Thursday, September 15, 2011

School leaders must expect, and allow, teachers to learn

Study after study concludes that teacher quality is the single most important factor in student achievement. The top performing schools know, however, that most great teachers are not born great but are, like most professionals, developed. The old adage that "those who can't do, teach" misses the fact that great teachers not only need to know how to do, but they also need to know how to engage learners in a process that teaches students how to do. Given the wide range of learners, both in knowledge and motivation, the task is far more challenging than most non-teachers can ever imagine.

In most businesses, even if there is no formal training program, new employees are around other employees who can show them the ropes, provide suggestions and answer questions. While many schools assign mentors, opportunities to observe and be observed in a way that genuinely focuses on helping teachers improve their practice are limited. Especially given the tenure system, observations (when they do occur) tend to be evaluative rather than developmental.

What works:
The most successful schools invest in improving individual teachers' skills, even if those teachers are already great. At one KIPP school I was told that new teachers are observed and provided feedback 30 times per year and master teachers are observed 15 times per year (and respond even better to the feedback). This is not broad professional development workshops that may not be relevant to many of the attendees, but rather focused learning, feedback, skill building and support opportunities. Great teachers must start with the ability to empathize and communicate with youngsters, as well as patience and a belief that all children can learn, but the strategies for creating an effective learning environment that supports all students can be developed if teachers are given the opportunity to observe and be observed, discuss their practice and continue to learn.

Why it works:
Most people who choose to become teachers do so because they fundamentally care about helping kids improve their lives. The job is too hard to do, requires too much education and pays too little when starting out if you don't feel that way. When teachers see they are having a positive impact on their students, most are more than willing to put the work in. On the other hand, if teachers are not being completely successful despite their efforts, the job can quickly become frustrating. 

The current environment in which underperforming teachers are under scrutiny and test scores are equated to teaching skills, leads teachers to become defensive and closed-minded as to how to improve student learning. In schools that treat teachers as learners and provide the time and encouragement needed, talking about students who are not making progress provides opportunities for teachers to learn and become more effective which increases their satisfaction and motivation and improves outcomes for every student.

How to make this work:
There is never enough time, either in teachers' days or in school leaders' days but time is not the most important factor, culture is. Just as great teachers care about helping each of their students thrive, great leaders care about helping each of their teachers thrive and find ways to facilitate the process. Unless teachers believe that their administrators are there to support and enhance their efforts rather than evaluate and criticize, no amount of time, no schedule, no "instructional rounds" protocol, no PLCs will have the desired results.

When teachers see their leaders collaborating and taking a genuine interest in exploring what is working, removing roadblocks and challenges and setting consistently high standards for all (starting with themselves), nearly all teachers can and will step up to the task and respond positively to feedback. Having observed a wide variety of schools that serve our most challenging populations, it is this shared commitment, or peer pressure, that differentiates the most successful schools from the mediocre ones.

Teachers and staff who refuse to change will, at worst, be passive if the cultural beliefs are consistently held throughout the leadership team, and a small number will feel left out and might eventually leave. It is critical, however, that the leadership team is on the same page or initiatives with teachers will not be considered genuine. Leaders who are trying to develop a learning culture among their staff must start with themselves and their administrators. Openly discuss challenges, ask for feedback, build consensus, take action that demonstrates new learning and communicate openly and honestly with teachers and students.

Once a learning environment has been established among staff, creating common planning time and PLCs, giving teachers coverage so they can observe and be observed by peers, brief walk-thoughs followed quickly by in-person feedback and discussion, external coaching and co-teaching with master teachers, soliciting feedback from students, active RTI teams that explore student work, instructional rounds and other lesson study approaches are each far more effective in developing great teachers and ultimately great schools.

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