What Teachers Need, Part 1
Increasingly, states are adopting more intensive and complex teacher evaluation systems. While it is difficult to determine with any degree of accuracy the motivation behind these initiatives, most proponents of more stringent evaluation of teachers have proclaimed that a primary purpose is simply to “help teachers improve.”
One can hardly argue with the idea that it is a good thing to improve teacher effectiveness, and that school districts should evaluate teachers and provide them with useful feedback. On the other hand, the very fact that many, if not most, teachers are routinely denied the very conditions that would, in fact, enhance their effectiveness, makes the call for teacher evaluation plans for the purpose of “helping teachers improve” seem disingenuous at best. In fact, some suspect that the current fascination with evaluating teachers is perhaps simply one piece of a larger political agenda that includes initiatives such as merit pay, charter schools, vouchers that would direct public funds to private schools, and the significant reduction of the power of teacher unions.
Whatever the motivation for the current interest in the more stringent evaluation of teachers, surely we can all agree that helping teachers get better is a worthy goal—especially if “getting better” means helping more kids learn more, as well as being a positive influence in the lives of students. After all, making a difference in kids’ lives is the primary reason most teachers entered the profession. (Rarely do we hear a teacher say something to the effect, “It just hit me one day. I was walking across campus my junior year of college, and I suddenly realized I really wanted to be a teacher so I could raise test scores!
What Do Teachers Really Need?
What if we really mean it when we say we want to help teachers get better? What would we actually do? What do teachers really need in order to enhance their classroom effectiveness? We think a review of the research literature, along with a good dose of common sense, can provide us with a number of things that, collectively, would significantly increase teacher effectiveness.
A Shift in School Culture
There is little evidence that a structural change such as the way teachers are evaluated will, in and of itself, dramatically affect student achievement since structural change that is not linked to cultural change is inadequate. Dufour, DuFour & Eaker (2008) point out that, “Even a cursory review of the literature on the change process indicates that meaningful substantive, sustainable improvement can occur in an organization only if those improvements become anchored in the culture of the organization: the assumptions, beliefs, values, expectations, and habits that constitute the norm for that organization” (p. 90). Michael Fullan (2007) echoes the need for a focus on school culture if substantive change is to occur. He writes, “Restructuring (which can be done by fiat) occurs time and time again whereas reculturing (how teacher come to question and change their beliefs and habits) is what is needed” (p. 25).
So what kind of cultural shifts in schools do teachers need? First, teachers need to work in a culture that has shifted from a primary focus on teaching to an intense, passionate and persistent focus on learning. Second, teachers need to be part of a school culture that has shifted from a culture of teacher isolation in which teachers are expected to work primarily by themselves, to a culture of teacher collaboration in which every teacher is part of a high performing collaborative team. And third, teachers need a school culture that has shifted from intentions to one that focuses on results—the learning of each student, student by student, skill by skill. In other words, teachers need the benefit of working in a school and district culture reflective of a professional learning community!
The Principal Principle
Think of what we know about schools and how they work—or don’t work. Wouldn’t most teachers say they desperately need an effective principal who can motivate and inspire them, as well as organize and lead in the development of a collaborative school culture that focuses passionately and intently on improving student learning? Since the early 1980’s there has been clear and consistent research highlighting the critical role the building principal plays in school effectiveness. In fact, it is rare to find a highly effective school that is led by a weak and ineffective principal. Simply put, without an effective principal the various elements of effective schooling simply cannot be brought together, maintained, and supported. And, without effective principals teachers are left to work in a culture that lacks direction and focus. If we accept the assertion that the success of students is directly linked to highly effective teachers, it isn’t a leap to see that teacher effectiveness is directly and significantly influenced by a highly effective principal.
And, principals are faced with increasing demands. Not only must they ensure high levels of student learning for all students, many are now required to make numerous teacher evaluation observations coupled with post-observation conferences (often with as little as three days training) while continuing to deal with the day to day complexities associated with being a building principal. While the demands placed on principals have increased significantly, nothing has been removed from their plate—except resources!
Organization and Decision-Making Aligned To Support Student Learning
In addition to effective principals, teachers need an organizational leadership that provides clear and consistent direction. This doesn’t mean teachers need to be mico-managed. Just the opposite is true! Obviously, teachers benefit from autonomy and should be encouraged to experiment, but within a framework that provides a context for their work—that of ensuring student learning. Teachers need to clearly understand where, how and why things fit. In other words, they need a clear understanding of a conceptual framework that “connects the dots.” Here’s just one example of “connecting the dots.” Do principals need to observe teachers? Of course, but the effectiveness of classroom observations for both the principal and teacher is greatly enhanced when the focus of the observation is linked to the work and goals of the teacher’s team. Connecting classroom observations directly to the work and goals of the teacher’s team provides principals with a greater understanding of the teacher’s focus and a broader context for what is being observed.
Do teachers benefit from bottom-up leadership, empowerment, autonomy, and experimentation? The answer is clearly “yes”! But, one of the great ironies is this—the quality of “bottom-up” leadership, ownership and empowerment depends on the quality of “top-down” organization, direction, and leadership.
Check back next week for part 2, where the authors will dig deeper into the benefits of teacher collaboration in a PLC.
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.