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