Sunday, September 21, 2014

Are Our Methods For Improving Teacher Effectiveness All Wrong?

In education circles, all the rage these days is around teacher effectiveness.  Research has shown teachers to be the critical cog in student learning, the most decisive factor in promoting student achievement and success.  Subsequently, much of the talk has been around how we recruit the best and brightest and reward the best teachers to stick around (merit pay), while simultaneously finding poor teachers and determining ways to exit them from the profession.  In order to separate the wheat from the chaff, we have developed elaborate evaluation systems (much of this motivated by requirements to obtain Race To The Top funding) to make critical judgments on teacher effectiveness.  The hope is that these evaluation tools and the observations they are derived from will work to improve teacher performance and make our educators better.

This seems like a solid strategy, myself as the principal, the instructional leader of the school, will go into classrooms, perform informal and formal observations of my teachers, and use the extensively developed rubric or checklist to let my teachers know what they can do improve.  I do wonder though, whether this assertion is totally wrong.

What Does Your Pie Chart Look Like?
I have been reflecting back on my teaching experience and what I attributed my growth in practice to over the seven years I was in front of students.  If I was to devise a pie graph, it would probably look something like this…

The pie graph looks a little confusing and convoluted, so I have also included my data chart as well.  Now granted, during my years of teaching some of the great PD tools we now have available to us (twitter, Pintrest, etc.) had not yet matured and similarly some of the experiences I try to provide my teachers with (school visits, attendance at professional conferences, consultant professional development) were not options available to me (nor are they available to many teachers).  Yet to me the most striking thing about these charts is how little impact some of the formalized structures we rely on like administrator feedback and formal mentoring experiences had on my professional growth, particularly in comparison to the vastness of the informal learning experiences (talking to colleagues inside/outside of the building, learning from student reactions).

Trying new things, seeing how student react to them, and making adjustments
School visits
Video observation and self reflection
Feedback from school administration
Reading professional literature
Talking to colleagues within the building
Talking to colleagues outside of the building
Formal teacher mentoring
Workshop experiences
Professional development days
Examining student work
Team meetings
Graduate classes
Cohort experiences
National Board Certification process

This make me wonder if while we have spent all our time, energy, and money refining our evaluation systems, developing our rubrics, and marking our checklists, we have missed an opportunity to hone and envision a structure that emphasizes informal structures for teacher growth.

My Answer- Professional Learning Communities
In his seminal work Building Community In Schools, Thomas Sergiovanni discussed the need to grow learning communities within schools.  To me, the concept makes sense.  It is challenging for administrators, even in the best of circumstances, to spend an adequate amount of time in each classroom when there are often dozens of staff members on monitor and observe on their caseload.  With 24 teachers whom I supervise and around 35 instructional hours each week, it is mathematically impossible for me to spend a total of 90 cumulative minutes in each classroom each week.  This mathematical problem is assuming that all I am doing all day is observing teachers and providing feedback and doesn’t account for meeting with parents, IEP/SST meetings, paperwork, system mandates, and student discipline issues.

I believe the answer to this problem lies in Sergiovanni’s concept of learning communities.  You multiply your power as a school leader, by empowering staff around the building to help each other grow and develop.  It is not a new concept, and the learning communities charge is a bit cliché, but for something that everyone deems as important, there are few structures and little emphasis to make this happen.  Think about it, when was the last time you went to a professional development session that discussed elements of a strong learning community.  Now contrast this with the last time you went to a professional learning session and they talked about some type of instructional rubric, how to implement it, and assumed this was the answer to developing good teachers. 

Building Learning Communities
Whenever I talk to people and relate my ideas about the importance of learning communities, they always ask the same question, “okay, I get it, learning communities are important, but what do you actually do to build them”.  I will them go through some structures we have attempted at Liberty to try and build a strong culture of professional learning, and while the effectiveness of these structures will differ from building to building, the critical element is that all of these structures are nested in a foundation of trust.  Trust is the key element to any strong school learning community and without it all the structures addressed below will not work.  How do you build trust?  This is a much harder question and is itself individualized for each school, but loosely I would say it is built on a culture of credibility, generosity of spirit, kindness, and freedom to make mistakes and learn from them.  I would also say checklists, rubrics, and compliance documents may do more to undermine a culture or trust than accelerate one. 

If you have built a culture of trust, you may try the following programmatic elements to further develop your learning community…
  • Conduct school visits- At Liberty we try to do two or three of these each year.  We will pack up the entire cohort of teachers on a professional development day and coordinate with a local school to visit.  We spend the morning wandering around, asking questions, looking at the work on the walls, and discussing with one another what we are seeing.  Afterwards, we will meet for a group lunch and debrief what we saw and begin to chart up ideas we want to ‘steal’ and things we observed that will help us improve.
  • Send teachers through portfolio processes in cohorts- Many districts, including ours, have moved to a system of identifying model teachers through a portfolio submission process.  Yet it amazes me how few administrators see this as a unique professional learning opportunity for their staff members who, through the process of reading each other’s entries, looking at data, and watching videos are receiving authentic, job-embedded professional development.  The National Board Certification process provides an opportunity to leverage a highly respected portfolio process to build teacher capacity.
  • Video tape each other and discuss- This technique leaves teachers extremely vulnerable, but if the conditions of trust have been established and the culture is structured around growth and not judgment, video observation and analysis can be a critical tool within the learning community.  At Liberty we have even developed a structure we call ‘greatest hits’ where the best 2-3 minute clips of particular classroom practice are highlighted and presented during teacher professional development sessions.  This structure aids capacity building in many ways- it highlights best practice occurring in the building, recognizes teachers for their great work, and gives targeted snippets of particular areas of instructional focus.
  • Create books clubs- Granted, this is a structure we have used at Liberty with limited success, but I think the potential exist for rich professional learning if you can get teachers in your building reading common text, using common language, and centering ideas that are rooted in a common place.  The main problem, teachers are busy, exhausted, and have to make reading a priority to make this work.
  • Get teachers on social media- We really tried to push twitter use as a school this year.  I feel like social media, particularly twitter and pintrest provide so many unique opportunities to share ideas, not just within the building, but outside of the building.  On a daily basis, I encourage teachers to tweet out excellent practices in their classroom using the hashtag #Liberty64.  This allows colleagues to follow the conversation and connect around instructional techniques, materials, and ideas.
  • Participate in professional conferences as groups- This summer was the first time taking the staff away to attend professional conferences.  I think the resulting camaraderie and community that develops which is centered on instructional innovation and excellence is well worth it, particularly if structured correctly.  I think the key is taking groups that are large enough where teachers can share ideas and collaborate, but small enough where there is a strong nucleus holding the group together.  This summer we settled on six participants at each conference which worked nicely.  We also learned that teachers got much more out of sessions they attended with a colleague than going to sessions independently.  Conferences are a great means of building a learning community, and while expensive, may be worth every penny.
So these are my musings for the week.  It seems like as a team and community we are always stronger than when we stand alone.  Collaborations in groups that are constant and rich will always supersede individual, one off, interactions.  My constant challenge, each day, is how to help my teachers grow and become better, I think the answer is by empowering the others in my building to make this happen.  

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