Thursday, July 19, 2018

Teacher quality isn't just about the teacher

Let's talk about teacher quality. When you read that term, you are likely thinking about how good a teacher is at what she does. After all, when we talk about quality, we are talking about. . . interesting. This was a bit of a struggle for me because I usually think of quality in terms of specific items, but I might also think of quality in terms of character--"He's a quality person." So we often use "quality" when we might mean "excellence."

How do we improve teacher excellence? Or, perhaps a better way of asking is this: "How do we provide resources so our teachers can become their most excellent?"

What prompted this particular reflection was an article in the Chicago Tribune titled "Seize this moment: 5 ways to improve teacher quality." The writer, Stephanie Banchero, a self-described education reporter, told of teachers and administrators who had inspired students to their full potential. In her anecdotal examples, she described them as individuals of energy, passion, and compassion. Banchero writes
Between 2008 and 2015, the nation saw a burst of policy changes around educator quality. Nationwide, states, including Illinois, overhauled teacher evaluations, tenure and dismissal rules. They crafted plans to ensure that underserved students do not get a disproportionate share of unqualified teachers. And they raised the bar to get into teaching.
Since then, educator quality has fallen off the table as a top policy issue. That’s a shame because research shows that teacher effectiveness is the primary in-school driver of student outcomes. It also shows that low-income students and students of color are least likely to have top-notch teachers.
"Educator quality." "Teacher effectiveness." "Top-notch teachers." Just hold on to those phrases for a moment. Now I have to say when I saw the title of her article, I was thinking about professional learning, mentoring, coaching, etc. I was thinking about ways to improve the quality, the capabilities of a teacher. I was thinking of ways to help educators tap into what drives them, what moves them to teach. I was thinking of ways career changers can build on their passion for learning and doing to seek out better ways to encourage and engage kids. I was thinking that sometimes we start with someone who has the drive and the will but lacks some skills or some strategies and might just need some coaching to improve. I was thinking that sometimes we have teachers who have worked in difficult situations who are just tired and struggle to be creative and inventive because the kids don't care about learning and their parents care less, but that's less about quality and more about support, encouragement, and seeing how we can help them change a school culture.

I've been to some low-performing schools and the ones who are working so hard to change the ways their kids see school are the ones who are working at changing a whole community culture. Those teachers may not be great, but most of them are working hard and they are quality teachers in difficult situations. And here's what I've also noted, most of them would love to improve if there were means, but all of their energy is focused elsewhere and, as some of them recognize, they have fallen into the habit of just blaming the environment for not being able to do more or better.

Banchero notes that fewer young people want to go into teaching, and who can blame them? We have a national culture of disparaging teachers at the same time we are expecting them to work miracles and do so for a pittance. So Banchero's ideas for improving teacher quality are these:
  • Launch a statewide campaign — with teachers as ambassadors — to draw young people, especially those of color, into teaching.
  • Incentivize higher education and K-12 to work together to create pathways that let aspiring teachers earn college credits in high school, then move into postsecondary teacher preparation programs.
  • Provide incentives for teacher training programs and school districts to work together to align supply and demand, and also make it more rooted in K-12 classroom practice.
  • Provide more time in the school day for teachers and principals to plan and collaborate.
  • Create career ladders that let teachers take on leadership roles for extra pay.
Okay, so, yes, we have to get more folks in the pipeline to become teachers, whether traditional college-aged kids or career changers. But there's more to it than incentives and higher pay, though higher and extra pay would be very good things.

Let me take a brief digression because I did a little research on past initiatives for improving teacher quality and let's get one thing straight: the assumption is that it's about the individual who is the teacher or who is becoming the teacher. That is, the standards aren't high enough, the practica aren't rigorous enough, the standards for evaluation aren't substantial enough. Some of that is true and I'm resisting the temptation to climb up on my soapbox about how teacher preparation in many colleges and universities seems to be laughably and abysmally out of date.

Writing all the way back in March 2018 (that was supposed to be funny), Derrick Meador writes
By improving teacher quality, they will naturally improve student learning outcomes. Improved input equals improved output. This is an essential component of school success. Continuous growth and improvement are necessary. There are many ways that a school leader can improve teacher quality within their building. Here, we examine seven ways that a school leader can help individual teachers grow and improve.
Wow. It's that simple? Improved input means improved output. Balderdash. But then I decided to look at the seven ways a school leader can help a teacher grow and improve. First up is meaningful evaluations, which should then lead to constructive feedback/suggestions. The third way is meaningful professional development followed by adequate resources, providing a mentor, ongoing and open communication, and encouraging journaling and reflection. Okay, this is pretty standard stuff. Nice generalizations without many specifics.

