What qualities should be required of all new teachers?

Are there some qualities that are so important that individuals who don’t possess them shouldn’t be teachers?

And, if those qualities are essential, should they be required of all beginning teachers?

Or, can those qualities be acquired through experience and professional development after teachers are hired?

Since I pondered the first of those questions in May 2013, the compensation and working conditions of many teachers have deteriorated, which has made teaching a less attractive profession. 

That, in turn, has meant that it is harder for many school systems to be as selective in the hiring process as they may once have been.

Nonetheless, I continue to stand behind these “non-negotiables,” although I understand the reality of placing teachers in every classroom may require unfortunate compromises.

6 non-negotiables that I would want to see at the beginning of a teacher’s career

On the subject of “highly effective teachers,” Kappan Editor-in-Chief Joan Richardson wrote in her “editor’s note”  for the April 2013 issue:

“During practice teaching, we should be watching closely to determine if these candidates have a deep interest in how children learn. The best teachers aren’t just content experts. They not only understand how children learn; they are intrigued by the way that children learn. Content experts may get really excited about sharing their knowledge. But expert teachers get really excited because students are making it their knowledge. That’s a crucial distinction.”

Richardson’s recommendation got me thinking about the things that I think are essential to see at the beginning of a teacher’s career, in addition to a solid foundation of classroom management and instructional skills. Because I agree with Joan, I started with her suggestion for beginning teachers:

1. I would want evidence that new teachers are intrigued by the way children learn. Which would mean that they want to know in real time if and what students are learning. 

2. I would want evidence that new teachers believe in the potential of all students to learn and grow.

3. I would want evidence that new teachers appreciate and enjoy the qualities of students at the level they are teaching.

4. I would want evidence that new teachers value and tap the strengths and resources provided by families and the broader community.

5. I would want evidence that new teachers believe they can always improve the quality of their teaching and of student learning.

6. I would want evidence that new teachers believe that working with others is essential to continuous improvement and that they are committed to the process of becoming effective collaborators.

What would you add to or subtract from this list? Are these qualities essential for all new teachers, or can they be developed over time?

What’s the biggest problem in professional development?

What would you say is the biggest problem in professional development?

• Leaders do not provide sufficient time and other resources for it because they do not understand its importance?

• Teachers lack motivation for professional learning for a variety of reasons?

• Administrators and teacher leaders don’t know enough about effective professional development to plan and implement meaningful programs?

Here’s how I answered that question in May 2014, an answer that seems as valid today as it did then:

The biggest problem in professional development is…

The biggest problem in professional development is that administrators and teachers significantly underestimate what’s required to create the new habits of mind and behavior that are necessary to provide high-quality teaching and learning for all students.

One of the best and most accessible explanations of the challenges of shaping human understanding and practice is provided by Alan Deutschman in Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life in which he explains that people are influenced to change through three linked elements he describes as relate, repeat, and reframe. 

Relate underscores the importance of sustained relationships that inspire and sustain hope and provide support.

That means that:

• Teachers work in teams rather than in isolation and are accountable to one another for continuous improvement rather than to district offices or state education agencies. 

• Teachers relationships exhibit high levels of trust and appreciation rather than distrust, blaming, and negativity. 

• Teachers speak with candor and courage rather than evading discussion of important issues. 

• Teachers are hopeful and energetic rather than victims of a “slow-death spiral” of distrust, anger, and stress.

Repeat means learn, practice, and master new skills until they become habits.

The cultivation of new habits requires intention, attention, and persistence across many weeks or months until mastery is achieved, a task often complicated by the tenacity of old habits. 

The development of new habits begins with an initial learning that explores new ways of thinking and acting. It continues with the repetition of those thoughts and behaviors (often in the face of opposition from people who prefer the old habits) until new ways of thinking and acting have become routine.

An example of what may be required for leaders to alter their own behavior—which is almost always a precursor to influencing the behavior of others—is provided here.

Reframe means providing new ways of thinking about a situation. Because established frames resist facts and reasoned arguments, deep-rooted beliefs and conceptual frameworks must be identified and altered to support desired changes.

