The most important resources that PK -12 schools possess are their human resources. In regard to instruction, the adults in the building that have the greatest impact are the administrators and teaching faculty. These staff members are the lifeblood of schools. The instructional staff determines the context and the culture of a building. They provide instruction, they sponsor extracurricular activities, and they conduct rites of passage like proms and graduations.
In the current era of accountability in education, spanning the past 15 years, the significance of staff members’ impact on the academic outcomes of schools has been highlighted. On a day-to-day basis this is seen in the focus on the progress of all students in school and in the focus on the ability of schools to prepare students for the workplace or college. As a result, PK – 12 schools in the United States currently exist in a mode of continuous improvement. The effect of this is that schools understand that regardless of their current levels of student achievement there is always room to improve in some area of performance.
As a former school district superintendent, I can speak to the fact that the job of continuous improvement is one that must be embraced and shared as an ongoing commitment by the administrative team and teacher leaders throughout a building. However, this is not where the work ends. To experience optimal results, the commitment to continuous improvement must be shared by the whole staff. Only then can a school make significant progress in the outcomes that are experienced by its students. In seeking to implement a whole staff approach, it is essential for building leaders to recognize and increase the skills of all teachers in the building to help the school achieve its goals.
In seeking to increase the skills of all teachers in the building to promote continuous school improvement on a day-to-day basis, there are four areas where schools can begin their journey. The areas are new teacher mentoring programs, establishment of effective PLCs, the development of intentional school wide professional development, continuous development and retention of strong teacher leaders. Strategies for implementing each of these areas are briefly here.
New Teacher Mentoring
New teacher mentoring is essential to maintaining the continuity of a healthy academic culture in a school. Often, new teachers are assigned to one mentor within a building who then guides them through the “ins and outs” of the processes, procedures, and operations of a building with perhaps some focus on pedagogy and content. To implement more effective mentoring programs focused on continuous improvement, new teachers should be mentored by small teams of educators who possess expertise in various areas of the total school program. This not only ensures a more thorough acculturation but also exposes the new teacher to multiple instructional philosophies and pedagogical methodologies that have been successful in the building. This method provides various mentors for the novice to consult with and platforms to reflect on as he/she begins to develop their own instructional style.
A healthy academic culture that is focused on continuous improvement must also have effective Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) for its teachers to engage in. Just as the teacher mentoring model must be a PLC specifically for new teachers, within grade level teams or through school wide departments, teachers must also come together to reflect on their practice. Effective PLCs have established norms for their operation and focus on curriculum, instruction, and assessment through deliberate common planning, identification of best instructional practices, deliberate common assessment, analysis of student work, and planning for remediation as needed.
Intentional School Wide Professional Development
Intentional school wide professional development requires school leaders to assess the learning needs of staff and to provide the assistance for growth where needed. The four sources to determine teacher growth needs within a school are student achievement data, instructional observation data, teacher perspectives, and trends from research and literature.
As school leaders reflect on what training to provide, all of the four sources must be considered in light of two questions “What are the building’s greatest instructional needs?” and “What teacher learning will have the greatest impact on these needs to significantly impact student outcomes?” It should also be understood that this type of analysis may reveal that needs differ throughout a building, by department and even down to the teacher level. This is where differentiation of the learning must take place in terms of job embedded learning for individual teachers and department or school wide learning to address pervasive instructional issues. Both formats can then be monitored through a “plan, do, check” cycle. In this way, the professional learning needs of all teachers within a building are continuously met to promote a strong academic culture within a school.
Continuous Development & Retention of Strong Teacher Leaders
As I have noted in previous articles, effective teacher leaders are essential to develop and sustain a strong academic culture within a school. Once teacher leaders have been identified, school administrators have the responsibility to provide for their continued growth and development as well. Even as these expert teachers help “grow” the faculty in a building they must continue to expand their personal knowledge and practice.
Most certainly, if the right teacher leaders have been selected, they will seek out opportunities for learning on their own and administrators must provide the means for them to engage in the learning they select. Administrators must also provide opportunities for their teacher leaders to engage in learning driven by their individual levels of development and the school’s needs and they must present them with new challenges that stretch their current thinking and capacity. In this way, the job of the teacher leader remains “fresh” as he/she is intellectually engaged in the work and the school as a whole is moved forward through the continuous honing of the expertise of its staff in using best instructional practices.
As much as any other factors, intellectual engagement in the growth of a school and the ability to see tangible evidence of the results of their work impact the ability of schools to retain effective teacher leaders.
Putting it all Together
Continuous improvement is the context in which schools operate in the current era of education. To effectively achieve this goal, school leaders must take a whole school perspective, understanding that the ongoing development of every teacher in the building is necessary to promote and maintain a strong academic culture that results in improved student outcomes. Through deliberate actions focused on key areas of practice, school leaders can achieve this goal and develop strong instructional staffs that have the ability to sustain the work over time because of established cultures based on effective processes.
Shawn McCollough President & CEO ABCTE