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Robust professional development for the benefit of all students

It is time in this series of reprised posts to review the essentials of “robust professional development” that I published in November 2013.

The 6 fundamental ingredients of robust professional development

Powerful professional development has as its primary and overarching purpose the creation of professional learning that affects what teachers believe, understand, say, and do on a daily basis for the benefit of all students. (To better understand the distinction between professional development and professional learning, please read this.)

To that end, such professional development:

Deepens teachers’ knowledge of the content they teach, including pedagogical content knowledge. It also expands teachers’ repertoire of research-based instructional skills to teach that content and provides classroom management skills appropriate to their settings. For the most part, such development will be individualized or occur in small-groups based on self assessment, teacher evaluation, standardized test scores, student work, and other sources of information.

Provides teachers with the classroom assessment skills—what experts call “assessment for learning.” Such skills allow teachers to diagnose student learning problems and to monitor in real time gains in student learning resulting from newly-acquired classroom practices.

• Is embedded in teachers’ daily work. Job embedded does not mean having workshops occur in schools rather than district meeting rooms. Instead, it requires that the learning be closely linked to school and classroom-specific student learning problems with frequent opportunities for problem solving and hands-on assistance from colleagues and coaches.

Provides sustained classroom assistance in implementing new instructional skills. Teachers regularly receive individualized feedback and meaningful support from skillful coaches and others within their professional communities.

Has at its core a small team of teachers who meet regularly as part of their work day to plan lessons, critique student work, and assist in problem solving.

Is surrounded by a culture that encourages innovation, experimentation, and continuous improvement. The creation of such cultures is a fundamental responsibility of principals and teacher leaders.

These attributes are synergistic, with each enriching the others. 

And the absence of any one of these six attributes can seriously diminish the likelihood that the overall effort will significant improve the quality of teaching in every classroom and the learning of all students. 

What have I missed?

Kent Peterson: “Where principals spend their time is one of the largest single investments in any school”

In this post from March 2014 Kent Peterson offers his wisdom and practical experience to both aspiring leaders and those who have served as leaders for many years.

Kent Peterson suggests ways to support “wary and weary” teachers

Kent Peterson was one of the first educational thought leaders I knew to recognize the power of school culture in shaping teaching and learning, an influence he explored with co-author Terrence Deal in Shaping School Culture.

So I was particularly eager to see how he would respond to the questions I put to him.

Kent is an Emeritus Professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has spoken to school leaders across the U.S. and internationally about shaping positive and transforming toxic school cultures. 

What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school leadership from observing and studying it?

Over the past decade I have visited hundreds of schools and talked with thousands of school principals and teacher leaders, and in all cases there are several important things that successful school leaders do.  

First, they work to make the school culture and environment a positive one where all are respected, there is a sense of purpose in the school that is clear and focused on students, and the contributions of everyone are celebrated.    

Second, they build trusting relationships by being consistent, following through, and caring about the learning of teachers and students.  

Third, work in the classroom is supported and celebrated—the administrative side of the school is well organized and dependable.  

Fourth, they connect with all staff and community—food service workers, secretaries, custodians, parents, and teachers—fostering energy and commitment. 

In short they make the school an enjoyable place to work with positive relationships and a clear, shared direction.

What would you say to a principal in his or her first year on the job?

When a new principal enters the building many expectations, issues, and demands confront them—some positive, some quite difficult; some obvious and some hidden. While the regular administrative issues need to be addressed, it is key to learn about the culture of the school.  

Every school has a culture—that set of norms and values, traditions and ceremonies—that shape everything that occurs.

Early on, a new principal needs to do several things right away.  First, learn about the current culture.  Find out what are the ways teachers interact, work together (or not), and share ideas.  Ask about the important traditions of the school and the ceremonies and celebrations that give the school life from August to June.

Second, delve into the history of the school and find out what shaped the culture.  Who were the prior principals and what were they like?  What were the ways previous principals interacted with teachers, students, and parents? Ask yourself how you are different from these prior leaders.  Consider the history of change in the school—was it a positive experience or a grueling trudge?

Finally, talk to teachers about what they like best about the school, aspects that really make them proud and happy to work there.  Consider nurturing and celebrating these in the early months in the school year. 

From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work? 

School leaders who both enjoy their work and who are successful at helping teachers and students learn seem to exhibit several characteristics.  They have:

• A clear set of values focused on students.

• The ability to build positive relationships with staff and between staff.

• An understanding of the administrative side of schools, with a strong sense of how to foster a positive school culture.

• A clear knowledge of how to enhance the learning of staff.

• The ability to do complex problem solving.

• A healthy balance in their own lives that fosters positive relations within and outside school. 

• A sense of humor.

What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?

There are many ways to build skills and knowledge about leading and about oneself.  Leaders have told me that they have developed deeper understandings and knowledge through:

• Great professional development that engages their minds and hearts.

• Good colleagues who ask tough questions, offer interesting or complex ideas, and who deeply understand school leadership.

• A personal approach to gaining insights, sometimes called experiential learning.  This involves analysis of one’s actions and the reactions or consequences followed by building new insights about what happened, and then experimenting with a new approach based on these insights.

• Reading.  And not only educational or leadership sources but novels, short stories, blogs, plays, and personal reflections on life.  These can push and expand understanding of schools, people, and oneself.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?

Paradoxically, leaders in all organizations need to find a balance of change and stability.  Pacing a change means that movement forward does not unbalance the boat.  

But if the needs of children are not being addressed, a red light should come on and leaders need to develop a sense of urgency and commitment to the changes needed to serve children. 

