Teachers are – and will likely always be – the single most important factor affecting student achievement in the classroom. Based on the huge discrepancy in outcomes, one would expect that the education, training, and ongoing development of teachers would be a top priority in the education community. Unfortunately, the current model does not appear to be working.
In our conversations with district administrators, the lack of a systematic way to convert knowledge learned at the conference into practical classroom application and improved outcomes is a frequent source of frustration. School leaders have the power to drive change in this process by instilling a culture of ongoing instructional improvement that will lead to more effective teachers and better student outcomes.
As with any successful organization, school districts can only reach their full potential when all major stakeholder groups buy in to the same vision and are on the same page about how to bring that vision to life. In the case of K-12 education, the vision should always be about creating an environment in which all students receive the attention they need to prepare for the next phase of their lives. Every initiative, every observation, and every communication must be tied back to that vision, starting with professional development. Effective leaders accomplish this by trading secrecy for transparency, fiefdoms for partnerships, and discipline for opportunity.
A teacher’s time is sacred. As such, most have difficulty understanding why they should waste a full week (or more) over the course of the year on mandated conferences, only to return with little to no practical takeaways for their classroom. Principals can add value to this time by mapping observational rubrics, individual development plans, and performance conversations to professional development goals. This approach will get teachers involved in the process and add an element of choice and ownership that may not have existed in the past. By communicating these connections on a personal, one-to-one level, school leaders will impart a better understanding of the goals of professional development as it pertains to a teacher’s individual pedagogical methods and execution.
A continuous feedback loop is key to the associative approach. Rather than asking teachers to choose from a list of professional development opportunities by title, highly effective leaders start by communicating the desired results of each offering and defining measurable objectives. For example, if a teacher expresses a desire to learn more effective strategies for working with English language learners, principals can seize the opportunity to collaborate with the teacher and determine which metrics will best represent progress in that area before trying to identify the resources that can help the teacher reach these goals.
Teachers should feel empowered to share their assessment of a particular resource, so school and district leaders will have a qualitative understanding of what is and is not effective. This, combined with student achievement data, will enable administrators to track the ROI of professional development investments and determine where the best value can be found. The result will be a synthesized, consistent resource and development plan that links back to the district’s universal goals.
Manage through Delegation
In order to get any development out of professional development, teachers need to be able to learn and share ideas, receive support and coaching while implementing new strategies, and participate in follow-up discussions to ensure continued improvement. It is simply not feasible to expect principals to fill every one of those roles. Regardless of school size or location, principals can earn trust and instill an improvement-driven culture by simply asking for help.
Many schools and districts throughout the country employ a teacher induction mentoring program to help new educators start off on the right foot. By pairing inexperienced teachers with veteran mentors, principals hope to get new hires off on the right foot and provide a sounding board for any ideas or concerns that may arise within the first one to two years. While this is an effective way to help teachers feel more comfortable in their new surroundings, such programs have been shown to have little impact on student outcomes.
A more effective approach might be to use some of that induction time to arrange group discussion/development periods on a regular basis. When teachers of similar subjects and age groups are able to get together for structured, instructional conversation, they have been shown to accomplish more in thirty minutes than would have been possible in any number of day-trip conferences. Principals can install teacher leaders across departments or cohort groups to lead these discussions and provide the follow-up coaching and feedback that helps teachers thrive. These teacher leaders will be closer to the “front lines,” and will have an even better idea of which areas of professional development their colleagues could most stand to benefit from. In this model of distributed leadership, teachers are more likely to feel like they have a solid (and accessible) support structure in place, especially when the message remains consistent from administrators, leaders, and peers alike.
One way to ensure more efficient dissemination and implementation of knowledge gained from professional development days is for these leadership teams to create standard rubrics for each employee to complete during and after conferences in order to facilitate organized departmental discussions back home. By comparing notes in a similar format, teachers and administrators can more easily identify the ideas that are most likely to have an impact on students. All educators should come out of these meetings with a shared understanding of how the ideas will be implemented and what the underlying instructional goal is for every new approach.
Make the Time
How many great ideas have fallen by the wayside because “there’s just not enough time in the day” to implement them correctly? There will always be reasons not to deviate from the status quo, but a commitment to meaningful professional development is too important to ignore. School districts such as Community High School District 155 in Crystal Lake, IL, have instituted weekly “late start” days to provide teachers with nearly an hour of collaboration every week while minimizing the impact on students by maintaining the same bus schedule and providing supervised options to fill the time, such as test make-up, computer lab access, and other study opportunities.
By working professional development into the schedule instead of around it, schools are making a conscious commitment to the betterment of their teachers in a setting that has proven to be effective. The resulting sessions are flexible and can be used to pursue any number of objectives, such as training on new district initiatives, follow-up and feedback on previous discussions, and one-on-one coaching opportunities for teacher leaders and mentors.
The leadership team remains visible and involved in the process by visiting these meetings, soliciting feedback, and carving time out of their own schedule to meet with teacher leaders on a regular basis in order to plan the next phase of professional development. Some teachers go through an entire year without sitting down for a conversation with an administrator; such a hierarchical disconnect undermines the momentum of professional development and minimizes gains. It is important for all parties to be heard, and an administrator who makes the time to “lead from the front” is an administrator who gets results.
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