Conceptual frames are the mental organizers we use to think about things. Our thinking, and hence our ability to change, is limited by these deeply rooted, beneath-the-surface system of beliefs and ideas. While often difficult to alter, frames can be changed. The process begins with awareness of the dominant frame and its influence on practice, and continues by identifying alternative frames that better serve student learning.

Strategies for promoting reframing can be found here.

Although Change or Die is not explicitly about education, it explains why well-intentioned innovations more often expire than thrive.

A problem, Deutschman says, is that leaders too often rely on relatively ineffective change strategies—facts (human beings are not as rational as we think we are), fear (at best it’s a short-term motivator), and force (there are many ways it can be resisted) to promote change.

Instead, successful change efforts in schools:

• offer a sense of hopefulness that student learning can be improved through a genuine sense of community and teamwork that supports the implementation of new practices (relate), 

• provide sustained learning with practice to enable the acquisition of new habits of mind and behavior (repeat), and

• enable the development of new conceptual frameworks aligned with the innovation (reframe).

Do you agree that administrators and teachers often underestimate the intensity and duration of learning that is required to meaningful influence thinking and behavior?

Better together than alone

We are better together than alone is a pretty good maxim for life. 

There are exceptions, of course, but those exceptions would not include the power of well-functioning teams of teachers working together over time to improve student learning.

But what exactly is a team, and how is it the same or different from a committee or task force?

And, what are the qualities of a well-functioning team?

Leaders’ deep understanding of those qualities and their skillfulness in implementing them in complex interpersonal environments are hallmarks of schools that continuously improve teaching and learning for the benefit of all students.

This post from March 2010 offers guidance regarding this complex subject.

In addition to creating effective teamwork, a separate but related “fundamental” of leadership is the ability to speak or write concisely about important ideas or practices when the situation requires concision. 

A “Six-Word Leadership Tool” is a device I invented in the spirt of “6-word novels” and “6-word memoirs” to help me be concise and to encourage others to do the same. 

This post closes with my 6-word tool on teamwork (“Effective teamwork requires intention and persistence”) and an invitation to readers to create their own personally meaningful statement.

Here is my post from 2010:

Be clear about what teamwork is and why it’s important

If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. — African Proverb

You must undertake something so great that you cannot accomplish it unaided. — Phillips Brooks

Schools rise and fall based on the quality of the teamwork that occurs within their walls. Well-functioning leadership and teaching teams are essential to the continuous improvement of teaching and learning. That is particularly true when schools have clearly-articulated, stretching aspirations for the learning of all their students. Effective teams strengthen leadership, improve teaching and learning, nurture relationships, increase job satisfaction, and provide a means for mentoring and supporting new teachers and administrators.

Schools will improve for the benefit of every student only when every leader and every teacher is a member of one or more strong teams that create synergy in problem solving, provide emotional and practical support, distribute leadership to better tap the talents of members of the school community, and promote the interpersonal accountability that is necessary for continuous improvement. Such teamwork not only benefits students, it creates the supportive leadership and the process and time for  meaningful collaboration which enable teachers to thrive and are better able to address the complex challenges of their work.

In Leading for Results I wrote: “A widely-held view of instructional improvement is that good teaching is primarily an individual affair and that principals who view themselves as instructional leaders promote it by interacting one-on-one with each teacher to strengthen his or her efforts in the classroom. The principal is like the hub of a wheel with teachers at the end of each spoke. Communication about instruction moves back and forth along the spoke to the hub but not around the circumference of the wheel.”

Such a form of instructional leadership, however, fails to tap the most important source of instructional improvement in schools—teacher-to-teacher professional learning and collaboration. “[S]ome of the most important forms of professional learning,” I observed in Leading for Results, “occur in daily interactions among teachers in which they assist one another in improving lessons, deepening understanding of the content they teach, analyzing student work, examining various types of data on student performance, and solving the myriad of problems they face each day.

