Outstanding Teacher Program. She commented in her portfolio on what she learned from these surveys:
I felt validated when the client surveys indicated that my students and their parents feel I use a variety of teaching strategies and methods, and that I am knowledgeable in my subject area. Although I received high ratings from over 80 percent of parents and students on the statements, "The teacher effectively communicates information regarding growth and progress of my child," and "The teacher effectively motivates the student," the remaining 20 percent of the respondents gave me a "neutral" rating.
I feel these areas are essential to being an outstanding teacher. Therefore, I am currently researching and developing methods that might help me better motivate students and assess their progress.
Each artifact also should be accompanied by a brief statement, or caption, which identifies it and describes the context in which it was created. This often can be done in one or two sentences. Figure 2 shows the kinds of captions Colorado educators include in their license renewal portfolios.
Figure 2. Sample Portfolio Caption
Title: Weekly Classroom Newsletter
Date: March 15, 1996
Name: John Stanford
Description of Context: Students write, edit, and publish this weekly newsletter in writer's workshop.
Interpretation: This newsletter is one way that I keep parents informed about classroom events. It is also an example of how I engage students in meaningful learning activities.
Additional Comments: Parents have told me how they use the newsletter to talk with their children about what is happening in school. I also learn more about what my students find important or newsworthy in class each week!
This is an example of the kinds of captions Colorado teachers use in License Renewal Portfolios.
Reflective commentaries are another important part of the portfolio. These commentaries do more than describe the portfolio contents; they examine the teaching documented in the portfolio and reflect on what teacher and students learned.
Valerie Wheeler, a middle school teacher from Boulder included an account of a unit she taught on communicable diseases in the portfolio she submitted to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards:
The primary goal for teaching about communicable diseases is to educate students about their own role in leading a safe and healthy life.... When young people are informed, chances are they will act in ways that protect their own and others' health.
The day I introduced this topic to my students, we used the entire period to discuss the meaning of the term "communicable disease." Together, we brainstormed questions about disease—its history, status, and future.
As in most class discussions, students eventually began to share relevant personal or family experiences. The energy and participation level was high, and by the end of class, two themes had emerged: Students wanted to know more about the most common communicable diseases, and they wanted to know more about AIDS.
Because student understanding is enhanced by prior experiences, I assigned each student to write a brief history of his or her own health.
In addition to the written account, Valerie included a videotape of her teaching along with samples of her teaching materials and her students' work. These included a newspaper article about the rights of tuberculosis patients, which her students had read and annotated; a letter they wrote to the mayor about the confinement of TB patients; thank you letters to guest speakers from the local AIDS center; and photographs of a quilt the class made after reading about the AIDS quilt.
Developing Your Profile
There are many approaches to developing a teaching portfolio. The following one involves articulating an educational philosophy and identifying goals, building and refining the portfolio, and framing the contents for presentation to others.
- Explain your educational philosophy and teaching goals. Describe in broad strokes the key principles that underlie your practice. These principles will help you select goals for your portfolio.
- Choose specific features of your instructional program to document. Collect a wide range of artifacts, and date and annotate them so you will remember important details when assembling the final portfolio. Consider keeping a journal for written reflections on your teaching.
- Collaborate with a mentor and other colleagues. This is an essential, but often overlooked, part of the process. Ideally, your mentor will have experience both in teaching and in portfolio construction. And consider meeting at regular intervals to discuss your teaching and your portfolio with a group of colleagues.
- Assemble your portfolio in a form that others can readily examine. While any number of containers will work, the easiest to organize and handle seems to be a loose-leaf notebook. (Electronic portfolios may soon replace notebooks.)
- Assess the portfolio. Assessment can range from an informal self-assessment to formal scoring by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Such assessments are tied to specific performance standards. (The Douglas County School District in Colorado has identified three categories, each of which contains specific criteria, for assessing outstanding teachers: assessment and instruction, content and pedagogy, and collaboration and partnership.
A Means to an End
Portfolios have much to offer the teaching profession. When teachers carefully examine their own practices, those practices are likely to improve. The examples of accomplished practice that portfolios provide also can be studied and adapted for use in other classrooms.
Too often, good teaching vanishes without a trace because we have no structure or tradition for preserving the best of what teachers do. Portfolios allow teachers to retain examples of good teaching so they can examine them, talk about them, adapt them, and adopt them.
Finally, it is important to remember that the objective is not to create outstanding portfolios, but rather to cultivate outstanding teaching and learning.
L. S. Shulman, (1988), "A Union of Insufficiencies: Strategies for Teacher Assessment in a Period of Reform," Educational Leadership 46, 3: 36-41.
Kenneth Wolf is Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. He can be reached at 5579 Mesa Top Ct., Boulder, CO 80301 (e-mail: Kenneth_Wolf@Together.CUDenver.edu).