Teaching Matters: the challenges of putting theory into school practice

The personal is linked irrevocably to practice. It is as if the teacher is his or her practice. Teacher practice is the maximum point of vulnerability. Classroom teaching is the arena of greatest anxiety and insecurity. ~ Goodson, 1991

Teaching Matters

Teaching Matters

It’s amazing how flying across the world can result in familiar conversations! In my meeting with New York City professional development provider Teaching Matters, the same challenges and tensions came up for both our contexts in terms of professional learning, supporting teachers and developing distributed leadership: time and buy-in. That is, finding appropriate time for teachers to thoughtfully engage in meaningful work, and providing the philosophy and conditions which allow teachers to buy in to that work.

Teaching Matters is an independent provider of customised professional development to teachers and leaders of New York City public schools. Their aim is, by partnering with and training teachers and school leaders, to increase teacher effectiveness, raise teacher performance and positively influence student learning. Their organisation is built on a philosophy of sustainable change; that is, to build capacity in the schools with which they work, in order to help each school to build its own effective teams and teachers. They base their work in a belief about the capacity of teachers to be leaders and for schools to be vibrant places of distributed leadership. Their job, as they see it, is to help schools develop their own cultures and skill sets to ensure effective leading and teaching.

Understanding the busyness of being a teacher and the need for workable, applicable solutions for teachers, Teaching Matters balances its work between building schools as professional communities, and providing accessible protocols, tools and techniques for use in teaching, assessing, improving instruction, establishing PLCs, coaching and leading. Teacher buy-in, for them, is linked to teachers’ perceptions about change being something which will be manageable as well as useful. They are therefore highly aware of the need to support teachers professionally while also saving them time and work. The problem of innovation fatigue – “another additional thing” constantly being added to teachers’ workloads – seems an international phenomenon which needs to be considered when designing anything new to be implemented in schools.

My work on professional learning and growth is within my own school and with my own community, whereas Teaching Matters needs to “synergise” with the diverse school cultures and people with which they work. Much of their work is based on that of Daniel Venables, author of A Guide to Effective Teacher Teams (2011) and How Teachers Can Turn Data into Action (2014) and founder of the Center for Authentic PLCs. Venables focuses on the development of high-functioning professional learning communities to facilitate positive school change.

We discussed the challenge and opportunity of leveraging data to monitor and inform change, such as teacher self-reflections against the Danielson Framework to, for instance, allow the identification of community professional development needs.

A question that came up in our meeting was around the use of the Danielson Framework. My school is using it for teacher growth, through cycles of observation and coaching, but to what extent might it also inform teacher planning or the work of teaching teams?

I heart NY

I heart NY

One of the Teaching Matters foci – data-driven collaborative inquiry as a way to improve student outcomes – sits snugly with my school’s work on developing a data-supported coaching cycle of teacher reflection and growth. Interestingly, one of their documents suggests that the best teams of teachers are those who teach the same content and share the same learning goals.

The Teaching Matters approach to peer observation involves the following steps of a teacher being observed by one or more members of their teaching team:

  • A pre-observation conversation in which the teacher outlines the lesson context and the teacher and observer/s discuss the time and focus of the observation (20 mins).
  • A classroom observation (or video) in which the observer/s takes notes on what the teacher is doing, what the students are doing and what practices are being used by teacher which relate to goals for student learning (30-45 mins).
  • A post-observation conversation in which the observer/s share observations, questions, constructive suggestions and future steps/strategies (45 mins; protocols are based on ‘Conversations: Turning Points Transforming Middle Schools,’ Teachers working together to improve instruction (4, 2) 2004)

Our model differs to this one in:

  • its length of lesson observation (ours are 2 x 20 minutes, rather than 1 x 30-45 minutes);
  • the type of data taken (our observers take all non-inferential data – just what happens rather than impressions about what is happening); and
  • its approach to post-observation conversation (ours is a Cognitive Coaching approach which does not involve ‘constructive feedback’ or lesson advice; our teacher coaches are there to guide the teacher’s own thinking about their lesson rather than provide comments about it themselves).