The author of "Teacher Quality Matters" (2017) notes many of the same things and includes a pathway for a teacher to become effective. See? Easy peasy.

If only teachers had more effective and targeted professional development.
If only teachers had mentors.
If only teachers had better evaluations with constructive feedback.
If only teachers were more reflective.
If only teachers had better training before they became teachers.
If only teachers knew how to use technology more effectively.

What do you notice? This is all about the teachers. As though we have this massive situation and have to fix the teachers.

If only we had better teachers we would have better test scores?

What about the students?
What about the parents of the students?
What about the culture of the school?
What about the training and preparation and capabilities and time availability of the mentors? of the coaches? What about how the mentors and coaches are being asked to multiple other responsibilities or have too many teachers for which they are responsible to do well by anything or anyone?

Here's what I've noticed in reading some of the work on teacher quality, even that by The Shanker Institute, "What Happened to Teacher Quality?".
The focus is on test scores. If teachers were better teachers, test scores would go up. And that is so messed up if that's what we really think learning is all about.

It wasn't just Marzano that helped develop this skewed focus of student learning. In spite of all our conversations about student-centered learning, personalized learning, makerspaces, growth mindset, and more, teachers often complain about the pressure to improve test scores. As an instructional coach working in school districts in different parts of the country, mostly Title I schools, I hear this all the time. "I'd love to do that, but. . .". "Yes, well, but our district expects. . .". And then I hear about the state tests, the benchmarks, the national tests, etc. Teachers cannot help but focus on the tests.

But I also get to work with the teachers who have figured out that if they meet their students where they are, if they find ways to encourage the curiosity of their students, if they give their kids choices so they develop the skills and knowledge they need, then those kids are going to do fine on their standardized tests and, by the way, they're going to learn.

They are willing to push the limits because they want to do what's best for their kids. They don't find excuses. They recognize they may get reprimanded for stuff like not having "I can" statements that perfectly match the ones of their colleague's walls or for having a classroom that seems a little chaotic. But when administrators pay closer attention to what kids are doing and how they can respond to the question "What are you doing today?", and when administrators focus as much on the students and their learning as the teachers and their teaching, then they see there may be better ways than test scores to recognize teacher quality.

When I think about a quality teacher, I think of those who are effective in their classrooms and I know exactly what I mean by that. They have figured out how to tap into their passion for learning and doing. They search Pinterest and other resources for ideas as they think about individual students in their classrooms and what will best enable those students to learn what they need to learn. They develop strategies or mashup apps and strategies and resources that give students options and, more importantly, they pay attention to which students choose which options.

When I think of effective teachers, I think of those who focus first on their students and their students' learning. I think of those who are able to rise above some of the constraints and those who are working hard to build a supportive yet challenging culture of learning in their classrooms.

As an instructional coach, I'm usually asked to help teachers brainstorm ways to teach a particular lesson. They've already been reflecting on what's worked before with this group of students, what's worked before with this lesson with other groups of students, what they've learned that they want to try because it seems to make sense for this lesson. I get to help them think through strategies, figure out what resources or tools they can or need to use. I get to remind them of their own strengths. I get to help them think about what they'll do if something goes sideways.

And here's something else I've observed. There are some amazingly wonderful teachers in the classroom, and yes, there are some folks who need to retire sooner rather than later or should never have gotten into the profession. We have to find different solutions for those folks because they are not interested in improving but just getting to retirement. There, however, some good teachers in the classroom that we tend to overlook them because they don't dazzle us.

I worked with a group of teachers last year at a particular school that has some challenges, as is the case for every school. The one group of students that did the best with a particular grade-level lesson was not the one the principal expected, but I saw a very different relationship between that teacher and her students. Was that teacher "better" than her colleagues? In some ways, yes: the way she made clear her expectations for their behavior and the way she demanded they respect each other, her, and me.

