Focus on Teaching: Realistic, Targeted, Human Support

Jessica Juliuson advances innovations in instructional design and teacher development that enhance students’ learning, improve their academic achievement, and prepare them for college and careers. Recently, she served as the lead writer for Law and Justice, an innovative curriculum that engages and empowers students through projects based on issues of power, fairness, and equity, while strengthening their written and oral communications skills. As a member of an EDC team that supports a national network of Ford Next Generation Learning (NGL) communities, she provides professional development and coaching that helps teachers integrate rigorous academic and career education and collaborates with school teams to facilitate change. In this post, she shares four key features of the professional development model that EDC uses with the NGL communities.

Most of us have an intuitive sense that teaching matters. What happens in the classroom “on the ground,” where interactions with students are direct and immediate, is important. And research has proven our intuition to be right. Within schools, the quality of teaching is the most important factor in student achievement. In the context of systemic reform efforts, however, the importance of fostering high quality, effective, engaging classroom teaching can get lost.

Systems are important. Isolated pockets of good teaching will not help struggling schools or districts improve. However, as states and districts strive to drive change through structures, policies and programs, teachers are often among the last stakeholders to be brought on board. Fullan argues that systemic reform will not work if it ignores individual teacher practice. As he and Hargreaves point out in their 2012 book Professional Capital, “When expertise is imposed…it promotes and perpetuates a passive view of the teacher, who is seen as empty, deficient, and lacking in skills—needing to be filled up and fixed up with new techniques and strategies. It develops things for teachers, not by them or with them.” 

For 14 years, EDC has provided professional development and consultation to schools and districts participating in the Ford Next Generation Learning (NGL) initiative. From this work, we have found that support for high quality teaching must have four key features:

  • Assume and build on existing teacher capacity
  • Give teachers a clear reason to engage  
  • Be immediately relevant to teachers' work
  • Provide a safe environment that supports teachers in taking creative risks

Assume and Build on Existing Teacher Capacity
Effective teacher support must assume that teachers have professional capacity. As teachers can testify, a surprising number of coaching and professional development approaches are designed to “teacher-proof” classroom practice. These models seem to focus on providing strategies that work in spite of teachers, not because of them. When EDC supports teachers in Ford NGL schools, we begin by listening. We talk with teachers and students to help them identify their own strengths and classroom approaches and align them with school and district goals. Our strengths-based approach flips traditional teacher support on its head by building on existing capacities rather than addressing deficits. This entails asking questions specific to instruction, providing teachers with user-friendly tools for self-reflection, and serving as a mirror for teacher practice. This approach not only allows teachers to engage in learning as individuals, it builds organizational capacity for schools to become learning systems.

Give Teachers a Clear Reason to Engage
Effective teacher support must provide a compelling reason for teachers to engage—a basic, simple answer to “Why should I do this?” As multiple initiatives come down the pipeline for teachers every year, many adopt a “wait it out” mentality that allows them to conserve their energies for the classroom and their students. Often, district and school leaders are aware of the research, rationale, and evidence base for specific strategies they want to implement, but teachers are not privy to that information. If the information is shared at all, it occurs in an informational context, a footnote to what teachers perceive to be a new responsibility added to their already full plates. To address this need, we design all our work with teachers to incorporate a clear rationale, relevant supporting research and evidence, and room for teachers to frankly discuss whether and why that evidence is consistent with their own experiences and observations.

Be Immediately Relevant to Teachers' Work
Effective teacher support must give teachers the opportunity to apply new knowledge and skills to their day to day work. Research has shown that students learn best and most deeply when they apply knowledge and skills in an authentic context. But it is less well known that research supports similar findings with adult learners. Working with our Ford NGL partners in Nashville, we asked teachers to use professional development time to think as instructional designers and develop project-based interdisciplinary learning activities—an important part of Ford NGL—with their teammates. We provided resources and structured conversations to deepen teachers’ thinking around key college and career skills such as critical thinking and questioning.

We found that the Nashville teachers were able to immediately apply what they were learning to specific upcoming classroom activities. They argued with one another, asked questions, revised their work, and built on existing materials while integrating new learning. And, they told us that the time they spent "thinking as instructional designers" and collaborating with each other was one of the most useful professional development sessions they had experienced because it built on what they already knew and provided them with time and space to work with one another as knowledgeable professionals.

Provide a Safe Environment that Supports Teachers in Taking Creative Risks
Effective teacher support must allow teachers to try new things and take risks. For teachers to refine their practice, they need to try new strategies. They cannot be expected to try new things or take creative risks if the accountability system in which they operate punishes them for doing so. At present, teacher effectiveness is defined and assessed very narrowly, as measured by standardized test scores. And, there is a widespread lack of consistency in how administrators measure teacher effectiveness.

Teacher evaluation and accountability systems must be aligned to expectations for implementation of new learning. Before any planning and support takes place with teachers in Ford NGL partner schools, we pave the way. We work with school and district leaders to ensure that there is common understanding of what teachers are expected to learn and be able to do. We talk about what changes in practice will look like when they happen. And we talk about how these expectations for change will be reflected in school-based practices, such as classroom walkthroughs and observations. These conversations ensure teachers are supported in shifting practice. They also build the capacity of school and district instructional leaders to align evaluation with learning outcomes for both teachers and students.

Our professional development approach appears to be helping Ford NGL teachers transform classrooms—while respecting the strengths they bring to the process. Teaching is difficult, passionate, and often underappreciated work. Those of us who work in partnership with teachers know that there are very real challenges to transforming practice that must be acknowledged and addressed openly and collaboratively.  Most of all, it is imperative to keep in the forefront the real and very human people bringing the best of themselves to their students every day.