Defining effective teamwork

Simply labeling a group of people a team (or a professional learning community) rather than a committee or task force does not, however, make them a genuine team. To address this issue the Rush-Henrietta Central School District near Rochester, NY developed a rubric based on Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team to enable it to better understand teamwork and to chart their progress in developing effective teams.

The Rush-Henrietta rubric lists four key characteristics: clarity of purpose, accountability, effective team structures, and trust. Each key characteristic is defined by a number of indicators. 

For instance, “effective team structures” includes as indicators “use protocols to help guide the group work and provide a consistent framework” and “has agreements in place that are clear, purposeful, and understood.” “Accountability” asks team members to be “committed to decisions and plans of actions” and asks them to “hold one another accountable for delivering against the plans agreed to and feels a sense of obligation to the team for its progress.”

Leading for Results “Six-Word Leadership Tool”:

“Effective teamwork requires intention and persistence.”

Strengthen your leadership practice by . . .

• assessing the quality of teamwork in your setting using the Rush-Henrietta “Key Characteristics of Effective Teams” rubric, the “Team Assessment” provided by Patrick Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, or other tools you may have available to you. Better yet, to stimulate professional learning and teamwork, develop a rubric with your team using the Rush-Henrietta document as a starting point. (You may want to make separate assessments for the leadership team of which you are a part and teachers’ instructional teams, which may go by other names like “professional learning community.”)

• determining a next step to strengthen teamwork in your setting.

• developing a “six-word leadership tool” to summarize your learning or to express an action you will take as a result of this essay. Please add your tool to the comment section of this blog and share it with one or more colleagues “back home.”

Ideas that have shaped my life

Every important thing I know I have learned from other people or through conversations in which participants uncovered insights that were previously unknown to any of us.

But I often didn’t know at that time the significance of what I was learning. 

Some of those people I have encountered through books whose ideas affected me both personally and professionally. (Perhaps on another occasion I will recount the “right words at the right time” conversations that had a lasting effect on my life.)

Here are a few that made a lasting impression on me, some reaching back more than 40 years: 

Carl Rogers: Freedom to Learn and On Becoming a Person: Each of us has an impulse to grow and a sense of direction for that growth that has validity and can be trusted, particularly when explored with someone who offers “unconditional positive regard.”

William Glasser: Reality Therapy: Human problems ultimately have their roots in a lack of responsibility. An important goal in life and education is to learn how to behave responsibly. 

Parker Palmer: A Hidden Wholeness: Each of us has an inner self that requires attention and expression if we are to live a life that feels whole and satisfying.

Bruce Joyce and Emily Calhoun: Models of Professional Development: What Joyce and Calhoun offered me in this book and others was the explicit recognition of something I knew intuitively: Changing teaching practice is complicated. Training alone is insufficient to affect practice, or, as I eventually came to think of it, “Training without follow-up is malpractice.”

Thich Nhat Hanh: Peace Is Every Step: An unalterable attribute of life is impermanence, and one of the best ways of acknowledging it is to be fully present in each moment. (A close second in this category is Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn who offers many practical suggestions for living a more mindful life.)

Peter Senge: The Learning Organization: The behavior of individuals is shaped by powerful and often invisible forces within the systems in which they live and work.

Alain de Botton: The Art of Travel: While, as the title implies, this book is about travel, it offers an approach to life which acknowledges that wherever we go we take our unique histories and emotional selves with us and suggests ways to be fully present in whatever we are doing.

What books (or articles) have had a lasting influence on your thinking and what you do each day?

Using instructional coaches effectively

Few responsibilities of a school leader are more important than continuously improving teaching and learning for the benefit of all students.

Which means that a “fundamental” of leadership is an unrelenting, laser-like focus on the quality of instruction and learning.

But what exactly do effective principals do on a daily basis to improve teaching and learning?

While there is no formula for success, and leaders’ time and energy are limited, good principals effectively use as a “force multiplier” the tools that are available to them to support teachers in their demanding work.

Instructional coaches are one of the most valuable of those tools.

Many school leaders, however, have not been well supported in the effective use of coaches and are uncertain about the best ways they can enable them in their important work.