While our coaches do find that seeing others’ lessons influences their own teaching, this is not a formalised part of the conversation for us; the conversation is focused on the teacher being observed. I can see the Teaching Matters model as very useful collaborative work: peers in the same team observing each other’s lessons and using that as a basis for team discussion of pedagogy. Perhaps this might be something we can add to suggestions for strategies that teams can use to collaboratively develop pedagogy?

While working in content-similar or year-level-similar teams allows for collaboration on and experimentation with similar approaches, my school has also found value in teaming teachers from disparate parts of the school to broaden perspectives while also connecting teachers around those aspects of teaching which are common across year levels and subject areas.

Like Teaching Matters, what we want to provide for our teachers and leaders is both a philosophical foundation and a useful toolbox of processes and strategies, to help teams and individuals self-direct their growth.

HOPE at 7th & 53rd

HOPE at 7th & 53rd

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Lessons on Teacher Evaluation from Westchester County

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. ~ Marcel Proust

lockers

Today I met with an administrator at a school in Westchester County, New York, who spoke to me about his experiences with teacher growth and effectiveness models being developed and implemented in and around New York State.

It was interesting to hear first-hand about the constraints and pressures on the New York public education system. It seems that laws, funding and standardised testing have had a profound impact on the way teacher effectiveness is being measured and pursued in the State of New York. My understanding is that a law mandating that schools only receive an annual 2% increase in funding has resulted in sometimes severe cuts to leadership roles in schools, curriculum programs, pastoral infrastructure and resources. By the sounds of things, some schools still have middle leadership positions like Heads of Faculty / Curriculum Supervisors, but many have had to lose these roles, putting all the pressure and responsibility on principals and assistant principals.

Additionally, conditions of the No Child Left Behind funding include State-approved teacher evaluation measures. So while Charlotte Danielson published the Framework for Teaching in 1996 with a view to promoting conversations with teachers about practice, it is now used for scoring and assessing teacher performance on a lesson by lesson basis.

Approaches to classroom observations vary. In some places whole lessons are observed and a score given for each and every component in Domains 2 and 3 of the Danielson Framework. Another approach is to take observation data and see which components emerge as the most dominant in a given lesson. Another is to focus data collection and conversation around components which teachers have identified as areas of focus in a pre-lesson conversation.

Each year, teachers receive an effectiveness score, based on a very “paperwork driven” system which includes:

  • Observations from their administrator (60%)
  • School-based pre- and post- year testing (20%); and
  • Student scores in standardized national tests (20%).

Each teacher’s score is available to parents (“Your child will have Mrs AAA who received a score of BBB and was rated Highly Effective/Effective/Developing/Basic”?). The school also receives a publically published ‘report card’ based on its students’ test results and its teachers’ effectiveness scores. So teachers and schools are quantitatively scored on their apparent effectiveness. Interestingly, the administrator I spoke to said that his personal experience of the scoring of teachers by these measures presented a highly inaccurate picture of their effectiveness.

It seems that this quantifying and scoring of teachers and schools leads to a skewing of the teacher effectiveness model. Administrators might, for instance, give their teachers false ‘highly effective’ ratings. Teachers might teach to the test. The administrator told me that teachers began seeing themselves in terms of numbers (“I’m a ‘3’”) but that “you can’t quantify highly effective teaching.”

While in Australia schools are often measured by league tables based on standardised testing, we certainly do not have the same pressures as those in the United States.

This administrator’s reflections on what could and should work in a teacher evaluation and growth system were:

  • The focus should be on teachers talking about their practice, not on numbers;
  • The Danielson Framework should be a tool for growth, conscious competence and developing a common professional language among teachers;
  • Schools should ask what it means to be a ‘Danielson School’: a community of learners who think and talk about teaching practice, and in which professional development is aligned with the Framework;
  • Money and time are both significant challenges to meaningfully and effectively developing a meaningful model which encourages teacher growth, especially in a United States context; and
  • Teacher-administrator/coach/observer conversations should be based on invitational questions which encourage cognition, but there are situations in which teachers may need more direction or support in terms of talking about evidence or reflecting against the Framework; there is an expectation that the teacher is engaged in the process and prepared for pre- and post- conversations.

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