The research is clear: we cannot purchase our way to student achievement through prepackaged programs. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to student learning. Yet the educational landscape is littered with advertisements, sales calls, freebees, and promises working to persuade those making budgetary choices that there is a magic bullet to improving student learning. In actuality, there is only one way of improving student learning: teacher learning.
Ongoing, high-quality professional learning that is customized to teacher-learners is the answer. And, I dare say, the only answer that improves learning for the long term. Teacher efficacy holds the greatest effect size, as supported by John Hattie’s Visible Learning work. Teacher efficacy is built bit by bit, over time, in light of facilitators who understand adult learners and whole school change led by visionary leadership. So when choosing professional learning opportunities, I recommend four essentials that must be present to support teacher growth. I choose these not only from the vast research from thought leaders in the field that supports these qualities, but also from my own personal experience of working with teachers for two decades.
Quality #1: Relationship Building:
First and foremost, any learner–whether adult or youngster–needs to be seen, heard, and valued. Just as in any classroom, the teacher-student relationship is essential to learning, and in turn, so is the relationship between the facilitator of professional learning and the teacher. People learn by taking risks, making mistakes, learning from failure, and persevering. Teachers will put themselves in these vulnerable places when they trust the person they are working with. Whether coach, consultant, principal, supervisor, or any other mentor [role], when teachers trust that they do not have to be perfect to try out something new, learning is amplified and accelerated.
Quality #2 Demonstration in the Classroom:
Teachers need to see teaching in action and, while video clips can be helpful, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that compares to watching a professional demonstrate their instructional practices while also sharing what s/he is doing and why. This explicit sharing of instruction for all to study removes the ambiguity of simply telling teachers about instruction. Instead, it is an authentic model, with all the ups and downs that come with students and classrooms. Anyone who is providing professional learning must first be a teacher at heart and in action. She must be willing to do what doctors do: share their practice, talk through their choices, and invite others to learn from watching. The most effective professional learning happens in the classroom where educators and students work together to refine their practice.
Quality #3 Coaching Like a Sports Coach:
The intention of a coach in sports is to support the improvement of both the individual players and the team as a whole. Yet, while the coach may be knowledgeable about the game, their role is to remain on the sidelines. Any coach who steps in and takes over from a player will be removed. Professional learning, with time built in for coaching in the classroom, improves the implementation of instructional practices by 85-90% (Showers 2002). Coaches, who are most effective, hold true to a few tenets:
- Their role is naming and noticing the impact of instructional practices on student learning in a non-evaluative stance, with judgement-free wording.
- Teachers are on a trajectory of learning. The role of coach is to support the teacher wherever s/he is on that learning journey.
- Feedback is chosen for that teacher based on both the goals of the professional learning vision as well as the request of the teacher. Teachers who ask for specific feedback are more likely to use that feedback. Coaches consider feedback as next steps for that teacher.
Quality #4 Tiered Professional Learning:
The Gradual Release of Responsibility Model is not limited to young learners. When considering where teachers are in their depth of learning of certain instructional practices, the facilitator chooses what professional learning experience is most fitting. For example, perhaps teachers are just meeting the facilitator for the first time: It is time to build relationships. Perhaps there are new instructional practices being introduced: demonstration is in order. Maybe teachers are trying out something new. In that case, it is time for coaching. Whatever the case, we differentiate for teachers in the same way we differentiate for students. And always, always work to maintain a relationship that will withstand the hard parts of learning.
With these four essentials at the core of professional learning, budgetary investments are not Band-Aids but rather commitments to improving teaching and learning for the long term.
Marzano, R. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action.
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA.
Gawande, Atul. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/10/03/personal-best
Student Achievement Through Staff Development, Joyce & Showers, ASCD, 2002
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning.
Routledge. New York, NY.