My first example of love was from my parents, which is probably true for most people. Their care and attention to my moral, spiritual, and physical development provided the template for what I hope to achieve with Laila and Joshua, my two children. In the space between the example that I saw and the habits I hope to repeat, learning took place. This relationship is essential to creating an infrastructure that allows great teaching to flow.
You must set a vision of excellence that is visible, practical, and impactful. For many, this vision requires an intentional shift. Throughout my work at Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School, it has become clear that there are three high-leverage actions that begin to facilitate this change: establishing common language and expectations, building a standards-based foundation, and maintaining a tight feedback loop. Here are some dos and don’ts to consider when engaging with each action:
Establishing Common Language and Expectations
Don't assume that everyone's definition of common education parlance is the same. One of the first professional development sessions I had was in my classroom at Dunbar High school. It was evident after our opening conversation about planning that I had a range of ideas in the room about what effective planning was. Additionally, the teachers had differing views as to the scope of planning and how useful it may be for implementation of effective instruction.
Do engage in a discussion and build consensus around a common definition of select terms. After the initial warm-up activity, I opened the floor for more rigorous debate as to what planning is and could be. The resulting dialogue between and among staff members helped us concretize a few major tenets that could make up a working definition. I then facilitated this conversation in each grade until we had a school-wide definition for planning that was influenced by everyone's perspective. We would later go on to define effective pedagogy and data-informed instruction. Our next step is to define the minimum expectation for great writing.
Building a Standards-Based Foundation
Don't confuse covering a standard with teaching a standard. Lost amidst the Common Core debate is the standards themselves. In an attempt to just "close their doors and teach," many teachers have exited the debate and tried their best to cover the curriculum while learning it at the same time. These standards demand more time than teachers are given. The consequence of this "building the plane while flying" dynamic is that teachers have a shallow understanding of the demands of the standard. This ankle-deep knowledge then transfers into surface-level performance on the part of the students.
Do take the time to break down a few "power standards" with your teachers. One of the standards we're focusing on this year is:
Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
Through PD sessions, we've taken out keywords and then discussed what that standard may look like in practice and in assessment. We're going to take the next step soon when we look at student work and converse about any gaps between the standard's expectation and student performance. Next year, we'll cover even more standards, focusing on those that we believe provide the most leverage for great literacy and math instruction.
Maintaining a Tight Feedback Loop
Don't observe instruction without following up with a meeting or some concrete direction towards more resources. The number of activities and priorities on an administrator's or instructional coach's plate can be overwhelming. From behavior issues to high-level meetings to lunch duty, time is a precious resource for everyone in a school, but especially for administrators. Therefore, the best way to honor the time invested in formal and informal observations is to schedule follow-up meetings with the teacher. Great teaching flourishes in response to both feedback and commendation. It's imperative that teachers know that you're invested in growing them as well as evaluating them.
Do give specific feedback on the highest leverage action. Feedback is great if it's focused, but frustrating if it's comprehensive. Teachers need to know the recommendation that's going to get them to results in the most efficient way. This is best achieved by focusing the observation, follow-up, and then re-assessment on the teacher move that will most likely result in student understanding. The fewer changes a teacher has to make, the more likely the changes will happen.
Just like a river never flows higher than its source, good teaching cannot exist without a tangible vision of excellence. Teachers need the support of an instructional coach and academic leadership team that is focused on making buzz words matter, deconstructing complex standards, and devising effective classroom solutions. Practicing these actions can help equip teachers with the knowledge needed to implement transformational instruction. In fact, modeling each practice for teachers through lesson demonstrations, co-planning sessions, and data dialogues is a great way to provide the picture for teachers to learn from. To paraphrase the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, “examples are the go-karts of judgment.” In other words, what someone identifies as the minimally acceptable standard is the vehicle they will use to make decisions in their teaching and learning environment. Practice makes permanent; the better the skill that is practiced, the more permanent the skill and concomitant impact will be.
Remember to post any comments you have on this blog in the comments section below and post any ideas, pictures, or questions you have about creating systems that support great teaching on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter using the hashtag #betterteachers. If this post sparked your interest, check out my previous blog post in this series, on creating systems for development.
Josh Parker is a 2013 NEA Global Fellow and the 2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year. He serves the students and staff of Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School in Washington, D.C. as an Instructional Coach. He is a proud board member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. Connect with Josh on Twitter: @MDTOY2012.