So in June 2013 I turned to Jim Knight, who knows more about this subject that anyone I know, to write a guest post.

(If you are not already a subscriber to Jim’s Radical Learners blog, I encourage you to be become one.)

Here is what Jim had to say about:

6 Ways Principals Can Support Instructional Coaching

Instructional coaching has the potential to dramatically improve teaching practice and consequently student learning.  But in most cases, a coach’s success is directly connected to how effectively she or he is supported (or not supported) by his or her principal. After working with hundreds of schools where coaches have succeeded and struggled, I’ve found that there are six actions principals can do that will make or break instructional coaching success.

1. Support the coach.  In any organization, people are keen to do what their boss wants them to do. If principals make it clear that they consider instructional coaching a vital part of their school’s plan for improvement, then teachers will be more inclined to work with the coach.  If the principal is less enthusiastic about instructional coaching, teachers will usually be less enthusiastic.

2. Let the coach coach.  I’ve never met a principal who had too much time on his or her hands. Leading a school always requires more time than is available and every principal must be tempted to hand off some of that work to a coach. But if a coach writes reports, develops plans, oversees assessment, deals with student behavior, does bus and cafeteria duty, substitute teaches, and so on… well there’s no time left for instructional coaching.  The easiest way to increase a coach’s effectiveness is to let the coach coach.

3. Clarify roles. Usually coaches are positioned as peers and not supervisors.  If teachers talk to peers, they will be more forthcoming, usually, than if they talk with a supervisor.  If this is the case, then coaches should not do administrative tasks such as walk-throughs, teacher evaluations, and so forth. If coaches are considered to have an administrative role, they should have the same qualifications and training as any other administrator, and everyone in the school, most especially the coach, needs to know that they have that role.

4. Clarify confidentiality. Again, usually instructional coaching is considered confidential.  Teachers, the thinking is, will be more forthcoming with their thoughts and concerns if they know that the conversation is just between the coach and teacher.  However, what is most important is that principal and coach clarify what will be shared and what won’t be shared.  If teachers say something they think is confidential, and find out it was shared, they may consider it a breach of trust—and nothing is more import for a coach’s success than trust.

5. Make instructional coaching a choice. If teachers are told they must work with a coach, they go into instructional coaching seeing it more as a punishment than an opportunity, and instructional coaching is difficult from the start. It is not a good use of a coach’s time for her to spend the entire conversation trying to talk a teacher into instructional coaching.  I suggest that principals be firm on standards with teachers, but flexible on how teachers hit a goal. Thus a principal might explain that a teacher needs to increase time on task, but just suggest the coach as one of many options, letting the teacher decide how he might want to change.  When instructional coaching is compulsory, teachers often perceive it as a punishment. When instructional coaching is a choice, people often perceive it as a lifeline.

6.  Make it easy for people to be coached.  Certainly most budget issues are beyond a principal’s control, but to the best of their abilities, principals should strive to find funds for released time to free teachers up for instructional coaching. The more difficult it is for people to find time to meet, the more likely instructional coaching will have limited success.  In every way possible, a principal should do everything that can be done to make it easy for coaches and teachers to collaborate.  

What would you add to Jim’s list?

How checklists can improve teaching and leadership

Even under the best of circumstances good teaching is an incredibly complex task which can appear almost effortless to the casual observer.

The intellectual, emotional, interpersonal, and even physical demands of teaching cannot, however, be underestimated.

Therefore, a “fundamental” of leadership is that teachers and principals use whatever tools are at hand to manage those demands. 

Checklists are just such a tool that when effectively used enable teachers to focus their cognitive abilities on the unexpected moment-to-moment changes in the classroom that make teaching an improvisational art.

That is why I’m bringing back an essay from April 2013 on the subject of checklists that also happens to be my most-viewed post.

The power and uses of checklists for teachers and administrators

Checklists are a simple but powerful way to improve individual and group performance. They are declarations of standards that ensure that important tasks are completed.

