Commentary

A School-Improvement Guidebook: Build Partnerships

To establish a culture of continuous improvement, teachers need the space to take risks
Assistant Principal Maggie Norris tackles paperwork at her desk.
—Brandon Thibodeaux for Education Week

To establish a culture of continuous improvement, teachers need the space to take risks

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Editor's note: In this special Commentary project, a team of educators from Byron Nelson High School in Texas—a principal, an assistant principal, two instructional coaches, and one teacher—offer their perspectives on the difficulties and benefits of implementing the continuous-improvement model. Read all of the essays in the series.

As an assistant principal, my role is largely about evaluating instruction, but my main objective is to always help our teachers grow in their profession and practice. At times, it can be challenging to balance both. I have discovered that building trust is the key to succeeding in this endeavor.

To establish a culture of continuous improvement, we first have to create an environment that both allows and encourages teachers to be vulnerable and take risks. It is important that the teachers I work with not see my presence at their professional-learning-community meetings as a threat, but rather one of support and encouragement.

Through collaborative effort, PLCs can bring out the best in teachers and, ultimately, our students.

For example, as our biology PLC planned for targeted tutorials to help students prepare for their upcoming state assessment, teachers explained that it was challenging to get certain students to attend, even when the tutorials were mandatory. I was able to provide them with ways in which our administrative team could offer support, and we successfully established a team approach to solving the problem.

"Through collaborative effort, PLCs can bring out the best in teachers and, ultimately, our students."

Being a campus leader does not mean that I have all the answers, or that I must solely develop solutions to the challenges our campus and teachers face. In fact, such an approach would be ineffective and a waste of our teachers' talents. As a former classroom teacher, I know what good instruction looks like, which helps me to be an effective campus leader, but I have to trust in the professionalism and expertise of our teachers.

As the educator and author Peter DeWitt observes, "When the leader's voice is the only voice, we end up enabling teachers to wait for the right answer instead of empowering them to help find the best answer together." My job is not to simply deliver directives to teachers for purposes of improvement, but rather to provide them with opportunities to learn from each other. In doing so, they can create instructional opportunities that will allow all students to thrive.

There are times, of course, when my managerial role means I must have critical conversations with my teachers or give directives. However, although I can say with all honesty that I work with an amazing group of teachers, I do believe that my collaborative relationship with my PLC team has significantly helped to make these occurrences few and far between.

Instead, I am able to use questioning techniques to prompt teachers to make these necessary changes.

As a result, the teachers I work with have evidently grown more reflective and developed a greater intrinsic motivation to strive for continual growth.

I recognize the need for differentiating feedback between teachers and even PLCs. Because I truly believe in their desire to be the kind of teacher their students deserve, I am always happy to work to meet teachers' individual needs.

Unfortunately, my many responsibilities pull me in various directions, often preventing me from spending ample—even adequate—time with our teachers and their PLCs. Thankfully, our principal Ron Myers has provided us with the greatest resource to assist in our quest for continuous improvement: instructional coaches. Both of our instructional coaches play a major role in the growth and effectiveness of our professional learning communities and are able to provide teachers with guidance and support, all with absolutely no strings attached. Their role is never to evaluate teachers' work, so the teachers can trust these coaches completely to help them work through areas of weakness in their practice. Through their consistent presence in both the PLCs and the classroom, the instructional coaches provide teachers with the chance to honestly embrace areas that require growth and build the tools needed for the hard work of continuous improvement. It all goes back to the relationship built upon trust.

For the past two years, I have had the privilege of working alongside our campus instructional coach, Diane Caldwell, whose area of expertise is science and math, as well as our English/language arts and social studies instructional coach, Sarah Menn. Diane, with whom I work the most closely, has been instrumental in helping the science PLCs develop into some of the highest functioning teams on our campus.

Our biology PLC, in particular, faces the constant challenges of an overcrowded curriculum and a state assessment that tries to dictate the instruction without consideration of the needs of the learners. The team members consistently plan targeted instruction using both formal data (assessment results) and informal data (observations of student learning behaviors), model best practices and teaching strategies for one another, and take an active approach to teaching. Their conversations demonstrate a great deal of critical, reflective, and purposeful thinking, which has resulted in improved student learning and a group of confident, highly effective teachers. While all of our science PLCs utilize many of these high-functioning PLC behaviors, the biology PLC has the additional challenge of the state assessment to deal with, which makes their work that much more important.

In my own relationship with our instructional coaches, it is essential that we respect each other's role. I never require that a teacher seek out his or her instructional coach for assistance, but I do often recommend that teachers ask for help in certain endeavors. Diane and Sarah are able to quickly identify when certain matters are of an administrative nature, and either direct the teacher to me or let me know.

Vol. 37, Issue 35, Pages 18-19

Published in Print: June 13, 2018, as A Team Approach to Problem-Solving
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