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.


c op

Our district has initiated district wide PLC, and there is much buzz -- but little increase in student performance. The PLC concept has value; however, its implementation has caused a decidedly negative impact on teacher morale. Our district's "one size fits all" approach of teaching whole-group DII all day long, with its punitive threat of disciplinary action hanging over us does not take into account the various teacher personalities and educational specialties, or the varying student needs. Teaching whole class DII all day, all week, all month, and all year from a completely scripted curriculum is draining and boring. To constantly teach in this manner requires all teachers to be one kind of person/teacher, and we simply don't all fit that mold, no matter how much we want to "get with the program". Furthermore, the smart students get concepts right away and don't need to be drilled to death in this manner. The ADD students and slower learners drift away during DII, regardless of the constant change-up of discussion strategies. The ADHD students get angry and bored. We are basically being told that the curriculum is smarter than we are and to ignore all our educations and creative problem solving abilities. Interestingly enough, those pushing it on us have taught far for fewer years...and have never even been in the position to fulfill the mandates themselves that they have thrust on us. I would like to lock some of them in my classroom with my students and the dictated curriculum, and see how they like it.

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Richard Chandler

My comment and "problem" appear to be the same. I have been in education for over fourty years. In 2002 I attended the PLC Institute in Round Rock Texas--I now have the bug!! My problem is that several of the old school teachers do not wish to work in the age of electronics---Ipad media etc. Thus any research on PLC can not be varified because some use elearn and others do not--and the results of research is "no significant achievement"? HELP also I would like to start a blog--I have registered BUT again I can not gain access to the proper pages YES I have down loaded Wordpress Dr. Richard E. Chandler

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Organization in the classroom is a must. If you aren't organized then you cant expect your students to be and eventually this will just lead to chaos within the class. Its important to be able to maintain control of your class and organization is a factor in being able to do this. In a learning community teachers can share ideas and strategies to help one another.

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I thought the part about the principals was interesting. I have had a few different principals over the years and have found them to make a big difference. On the surface they do not seem to matter much, because the level of effort by teachers is not all that different. This was unlike when I used to work at a grocery store and people would work harder for some bosses than others. If the level of effort put forth is not that different then why do they matter? Well the article says it well, "...without effective principals teachers are left to work in a culture that lacks direction and focus." It seems to me that a lot of teachers do not want to admit this, but I think it matters, especially at the elementary level.

I also liked the first part of the article where they are talking about the importance of teacher effectiveness. I think right now, it is a really interesting concept of how to judge a teacher's effectiveness. I certainly think tests tell us something about a teacher, but not the whole story. There are so many components to teaching. It often seems like there are only a few teachers who can find that perfect mix of relationship and instructional prowess. Then their are our student's lives and what they are going through.

So, how else can we be truly effective if we do not absorb the strengths and skills of our colleagues. PLC's should look at student's learning and what they need to be successful. We should then within our PLC's be finding the strengths of colleagues to help us meet our student's needs.

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Organization and decision making aligned to support student learning is an important step that I feel is often left out. We as teachers must be organized, not only to be good role models to our students, but to help us stay focused on the task at hand.

Learning communities can help set the goals to make the observations from the principals effective. Learning communities should be a place where teachers can talk. It should be a place where ideas are shared on how they stay organized and make decisions that support student learning. The ideas shared may help another teacher who is struggling. The learning communities help focus on collaboration between teachers.

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I really liked the part of this article about the shift in school culture. A group of teachers collaborating together with a focus on the results of student learning should be the goal of all schools. But before looking at the teacher's perspective of school culture, we should also be thinking about how students view their school's culture.

In an Educational Psychology class I took last quarter, I read an article with thoughts that followed this idea. In the article, "Creating Developmental Moments: Teaching and Learning as Creative Activities", Carrie Lobman wrote, "Even though the culture of schools is rarely creative, it is possible for teachers to seize or create developmental moments even in the midst of traditional learning environments. These are moments when children and teachers can go beyond the scripted curriculum or proscribed objectives and create opportunities for everyone to be active creators of their learning and development. This requires stepping out of the script of schooling or creating something new with the script which gives children a sense of themselves as creators" (205).

I think it's important for students to have a sense of belonging in the culture that is their classroom. Letting them take the role of being a creator and facilitating some of their own learning would not only benefit the culture of their classroom, but would strengthen the culture of the school as a whole. Teachers collaborating together for the benefit of student learning should always be taking place (It's sad when it doesn't). But if a student's learning is the real goal, then let them tell you where they're at, and let their skills as self-creators bring to light the results of their learning.

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Lillie Jessie

It took me some time to understand the impact of what Rick, Becky DuFour and Robert Eaker meant when they discussed how the current evaluation of teachers five or six years ago was not only time consuming but focused more on instruction rather than learning. I made some changes initially but the more my school became involved in the PLC process the clearer the need for a change of focus became evident. What this change looked like for me was a weekly full day listening session to teachers from all grade levels, to include specialists. They brought the information to me and answered four simple questions: Are the children learning? How do you know? what do you plan to do about those that are not learning? And what are your plans for those who already know the material?

You would be surprised how professional teachers can be when given the opportunity to be treated like professionals. The additional element added in a systematic way was listening to students once a week. If you really want to know if learning is taking place, ask the learner, not just the teacher.
This new focus on performance incentives is just plain "scary" to me. We undermine what is for me the number one big idea of a PLC which is collaboration. Without it, knowing how much "Scut work"(Reeves) principals and teachers are responsible for we will never reach our goal of high performance by students.

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