By routinizing certain procedures, checklists ensure that higher-order mental processes are available for complex, non-routine events, which is why they are regularly used by surgeons and airplane pilots, as well as by those engaged in other demanding occupations.

Physician Atul Gawande makes the case for checklists in his book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. (An earlier post elaborates on the educational implications of this book and others by Gawande.)

While good checklists are precise, Gawande notes, “They do not try to spell out everything – a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps – the ones that even the highly skilled professionals using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.”

Checklists, Gawande adds, “… can help experts remember how to manage a complex process… They can make priorities clear and prompt people to function better as a team.” 

To illustrate the ways in which checklists can improve group functioning, Gawande explains how they can level hierarchy and distribute power in ways that can save patients’ lives when they require surgical team members to introduce themselves before surgery and to state their roles and unique perspectives regarding the procedure. 

Checklists have a number of important applications in school settings:

• Checklists could be used by teachers in preparing lessons, like this checklist for project-based learning.

• Checklists could be used by principals and teacher leaders in preparing for faculty or team meetings based on the ingredients of successful faculty meetings that I offered in this post.

• Checklists could be used to increase influence using the elements contained in the SUCCESS acronym as a guide (see my previous post).

• Checklists could be used in developing both long-range and short-term professional learning plans for schools and school systems. Here are a few things that might be included on such checklists:

___ Focuses on priority areas of student learning based on various sources of evidence, including but not limited to standardized tests;

___ Addresses core tasks of teaching such as the development of engaging student work and using assessments to promote learning;

___ Engages all teachers in learning, not just volunteers;

___ Occurs virtually every day as a routine part of teachers’ collaborative work on high-functioning teams—PLCs, grade level, department, or other structures;

___ Assesses effects of professional learning based on changes in instructional practices and improvements in student learning. 

The acronym CREATE could be used to help planners remember those ingredients: Core tasks of teaching, Results for students, Every day, All teachers, Team-based learning, Evidence-based decision making. 

What additional uses do you see for checklists in educational settings?

Taking a fresh look at the fundamentals…

I started this blog in 2010. 

Since then I have published 452 posts that have produced hundreds of thousands of views and more than 1,500 comments that have enriched and deepened our collective understanding of those topics.

Readers are system and school administrators, teacher leaders, and “retired” educators who often continue to contribute to schools and their communities in a variety of ways. They share a desire for intellectual engagement, contrarian ideas, and a deep concern for the well being of children and public education now and in the future.

Perhaps most of all, they are resilient, at least those I know personally—that is, many have been challenged by and learned important lessons during difficult times and persisted in their work in the face of often daunting obstacles. One way they demonstrate that persistence is reading this and other blogs, among many other activities that stretch their thinking and practice.

Over my career as a teacher leader, school and school system leader, and executive director of NSDC (now Learning Forward) I have worked with thousands of individuals and teams in a variety of settings—among them K-12 schools and system offices, universities, teacher unions, and non-profits.

No matter the setting or decade (or even century), several common leadership themes emerge in that work: 

• establishing trust and productive teamwork in cultures of continuous improvement,

• being persons of integrity, 

• solving complex problems that have no straightforward solutions, 

• influencing colleagues who may not wish to be influenced, and

• engaging others in ways that produce meaningful, sustained professional learning and commitment to long-term purposes and goals.

What are the implications of these experiences and my 452 posts as I think about the future of this blog?

In the course of my work with groups a number of “fundamentals” inevitably arise: planning and conducting effective meetings, having candid conversations about important topics, influencing beliefs, creating respectful and productive relationships, deepening understanding of new ideas and practices, and developing new habits of mind and practice.

As I review blog posts from previous years I am aware that particular essays have addressed those topics in ways that resonated with readers who continue to return to them many years after their publication. 

A primary focus this school year will be bringing back some of those posts to new readers and others who may benefit from considering these ideas again from a fresh perspective. In addition, new posts will be added to the mix as important issues arise in the months ahead.

I look forward to taking this journey into the known and unknown with you as we reprise the fundamentals and explore emerging ideas and practices. 


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