Recently, a flurry of media stories has called attention to various aspects of the teacher-quality crisis. In March, a New York Times Magazine article headlined “Building a Better Teacher” described several ways to help teachers improve. That same week, a story in Newsweek somewhat cynically concluded that the best answer is to fire all the bad ones. Yet many teachers are heroes, working hard to meet the needs of their students under difficult conditions, with little support.
Finding ways to improve teacher performance has become a focal point—some might say a flash point—for education reform. The question is, how? There are many plausible approaches. Some are well-grounded in evidence, some are not. Yet we clearly need to do a better job of helping teachers meet the classroom challenges of the 21st century.
I was a high school English teacher for more than three decades, and I participated in a variety of professional-development experiments—too many to count. There was the drop-in, one-shot professional learning, in which experts shared “sure to work” silver bullets; there were the videographers who created hopelessly artificial situations in staged classrooms and told us to “just try them”; there were book distributors who shared the most modern, up-to-date bells and whistles and beautiful transparencies guaranteed to engage my students (in a school with no overhead projectors).
Teachers receive plenty of professional development, but most of it does not stick—and not enough of it is focused on helping them become better at their craft."
These experiments were never particularly successful because they were, at best, only marginally related to the reality of life in my classroom and to what I needed to know to be a better teacher. The main problem was that none of them offered ways to support high-quality teaching. They merely gave me pieces of paper or “things” to use the very next day. Few took me seriously as a professional who wanted to do well and give my students the best.
No one told me that, even though teachers are among the few practitioners who don’t practice with each other, I could collaborate with my peers to look hard at students’ work and the way we were presenting the material to them. No one offered to help me understand what “high-quality teaching” looked like, or showed me how to build on my own repertoire of knowledge and skills to get there.
So what have I learned about what works after all these years? For me, as well as for many of my colleagues, one-on-one experiences provided the support that really made a difference: the nagging and nurturing from a highly skilled fellow teacher who observed and supported my efforts in a nonthreatening, nonevaluative way. It was an instructional coach providing real-time support that helped me improve my thinking and teaching.
I’m fortunate now to be able to apply some of these lessons, in my work with the Pennsylvania Institute for Instructional Coaching, a partnership of the Annenberg Foundation and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The institute is built around a straightforward, not particularly sexy idea about what makes for effective professional development: Such learning is job-embedded, ongoing, and personalized. Our model rests on principles I believe are central to helping teachers improve. They can be summed up as professional development that offers reflective, nonevaluative support; regular contact; and, most important, one-on-one interaction. The goal of our statewide mentoring and coaching model is to provide consistent professional development grounded in research-based literacy practices and state academic standards.
Instructional coaching is basically advice and counsel designed to meet the needs of a specific teacher. On-site coaches work one-on-one with teachers to help them understand what data to collect, analyze, and use to improve instruction. Intensive collaboration and planning occur between coach and teacher before, during, and after a teacher’s lesson, to ensure high-quality instruction appropriate to meeting the needs of all the students. Coaches provide regular, ongoing professional development to a school’s entire faculty, which encourages staff members to become part of a community of learning and practice.
Meanwhile, the coaches participate in their own ongoing one-on-one and group professional development, with instructional mentors who serve as the “coaches’ coach.” With their mentors, coaches attend statewide professional-development events throughout the year, participate in regular coaches’ workshops, coordinate visits across schools and districts, and maintain electronic communication with coaches across the country.
Mentors and coaches work together to strengthen teaching, with the ultimate goal of improving student engagement and learning. Using a “train the trainer” approach, mentors model successful practices for coaches, which they then model for teachers. Mentors provide ongoing support to the coaches, who in turn provide it to teachers.
Mentoring and coaching are not new ideas. Districts across the country are experimenting with some form of this approach to professional learning. In professions such as medicine and law, mentoring and coaching are built into the training of practitioners. What we are trying to do is similar: to institutionalize a powerful model of professional development grounded in long-standing theory and practice.
Teachers receive plenty of professional development, but most of it does not stick—and not enough of it is focused on helping them become better at their craft. It is time for a new strategy. It is time to improve teacher quality by personalizing professional development.
A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2010 edition of Education Week as Personalizing Professional Development