Teacher Growth: Helping teachers open their gates from the inside

This post on my Australian school’s teacher growth model was originally written as a guest post for Starr Sackstein, acclaimed educator, author and bloggess extraordinaire. It was inspired by a #sunchat Twitter chat moderated by Starr, which challenged me to talk more specifically about the professional learning and culture model I keep going on about …

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No one can persuade another to change. Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside. We cannot open the gate of another, either by argument or emotional appeal. ~ Marilyn Ferguson

open your gate from the inside

How do you help someone open their gate from the inside?

The global education community tends to agree that better teaching equals better student achievement. Schools, districts and nations have taken this notion and used it in attempts to improve the quality of teachers through professional development and teacher evaluation systems.

There is a long continuum of possibilities for developing teachers and teaching, but it seems that many systems sit solidly at the teacher-evaluation-for-improvement end. When I visited the USA I was surprised at the quantitative, and at times punitive, approaches being used to score and evaluate teachers. Eric Saibel’s recent post questions whether all the work and time put into teacher evaluation has made a difference to teaching or student learning. In this thoughtful video conversation Eric talks with Starr Sackstein about ideas for meaningful teacher feedback and growth.

As a teacher, school leader, researcher and parent, teacher growth and evaluation are areas of immersion and passion for me. My own ideas are based on my:

  • Experiences as a classroom teacher in Australia and the UK;
  • Experiences as Head of Faculty in Australian schools;
  • Recent visits to New York schools, researchers and edu-experts;
  • Current PhD research on what makes transformative professional learning and leadership; and
  • In-school strategic work on researching, piloting and developing a teacher growth model for my Australian school. We are at full implementation phase this calendar year.

To develop my school’s teacher growth model we have used a Schooling by Design backwards design approach to planning and implementation. This has allowed us to align our vision, purpose, evidence and action. This has centred us around our own context and our goals of improving the learning of our students and developing the professional culture of our school.

Our change management philosophies of ‘go slow to go fast’ and ‘evolution not revolution’ have given us permission and time to tailor the model to our context and nurture teacher buy-in. Adaptive Schools, which I have written about here, has influenced our work by providing us with models of collaborative strategically-aligned change.

Our model itself is based in a belief that schools are relational places where trust is key to risk taking, growth, willingness to be vulnerable, deprivatising classrooms and learning from, with and alongside each other. It involves teachers-trained-as-coaches (and, every few years, administrators) who help teachers to use non-judgemental lesson data (written scripting, video, audio) as the basis for reflection against the Danielson Framework for Teaching and teachers’ own goals. The Danielson Framework was chosen for its research-basis and specificity. We like that ‘distinguished’ teaching is all about what the students are doing.

As well as meeting with Charlotte Danielson in Melbourne and Princeton (where we spoke about the nature of coaching and my school’s use of her Framework), I heard her speak at the 2014 Australian Council for Educational Leaders Conference in which she explained the importance of a trust environment of challenge and support for teachers, and teaching frameworks as conduits for the thinking of the teacher, rather than telling by the administrator. Ellie Drago-Severson agrees that adult learning needs an environment of support and challenge. Her work on ‘holding environments’ and adult learning is based in trusting the capacity of adult learners. I spoke with her in October about her work with schools and the importance of starting slow and building momentum. We are similarly focused on self-directed teacher growth with a belief in the capacity of teachers to reflect, learn and grow.

As the cornerstone of our conversations, Cognitive Coaching places our emphasis heavily on the coach as non-threatening facilitator of teacher thinking, rather than feedback-giver and scorer. The coach focuses on facilitating the teacher’s thinking, not giving advice or solving problems. This approach is partly based on research like this which shows that what actually gets our brains to be open and changeable is compassionate, positive conversation which sparks our own thinking.

The opening quote by Marilyn Ferguson reflects my thinking on teacher growth and evaluation: teachers need to be supported in opening their own gates from the inside. If, as David Rock and Dan Pink have explained, rewards and punishments don’t motivate, change behaviour or facilitate creativity, how can we encourage students and teachers to be intrinsically motivated, passion-driven, continuous learners who seek improvement through curiosity, reflection, collaboration and risk tasking?

Does your teacher growth or evaluation model encourage self-directed growth and a culture of professional learning? How might you build trust, apply a belief in the capacity of teachers, or develop collaboration in your own context?

it's all about the growth

it’s all about the growth

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19 thoughts on “Teacher Growth: Helping teachers open their gates from the inside

  1. Excellent post! Thanks for sharing! Great title to put out in front as we move forward with our Professional Growth Model using Danielson’s Framework. Within “Teachscape” the Danielson framework is set up to be a judgement model. Professional growth with in a “Framework of Instruction” cannot be about judgment. It must include more reflection and coaching to build “trust” as well as capacity. Great post-well done!

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  3. The idea that the actual improvement or growth is generated within the teacher rather than by the evaluator is the piece so often missing. There has to be trust and there has to be facilitation. Beyond that, prompting becomes pushing and all the resistive brain chemicals halt professional learning. Thank you for the work you are doing and the sharing especially.

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  6. I love that your school is endorsing discourses that frame coaches as collaborators rather than judges, to facilitate teacher thinking. This quote “what actually gets our brains to be open and changeable is compassionate, positive conversation which sparks our own thinking.” is particularly wonderful, and can be backed by a great deal of research into decision-making and open-mindedness. It reminded me a little of graceful disagreement 😉

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    • Thank you, Charlotte! We based our work on research (both an extensive initial literature review and subsequent participatory action research) and have been very deliberate about the language we use to frame our processes, in order to clearly set our intention. Teachers should be trusted as self-directed, able-to-drive-their-own-trajectory learners and reflectors on their craft.
      You know I love a bit of graceful disagreement! 😉

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  8. A fascinating premise. I would be interested to learn more about how this is being translated into everyday practice.

    Teachers in England are encouraged to not only be self-critical, but to expect criticism from all quarters – parents, school managers, students, the press and the government. OFSTED and ISI pass judgements from on-high which are based on snapshot impressions of a teacher’s performance. These judgments, which stem from constantly changing criteria (as the political colour swings from blue to red and back again in 10 Downing Street) mean that teachers are in a constant state of flux jumping through one burning hoop after another in the pursuit of the holy grail – to be judged as being “outstanding” or “excellent.”

    This current state of affairs does very little to encourage collegiately as teacher’s who are responsible for leading a curriculum subject are required to pressurise their peers to work ever harder in their subjects areas – when a class teacher is responsible for delivering 12 or 13 subjects that’s a lot of people coming at you with their own agenda.

    Undoubtedly, most teachers would welcome a more positive and constructive system where peers work together to aid each other’s professional development. However, for this to happen, as msdayvt correctly states, there needs to be trust and if there is one thing that British society (including educational bosses) do not have much of and that is trust.

    I fear that in the context of the UK, we would need to tackle the prejudices of society and, more significantly, break Westminster’s control of education before we could get down to the really constructive ways of improving teacher’s performance and professional development.

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