Why it’s important for leaders to believe in teachers’ capacity for growth


Many school leaders believe that virtually all students can learn at higher levels given skillful teaching, time, and persistent effort.

But I’m not sure, however, that all leaders believe that virtually all teachers can learn to teach in ways that enable high levels of student learning.

Let me tell you a story:

Some years ago I was working with a group of 50 or so teacher leaders in a large U.S. city. I asked them a question I often asked in such settings: “How many of you believe that virtually all students can learn more than was previously expected of them and that it is their teachers’ responsibility to teach them?” Every hand in the room immediately went up.

My next question was one I had never asked before: “How many of you believe that virtually all teachers can learn how to teach in ways that enable higher levels of student learning?”

An unanticipated pandemonium broke out in the room as some participants vociferously expressed their confidence that they could prepare teachers to be more successful with all students while others complained loudly that my questions had unfairly lead them into a trap.

One teacher leader said, “How can we expect teachers to teach at high levels if we don’t believe we can successfully prepare them to do so?”

Another said, looking at me, “You don’t understand the teachers we have here. They are often poorly prepared and unmotivated.”

A provocative and soul-searching conversation ensued as it shifted back and forth between those two broad perspective — “of course we can” and “it is unfair to expect us to be successful with these teachers” — in the same way that it might occur among teachers discussing their responsibility for the learning of all their students.

A year or so later one of the event’s organizers told me that discussion related to the issue of teacher leaders’ expectations for their colleagues arose in one form or another at many of their meetings that school year.

I was pleased to hear that because it is a critically important issue.

Just as it’s essential for principals and teacher leaders to believe that student learning can be improved by skillful teaching, it’s essential that principals and teacher leaders believe that through well-designed professional development and teamwork virtually all teachers can become effective, if not masterful.

Believing in the capacity of students to learn at higher levels without a parallel belief in the capacity of teachers to successfully teach them — given appropriate support — can only lead to frustration and failure.

Put another way: Leaders’ belief in teachers’ capacity to perform at higher levels + appropriate support = student success.

Do you agree with my assessment, or not?

5 Responses to “Why it’s important for leaders to believe in teachers’ capacity for growth”

  1. 1 Lesa Haney May 16, 2013 at 5:13 am

    Great post. Belief needs to be in all learners–teachers included. Thanks for stretching my thinking.

  2. 2 John Robinson May 16, 2013 at 5:34 am

    I agree totally. All teachers are capable of performing at high levels. While I think it is clear, we can’t “motivate” just like the classroom, we, as school leaders, are responsible for providing the conditions that foster their engagement as teachers. We talk about student engagement and how important that is. Maybe we need to look to teacher engagement too. Perhaps they don’t perform because the school climate doesn’t provide conditions that engage them to tackle instruction and instructional issues. Just a thought. Great post.

    • 3 Dennis Sparks May 16, 2013 at 8:39 am

      You made a really important point, John. Teachers’ engagement in their professional development and collaboration is, I think, an important indicator of student engagement. Likewise, principals’ engagement in their professional development and collaboration affects teachers’ engagement.

  3. 4 Jamie g May 16, 2013 at 7:35 am

    While I fundamentally agree with you Dennis, I feel that the role played by the teachers union (in Ontario) actually hinders this: they tend to block progress rather than support it. “Don’t tell us how to teach, and don’t you dare try to make us change!!” I feel like this is one of those topics that gets little discussion, but is actually quite huge.

  4. 5 mmebrady May 16, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    Excellent point. I was at a training session where a leader articulated that she did not believe veteran teachers could learn as much as new teachers. Not a strong vote of confidence for those of us veteran teachers who consider ourselves lifelong learners!

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