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Supporting Students by Supporting Teachers

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March 11, 2016 10:44 am

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Improving teacher professionalism is good for teachers, good for the schools where they teach, and good for the students at those schools, according to the recent report Supporting Teacher Professionalism: Insights from TALIS 2013 from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The report, based on data from the 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), looks at how countries around the world focus on professional development activities to prepare and support teachers. It divides those activities into three domains of teacher professionalism: the knowledge of teachers; their autonomy for making decisions; and their networks, such as the in-school mentoring a new teacher might receive. The report shows a clear and positive relationship between the treatment of teachers as professionals, teachers’ perceptions of their own professional status, and their satisfaction with their jobs and school environments.

Important is the report’s alignment with key focus areas of the Alliance: high schools and equity. As the report states, secondary school teachers may benefit more from investments in teacher professionalism than elementary school teachers. In addition, the report finds that the positive relationship between teacher professionalism and job satisfaction is even more pronounced in schools serving historically underserved students:

The results here indicate that teacher professionalism practices are almost always positively associated with increased teacher satisfaction, especially when the support comes in the form of increased professional knowledge or increased peer networks. Important for equity concerns, this positive association is largely amplified in high-needs schools, suggesting that one of the best investments schools can make in increasing teacher satisfaction is providing practices that support teacher professionalism.

The Alliance, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF), and OECD lauded the report’s findings at a recent event organized by the Alliance. All three organizations noted connections between the report’s findings and federal and state policy recommendations and district- and school-based actions.

Particularly critical to teachers’ feelings of professionalism are the networks teachers have—both those that they create and those created for them— and the power of those networks to nurture learning and collaboration. Dr. Nicole Gavin, a lead teacher and English language arts coach in Maryland’s Baltimore City Public Schools, had this to say during the Alliance event:

Teacher collaboration can be a powerful method to develop teacher practice and knowledge. … The challenge for educational leaders is aligning school structures and resources to support collaboration at a deeper and more focused level. This is more than just scheduling common planning periods but creating a culture that fosters trust and reflection among educators. It is about offering collaborative opportunities in a variety of ways, such as peer coaching, lesson studies, collaborative planning, analyzing student work, and mentoring new teachers. As a teacher, I have found that the sharing that occurs with my personal learning network is often the most impactful on my daily instruction.

Similarly, Cecilia Roe, director for instructional assessment and professional development for the Maryland State Department of Education, highlighted the importance of using teacher collaboration to meet teacher and student needs:

Teachers need the opportunity to be reflective and to collaborate around student needs. Tying student needs to teacher needs is powerful. Imagine this scenario, “Based upon classroom data, my students have gaps in these areas. What can I do to improve my own professional skills to meet their needs?” Putting this reflection into a collaborative environment where teachers can meet, share resources, observe each other, and design lessons together creates a recipe for success. Effective, collaborative communities must be committed to improvement in the achievement of the students as well as in the professional practices of the teachers.

Simply put, professionally supported teachers are more likely to feel satisfied in their work environments and, therefore, are more likely to be effective with their students. In its July 2014 paper On the Path to Equity: Improving the Effectiveness of Beginning Teachers, the Alliance identified several activities that states and districts should undertake to improve teachers’ abilities and their working conditions in schools, such as

  • requiring comprehensive induction programs for new teachers following entry-level licensure;
  • developing coherent systems that encourage high-quality educator development and teaching; and
  • supporting staff selection and professional growth systems that foster collegial collaboration.

The findings in the OECD report align well with the above recommendations, to train teachers and nurture their professionalism at all stages of their careers. But as the OECD report states, the most effective approach to teacher professionalism is treating it as “a complex set of interdependent practices that are best implemented in unison to provide holistic support for teachers in high-needs schools.” Thoughtful and effective improvement practices take into account the complex system that any school or district is. It should be no different with a thoughtful and effective approach to teacher professionalism, particularly given its impact on teachers and then their impact on their students.

Abner Oakes is director of outreach and strategic partnerships for standards, assessment, and deeper learning at the Alliance.

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