All of those teachers know their stuff. They have the content knowledge and they have the pedagogical knowledge. They are, in those respects, quality teachers. Teacher A is very creative, always coming up with nifty activities for her students that they enjoy and on which they can stay focused for a time. But she doesn't have much of a relationship with any of her students which leads to some behavior problems; her classroom management style leaves something to be desired. Teacher B doesn't think she's very creative but she welcomes suggestions and happily integrates Teacher A's nifty activities with her own spin. She has a good relationship with most of her students so fewer behavior problems and pretty good classroom management. She is quick to share with her students what she is learning and, if I'm in the classroom introducing something new, she generates some student interest with her excitement to learn, too. Teacher C is somewhat old school in her approach. She uses technology when she has to and recognizes its value. She is concerned with the quality of the character of her students and so demands mutual respect. She has few behavior problems. Like Teacher B, she is quick to tell students that she is also learning something new. Like Teacher B, she has great patience with her students as they focus on their learning. She gives them some choice and is always asking them if they've done their best. Neither Teacher B or C are particularly dazzling with energy or nifty activities, but they each have developed a culture of care and learning in their classrooms.

You want to know about their test scores, don't you? The test scores are fairly equal though Teachers B and C tend to have slightly better reading scores.

What makes an effective teacher? Is it pedagogy? Is it content knowledge? Is it SEL? Is it growth mindset? Is it including STEM and STEM-like activities? Is it cool tools and technology? Sure. And it's knowing yourself as a teacher and knowing your students, and then knowing how to use your specific talents and abilities and perspective to help them find and use theirs.

When I'm with teachers and their students--and I'm usually with a teacher with at least a whole class period if not longer--I see effective learning in process when teachers have created a culture of learning. Students know learning is not just knowing the right answer immediately, but knowing the source of the answer and its context. Students know it's okay to be wrong and that learning is knowing why they were wrong. Students know learning is knowing how and where to find what they need to get the answer or figure it out. Students know learning comes with struggle and sometimes frustration, and that's okay.

It's knowing that part of learning is learning how to learn.
It's knowing that part of learning is learning how to like learning.

When we speak of improving teacher effectiveness, I think it is NOT what we do to or about teachers. It is what we do FOR and WITH them, and I think administrators are often carrying the wrong load.

I think administrators need to:
  • Have individual conversations with teachers about what they see as their weaknesses and their strengths, and then listen to them to find out what they think they need for professional learning. Aggregate where you can, but there's nothing wrong with an unconference approach to professional learning. Or encourage your PL presenters/workshop leaders to find creative ways to let teachers differentiate and have choice in applying their learning.
  • Need do an occasional audit of school and district initiatives to see where the conflicts are and to see where there are unreasonable loads or expectations; you cannot fix everything at once and by trying to do so, you create even more problems. And it may very well be that some of those "fixes" are actually constraining some potentially effective teachers from finding their ways. 
  • Need to acknowledge that the big, new shiny initiative may be great for some teachers but not have the wow factor for others, and you have to be okay with that. You need to let teachers find what best supports their strengths in building a culture of learning in their classrooms.
  • Need to try to help them build community and parental support through a strong PTO that wants to encourage and support its teachers because their teachers want to encourage and support their kids.
  • Need to try to pay them what their worth, and then some.
We all need to recognize that effective teaching is only part of the story: that kids will not do well on any test or assignment unless they are learning to be effective learners. So effective teachers listen to each other, to their mentors and/or coaches, to the parents of their kids to find ways to help our student learn in ways that make sense to them. (Watch the bit about the treehouses in Pam Moran's TEDx Talk.)

What do teachers need to do?
  • Take advantage of as many opportunities as possible, and be respectfully vocal about what you think you need to become a stronger teacher.
  • Push for what you need to refine your strengths and mitigate or balance your weaknesses. 
  • Be willing to take some risks. 
  • Don't be too proud to ask for help and don't reject coaching without giving it a try.
  • Remember that students have a role and responsibility in the learning process; just because a teacher taught it doesn't mean a student learned it.
  • Be excited or at least moderately enthusiastic about learning.
  • Try not to complain about a lack of time for collaboration and planning, but find ways to make that happen even if means rocking the boat a bit.
  • Do as much as you can to build and promote a culture of learning in your classroom.
I think we need to rethink what we mean by teacher quality, or teacher effectiveness. First, it's not about test scores because it's not a simple equation of quality input yielding quality output. Second, an effective teacher doesn't need a lot of bells and whistles but he can make those bells and whistles be effective tools for learning for all students because, third, an effective teacher knows that the best measure of his or her effectiveness is kids who know how to learn.

P.S. More about "culture of learning" in my next blog post.

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