This post is by Sarah Fiarman, a former public school principal in Cambridge, MA, and the author of Becoming a School Principal: Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn.
Of all the things I did as a principal, two leadership moves had the greatest impact on improving teaching practice across my school: engaging teachers in leading improvement and providing time and support for teacher collaboration. The latter requires more structure than we think, and the former requires getting ourselves out of the way. It can be hard to do both.
Share the leadership
At a staff meeting at my elementary school one year, teachers named a problem they’d noticed: students were often sloppy in both their behavior and their school work. “We’d be more effective,” one teacher said, “if we spelled out a common set of expectations and were consistent with them across classrooms and through the grades.” I asked our leadership team (consisting of teacher representatives from each grade) to develop a set of school values. After gathering input from each grade-level team, the leadership team came up with an acronym to describe our school’s commitment to create lifelong learners who care about their community. CARES: be Curious, Aim high, Respect others, be Engaged, Show kindness.
Reading through the teachers’ work, I felt uncertain. I thought the E should stand for effort instead of engagement. Recent studies had documented the importance of effort and the related concept of a growth mindset. Because the values would inform teaching for years into the future, the decision felt momentous. I explained my thinking to the team. When teachers disagreed with me, I wondered if this was a time to take a stand as a leader and mandate that “effort” be one of our values.
In retrospect, my quandary sounds ridiculous; both effort and engagement are laudable values. In my moment of hesitation, however, I had lost sight of a principal’s real leadership role. Students will learn in new ways when their teachers invest deeply in learning new skills themselves. So as a school leader, my focus in that meeting should not have been naming the individual values but rather how to fully engage teachers in leading and owning the process.
Thankfully, I didn’t insist on the change, and the leadership team continued to feel empowered to lead what they’d launched: a school-wide effort to shift the learning culture of the school. Enlisting and supporting teacher leadership isn’t enough, however. Principals also need to create the conditions for teachers to lead through learning.
Provide time and support for teachers to learn
Research has shown that teachers learn new practices through collaborating with peers. For this reason, I prioritized scheduling common planning time for teams at my school to meet each week. Over time, I learned that simply forming teams and scheduling time doesn’t lead to improvement, however. While some teacher teams are able to pursue learning on their own, most need more explicit support to ensure meetings are productive and useful. Thus, at my school, grade-level team leaders learned protocols for identifying root cause, designing an inquiry cycle, soliciting critical feedback from teammates, and--importantly--they learned strategies for protecting an agenda’s focus on practice rather than completing paperwork and other housekeeping. We used these strategies when the whole staff was together as well. One teacher noted that instead of staff meetings, we now had workshops where teachers worked together to examine instruction.
These practices served us well when it came time to develop and implement our school values. The values prompted challenging questions: How do you teach students to be curious? To be engaged? To internalize high expectations? For many, teaching these mindsets required a new kind of teaching practice. Recognizing this, the leadership team wisely developed a set of expectations for colleagues. Within the first six weeks of school, all teachers would teach the values not in the abstract but through a particular academic project, which would be developed by each team. Teams would share their plans at a staff meeting to get feedback from colleagues before the start of the new school year. Classes would share their work with the whole school at or before the first school assembly.
As an example, one team taught students to “aim high” by co-creating a rubric with their students to describe quality self-portraits for their portfolios. Students then got feedback from peers, completed multiple drafts to improve their work, and prepared to share their work with an audience outside their classroom. This project, started the first week of school, modeled a process of “aiming high” that students then used throughout the year on everything from essays to dramatic performances to oral presentations. Other teams developed their own grade-level-specific projects for students to learn and practice the values.
Staff members from across grades reported seeing a difference in student attitudes towards work and behavior. One of our most skilled and experienced teachers told me that she was learning to teach in a new way and as a result, students were taking more ownership of their learning. In a follow-up survey from the leadership team, teachers overwhelmingly agreed that the fall project was effective at teaching values, that their new practices “help children understand what good learners do,” and that the values “foster a sense of school-wide community.”
This example and others helped me learn the power of effective collaboration and the improvements that come when teachers are empowered to lead the process. It wasn’t always easy and we didn’t always get it right. During the staff meeting to share plans, one team had a lackluster project design. Colleagues hesitated to share critical feedback. In retrospect, the leadership team realized that there should have been a strategic structure or protocol to help people break through the culture of nice and practice the collegiality of a more accountable culture. As the leader, I should have helped the team anticipate this need. While grade-level teams had increased their capacity to give critical feedback, it was still uncomfortable territory at the whole-school level. We learned from this and before launching another improvement initiative, the leadership team completed the pre-mortem protocol to anticipate problems and brainstorm strategies to pre-empt them.
Teacher-created school values didn’t end the need for improvement at my school. There was still more work to be done to ensure students were engaged in meaningful learning in every classroom. However, through teacher leadership and collaboration, teachers experimented, tried new practices, and most of all, took responsibility for teaching a set of skills bigger than anything measured on a test. As schools across the country strive to learn new ways of teaching for deeper learning, these are the mindsets leaders need to cultivate in our teachers and in ourselves.
Photo Credit: Expeditionary Learning
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