Change is never easy and in schools, with so many years of changes, some staff may be reluctant to jump into new curricula or teaching approaches.  While some of these changes were perhaps “bandwagons” and disappeared, others are useful trains to jump aboard (such as job-embedded staff development and the use of data for decision making, to name two).  

But teachers have become both wary and weary at times, resistant to trying new approaches. Here are some suggestions from teacher leaders, principals, and those who study schools. 

  Connect the change to existing values and purposes.  Most new techniques exist to accomplish existing goals—but one needs to be clear how they do.

  Provide the needed resources, support, and time to make the implementation of new ideas smooth and (relatively) easy.  Most classroom or school level changes have to be fit into existing routines—it takes time, professional learning, and materials to do this.  Leaving one of these out can crash any new initiative.

  Understand and acknowledge the concerns of teachers.  The history of change for seasoned staff is not always a positive one.  Some of the concerns and resistance come from the reality of other failed reforms.  Acknowledge these past efforts that raise concerns and show how the new efforts will be different.

  Fullan talks about seeking small successes; I agree.  Identify the small successes along the way but also celebrate the larger victories months if not years into the implementation.

In what ways do you recommend principals spend their time, energy, and resources to improve schools?

I would suggest that principals think about their time as an investment in school improvement. As we know, principals engage in hundreds of different activities in a day, work on a large set of problems and issues, and have interactions with dozens if not hundreds of different people.  

Principals should see each of these activities as an investment of their time and energy, an opportunity to make the school better.  Where principals spend their time is one of the largest single investments in any school.  Here are some things to consider:

  Each activity communicates a message about the values and the mission of the school.  These foster a clearer focus on what’s important. What messages are you sending?

  Every problem that is solved—from working with a disheartened teacher to insuring that buses are available for a field trip—increase the successes of the school.  Which problems are you choosing to address?

  Every positive interaction—with a student, staff member, or community member—is a way to shape the school culture, to enhance motivation, and to build commitment.  Are you aware of every interaction?  Or do you slide through the day unaware that this one interaction may be important to the other person?

Using time wisely, focused on the right activities, problems, and interactions fosters school improvement.  All of these—small and large, are investments in success.

Creating organizations in which everyone thrives

Emotions are contagious.

If a leader’s goal is to gain and hold power by sowing fear and spreading anger and hatred, such a leader will be angry and hateful at every opportunity.

But if a leader’s goal is to create organizations in which everyone thrives, in which participants are given every opportunity to become their best selves for their benefit and that of others, then this post from December 2013 is as relevant today as it was then.

Effective leaders exemplify positive attitudes and respect

Positive emotions such as compassion, confidence, and generosity have a decidedly constructive effect on neurological functioning, psychological well-being, physical health, and personal relationships. —Richard Boyatzis & Annie McKee

Civil school cultures are those in which community members think the best of one another, display positive attitudes, speak with kindness, respect others’ opinions, and disagree graciously while candidly expressing their views. 

Those qualities are unlikely to exist and persist without school leaders who embody them in their day-to-day interactions with staff members, parents, and students.

In The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude  P. M. Forni writes, “Whether positive or negative, attitude is destiny…. Positivity makes relationships better, and better relationships reinforce positivity. So, if you are inclined to perceive what happens to you through the fog of negativity, make a change of attitude your number one priority.”

Changing habits of mind and behavior, however, requires that leaders be intentional and persistent in approaching these changes, beginning with themselves.

To establish civil school cultures, leaders:

Hold positive expectations for others by setting high standards for conduct and learning and by living those standards on a day-to-day basis. And when leaders stumble, as they sometimes do, they acknowledge the lapse and set about resolving whatever problems it may have caused.  

Display a generosity of spirit which assumes that others are honest, trustworthy, and capable unless there is abundant evidence to the contrary. Assuming the best is a key attribute of hopefulness, which, in turn, is a critical attribute of relationships that nurture and support continuous improvement.

Speak with compassion and kindness, which Forni believes is at the heart of civil behavior. In another book, Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, he writes, “Never embarrass or mortify…. Always think before speaking…. With your kind words you build a shelter of sanity and trust into which you welcome others for much-needed respite.” 

Speak truthfully. Civility recognizes that people look at the world differently and are entitled to a fair hearing of their views.

Civil school cultures are places in which ideas and beliefs are vigorously and respectfully expressed in meeting rooms. Sarcasm, disparaging gossip, and “parking lot meetings” have no place in such cultures. 

These cultures have at their core leaders who display positive attitudes and deep respect for the abilities and perspectives of everyone in the school community and who interact with and speak about others in that spirit.

True, but incomplete

Some things are true, but by themselves incomplete. 

For example, it is true that planning is important. But planning is insufficient without careful implementation of the plans.

Here are other examples from a September 2013 post on:

5 contradictions that reveal essential principles of teaching, learning, and relationships

1. While hope is essential, it is not a strategy. Hope must be supported by stretching goals, robust plans, professional learning, and strong teamwork.

2. While goals cannot be accomplished without activity, it is easy to confuse activity with accomplishment.

3. While the quality of teaching determines the quality of learning, it is the quality of leadership that determines the quality of teaching across the school and the school system.

4. While professional learning can occur by attending lectures, reading books, participating in social/learning networks, and other individual activities, it is ultimately the quality of school-focused learning and teamwork among teachers with common responsibilities that will determine the quality of teaching and learning across the school.

5. While teachers’ content knowledge and instructional skills are important, another essential but often overlooked attribute of good teaching is the quality of relationships teachers have with their students, particularly those who most require the best teaching to be successful in life.

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?

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.”

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?


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