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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Want to Drive Student Learning and Instruction? Pick 3 Priorities

How schools can focus on achieving their most important goals
By Peter DeWitt — November 12, 2023 4 min read
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In the ever-evolving landscape of education, schools must navigate many challenges to ensure that students are engaged in authentic learning experiences. To achieve this, it’s essential for schools to establish clear priorities, with a strong focus on student learning and teacher instruction. By limiting their focus to just three or less core priorities, schools can create laserlike attention on what truly matters, leading to improved educational outcomes. In the Instructional Leadership Collective, we engage in collective inquiry with individual leaders, school leadership teams, and district leadership teams. We use a placemat process where teams need to create up to three priorities, set the success criteria for each, and then write a Theory of Action for each priority.

All in all, we have over 80 individuals and teams who we coach that have taken the information from the placemat and uploaded it to our Google Intake Form. That gives us the same information on the placemat as well as the learning needs of each person, which helps us engage in deeper coaching conversations with them. The top three priorities that we see come up over and over again in the intake form and on the placemat are:

Tier 1 instruction – Many of the teachers and leaders we are working with are focusing on strong tier 1 instruction using strategies like leveled questioning, scaffolding, and collaborative conversations/student talk.

Attendance – Clearly, strong student engagement can lead to increased attendance, but groups are also working on stronger family engagement to increase attendance as well.

Collaboration among teachers and students – This is a big focus for schools, and it takes using an inquiry approach to break down which strategies will work that truly have an impact on students, teachers, and leaders. Engaging in collaborative efforts like professional learning communities is a main priority for schools.

Why is setting priorities so important? Priorities help enhance student learning, elevate teacher instruction, and build a collaborative learning environment.

Enhancing Student Learning
The primary focus of any school is to facilitate student learning. Thus, it’s crucial for schools to identify their top priorities when it comes to enhancing the educational experience for students. By narrowing down their objectives to a select few, schools can allocate resources and efforts more effectively. These priorities could encompass improving student achievement in core subjects, fostering critical-thinking skills, or addressing specific learning challenges.

When schools set priorities aimed at enhancing student learning, they can establish clear outcomes for success, track progress, and make decisions based on evidence to support their goals. This focused approach encourages teachers to develop tailored strategies that cater to their students’ unique needs, ensuring that no child is left behind. It also empowers educators to continuously assess their teaching methods and adapt them to align with the school’s objectives.

Elevating Teacher Instruction
Teachers play a pivotal role in a student’s education. Prioritizing teacher instruction is an important step in the process. Let’s face it, we can always improve our instructional practices. As someone who facilitates a lot of professional learning, I value having people around me who will coach me up to being more intentional in our learning sessions. By setting clear objectives for professional learning, we can provide teachers and leaders with the tools and knowledge they need to have a deeper impact in the classroom.

When we focus on teacher instruction, especially in nonjudgmental ways, we enable educators to stay current in their practices and on educational research. This is important because what we have learned through research is that it’s not just the strategies we use that are important, but it’s about going one more step to see how impactful to student learning those strategies were. A strong professional learning focus tied to our main priorities helps teachers refine their instruction, adapt to diverse learning needs, and positively impact student learning.

Building a Collaborative Learning Environment
Collaboration is another key priority that schools should embrace to foster a supportive and effective learning environment. When schools prioritize collaboration among everyone in a school community, they create a sense of shared purpose within the educational community. A collaborative learning environment allows students to work together, share ideas, and learn from one another. It also encourages teachers to share best practices and create a culture of continuous learning.

For full disclosure, collaboration is not easily done, even though we say we have been doing it for years. True collaboration is about challenging each other’s thinking, using protocols for learning, and openly discussing evidence to focus on what is working and what is not. Too often, collaboration has been seen as contrived collaboration.

In the End
Through our work in the Instructional Leadership Collective, we have been able to have deep coaching conversations with individuals and groups and also focus on student learning and a more systemic approach to improvement. However, as we know, conversation isn’t enough. Setting priorities means that we also have to engage in actions and understand the impact of those actions. It’s really important for schools to set priorities—and no more than three—with a focus on student learning and teacher instruction. By narrowing their focus to a select few objectives, schools can channel their resources and efforts more effectively. These priorities not only improve student learning but also elevate teacher instruction and foster a collaborative learning environment.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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