What Teachers Need, Part 2
This post is a continuation from last week’s post, What Teachers Need, Part 1.
Teachers need to work in collaborative teams with their colleagues. Yet, traditionally teachers have worked in isolation. Never before in the history of American public education have teachers been asked—in fact, directed—to ensure higher learning of all students. While the goal of ensuring that all students learn at high levels is certainly laudable, achieving this goal is too complex and difficult for even the best teachers to successfully achieve by working in isolation.
We would propose that there is no evidence that having teachers work in isolation is an effective way to enhance teacher success. In fact, when teachers work in isolation, they are essentially being set up for failure! There are numerous studies over the past three decades that support the efficacy of collaborative teaming. Interestingly, in spite of the overwhelming evidence documenting the power of collaborative teams, most teachers in the United States are still asked to do an increasingly complex and difficult job by themselves. Simply put, teachers need to be part of a collaborative team that works interdependently to achieve common goals, for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. Part of the power of collaborative teaming lies in the fact it shifts the conversations and work of teachers to a focus on “our kids” versus a focus on “my kids”.
The Principal/Team Link
We also know that merely being assigned to a collaborative team will not, in and of itself, improve teacher performance. It’s what teams do that matters! This fact reinforces the importance of schools being led by highly effective principals. Without appropriate and highly effective direction from principals, collaborative teams are likely to lack purpose and focus. And, most important, weak teams will lack any support or direction for improvement.
At the most basic level, highly effective principals ensure that teams are directed—and supported—in activities and tasks related to developing team norms, identifying and clarifying standards that are “essential” for every student to learn, monitoring the learning of each student on a frequent and timely basis through the collaborative development and use of common formative assessments, and collaboratively analyzing the results of formative assessments to make informed decisions regarding additional time, support and enrichment for students, as well as, to reflect on the effectiveness of their own instructional strategies.
Teams of teachers, like students, learn at different rates, and in different ways. We believe it is the responsibility of the building principal to work closely with each team and assist them in not only doing the right work, but continually doing it more effectively! When an effective principal enhances the effectiveness of every team within the building, the effectiveness of individual teachers is enhanced significantly.
Of course, teachers need more than an effective principal, structure and direction, and the support of a collaborative team. They need resources and support—what Richard Elmore (2006) refers to as “reciprocal accountability”. At its most basic level this means that for every increment of performance we expect of others, we have an equal responsibility to provide them with the capacity to meet that expectation. Essentially, this means that teachers need to know “why” they are being asked engage in specific work, and how this particular work fits the bigger picture. In other words, teachers need to understand the “context” of their work. Along with the “why”, teachers need a clear understanding of exactly “what” it is they are being asked to do. Ambiguity leads to frustration, and frustration has a negative impact on quality. Teachers need to know the time-frame or “when” the work is to be done, along with “how” it is to be done—how to proceed. Teachers also benefit from clear standards of quality. That is, what would the completed task or product should look like—the criteria by which the quality of the work will be assessed. And, of course, often need resources such as training, materials, suggestions, and most important, high quality examples. (An excellent discussion of questions that should be addressed when people are asked to engage in new work is provided in DuFour, DuFour, Eaker and Many (2010) Learning by Doing, 2nd ed.)
Touching the Emotions
Daniel Goleman (2002) reminds us that to be effective, ultimately leadership must touch the emotions. Since the early 1950’s researchers of human motivation have emphasized the importance of leaders paying attention to the psychological and emotional needs of those within the organization. And, although there is virtually unanimous agreement about the importance of public appreciation, praise, recognition, and a genuine high regard for the work of others, today’s teachers are expected to successfully achieve almost impossible and extremely complex goals, under very difficult circumstances, with declining resources, all within an atmosphere in which they are constantly blamed, not only for the short comings of schools, but in some cases for the poor economy, and by some people for the ills of society in general. In short, what teachers need is nothing short of what all humans need—genuine respect and appreciation for the critically important work they do.
What About Evaluation and Feedback?
Rather than engage in a discussion of the characteristics of effective evaluation programs, suffice to say that teachers should be evaluated, and they should receive feedback regarding their performance—especially if the feedback is in the form of high quality narratives based on multiple sources of data, collected over an extended period of time, and connected directly to the work and goals of their team. And importantly, since every classroom situation is unique, narrative feedback should detail the “context” in which the data were collected and conclusions were reached. In other words, we believe that teaching and learning is far too complex to be characterized by a single number (for example, a 1,2,3,4 or 5) that summarizes the quality of teacher performance.
Regardless of the form any particular teacher evaluation process takes, absent an effective principal, organization and direction that supports their work, the benefits of a collaborative team focusing on the right things, and an appreciation for the work they are doing, teacher evaluation, in and of itself, will make little difference in teacher effectiveness. There is little, if any, evidence that districts, schools, and teachers can be evaluated into excellence.
On the other hand, there is a role for teacher evaluation—especially, if the evaluation and feedback is part of a broader process of providing teachers and teams with useful feedback, and if the process is directly linked to the goals and work of teacher teams! In short, we believe teacher observation, evaluation, and feedback should be one “piece” of a broader culture that provides teachers with the tools and support they need. We believe principals should be in classrooms and meeting with teams so often that it is regarded as “just the way we do things around here”, rather than an evaluation observation or “walk through” event. If we really mean it—and this is a huge “if”—when we say we want to improve teacher performance we should ensure that teachers are afforded the leadership, organization, direction, and support that have been shown to help more kids learn more. In short, we would ensure that each teacher has the benefit of working in a collaborative school culture reflective of the concepts and practices of a high performing professional learning community!
Elmore, R. (2006). School reform from the inside out: Policy, practice, and performance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
DuFour, R., DuFour, R. & Eaker, R. (2008). Revisiting professional learning communities at work: New insights for improving schools. Bloomington, IN: Solution-Tree.
DuFour, R., Dufour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2010). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work (2nd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution-Tree Press.
Fullen, M. (2007). The new meaning of educational change (4th ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal leadership: Realizing the power of emotional intelligence.Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.