A Climate for Great Practice: Collaborating for Student Success

Getting Better Together

The climate, or culture, of a school is one of the most important factors in its success. In fact, you can almost feel the climate of a school within seconds of ringing the buzzer for entry. A culture of collaboration and excellence provides the climate for consistent success for students and increased job satisfaction for teachers. Working towards creating this generative environment is a worthy, yet difficult goal.

Whenever you invite humans into the process of any complex work, there’s the inevitability of error, miscalculation, or failure. What’s also possible in this space, and I think what makes this process so messy and beautiful, is the potential for teachers to change, grow, and create transformative teaching experiences.

I work in an inner-city school district within the nation’s capital. Our school has an abundance of school-dependent students who bring multiple opportunities for educators to assist them each day. Despite their visible (academic) and invisible (emotional) needs, they tend to perform best in a climate of consistency, high standards, and thoughtful support. When I see excellence in our classrooms, these three elements are clearly present. When I don’t, I see opportunity for communal growth; but sometimes this change requires a catalyst.

When change is necessary, most grade-level team meetings that I facilitate focus on three questions:

  1. How do schools determine the right practices for teaching and learning?
  2. How do we ensure that best practices are implemented in each classroom?
  3. How do we determine the effectiveness of the common practices once implemented?

If The Shoe Fits: Determining Right Practices

If you ask ten reading specialists, “What’s the best strategy for reading a book?” you’ll likely get ten different answers. Ironically, they all may be right — in a sense. Experts make judgments based on their experience, expertise, and example. In order to find the right practices for your school, you need to use the same principles, but apply them with two important bookends: teacher feedback and measurable goals. At our school, we use the Scholastic Reading Inventory (as well as other non-quantitative measures) as the starting point for judging effective instruction. Other data points include student mastery of daily objectives and student attentiveness to instruction. We then collaborate with teachers around these data points and ask them to rate the effectiveness of the ideas and practices we’ve suggested. After this series of feedback loops has occurred a few times, we’re able to define the strategies that work for our team, as well as the ones that don’t.

You Must Inspect What You Expect: Getting to Implementation

The time taken to observe and give feedback must exceed the time taken for training or the initiative itself will seem like lip-service. Once we’ve determined our common practices as a team, it’s incumbent upon the teachers, administrators, and coaches to get into the classrooms and see what was planned. If there’s feedback from administrators, coaches, and colleagues, the teachers get a 360 degree view of these practices and their effectiveness. Each observation should focus only on what was planned. The follow-up conference should be scheduled within 48 hours. The tighter the feedback loop, the better the outcomes. Finally, I’ve implemented the lesson study approach in all four grades this year. These lesson study conversations help to center our focus around what’s worked and the challenges that may present themselves during implementation.

Measure Twice, Cut Once: Mining for Results

Depending upon the school system, there may be predetermined goals and targets for students. If you have freedom to set your own goals, an everyday goal of 80% or above for achieving mastery on the objective seems acceptable. However, there are other results to pay attention to. How well do the students retain the data after the initial instruction? How comfortable do teachers feel in implementing the practice? How realistic is it to expect implementation of the goal frequently? Do the little numbers (daily formative assessments) move the bigger ones (PARCC, SAT, AP)?

One of the best motivators for teachers is to see success in their work. When what’s discussed and practiced also produces great results, educators will choose that path every time. Engaging in the work of creating a supportive climate is a very involved, engaging, and at times, recursive process. It’s also a very worthy process. In my next post, I will conclude this series by discussing how normalizing the feedback loop is one of the last levers of change towards building an environment where great teaching is unleashed.

Remember to post any comments you have about 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 the other blog posts in this series, including this one on creating systems for development.

This work was made possible through support from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

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.

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