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Maximizing Teacher Agency in Professional Learning

NCTAF: Maximizing Teacher Agency in Professional Learning


The Alliance for Excellent Education and the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future

The Alliance for Excellent Education and the
National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future
Invite You to Attend a Webinar on

Maximizing Teacher Agency in Professional Learning

Dwight Davis
, Assistant Principal, Wheatley Education Campus (Washington, DC)
William Day, Math Teacher, Two Rivers Public Charter School (Washington, DC)
Stephanie Hirsh, Executive Director, Learning Forward
Melinda George, President, National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future (NCTAF)
Mariana Haynes, PhD, Senior Fellow, Alliance for Excellent Education

On November 10, 2015 the Alliance for Excellent Education (the Alliance) and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) held the second in a series of webinars exploring the conditions needed to support great teaching for deeper learning. The promising practices, recommendations, and lessons learned inform a collective effort, led by NCTAF, around supporting great teaching. This joint webinar focused on an important component of effective professional learning: maximizing teacher agency. What are the practices and conditions that draw upon educator expertise, build their capacity to become good consumers of professional learning, and give them choices that lead to improvements in the instructional practice they most need to improve student learning?

Panelists shared data and research on the importance of designing professional learning that harnesses teacher expertise and allows educators to make choices and engage in professional learning that meets their individual growth needs so that they are better equipped to create powerful learning environments for their students. How can research results be connected with what is happening in practice? How can capacity be built among educators to assess and define their own professional learning needs? What recommendations should be put forward to improve teacher agency and engagement in their professional learning?

Panelists also addressed questions submitted by viewers from across the nation.

Please direct questions concerning the webinar to If you are unable to watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available at approximately 1–2 business days after the event airs.

Additional Resources:

Mariana Haynes:    Hello, I’m Mariana Haynes, senior fellow with the Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit education policy and advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. Thank you for joining the alliance and the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, or NCTAF, for the second in a series of webinars during which we will explore the conditions needed to support great teaching for deeper learning. This webinar is part of a larger effort launched by NCTAF to refocus the nation’s attention on the commission’s original mission, and that is ensuring that every child has access to competent, caring teaching in a school organized for success.

Now, throughout 2015 the commission is bringing together researchers, educators, and policymakers, and they will lend expertise and their collective voice to develop a blueprint for ensuring all students have access to great teaching. Now, today’s webinar focuses on an important aspect of that work, and we’re gonna take a look at an essential component of effective professional learning:  maximizing teacher agency. 

Schools need teachers who are empowered to carry out systemic approaches for learning to improve, as well as the leaders and organizational structures to accelerate their efforts. Our panelists will share data and identify core structures and processes essential to engaging teachers in building evidence-based practice.

Joining us in our studio is NCTAF president Melinda George. On her right is William Day, a math teacher at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. And to his right is Dwight Davis, assistant principal at Wheatley Education Campus in Washington, D.C. And joining us remotely from Texas is Stephanie Hirsh, executive director of Learning Forward. And we will meet them in just a moment. 

Like most of our webcasts, the live event you are watching is fully interactive. If you would like to ask questions of our webinar guests, please do so using the form below this video window and we’ll turn to your questions throughout the webinar. You can also participate via Twitter. We encourage you to tweet about this webinar using the All4Ed hashtag and @NCTAF hashtag that you see in the right corner of the video window.

Before we get to the heart of this discussion, first some background. Every American president and every Congress for the last half century has in one way or another recognized that the country’s prosperity depends on providing every young American a quality education. Yet clearly, we do not educate all Americans well. 

Last month the National Assessment Governing Board released the nation’s report card, the results of the mathematics and reading results from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as NAEP. Fourth- and eighth-graders lost ground in mathematics. This was the first decline in score since the federal government began administering the exams in 1990. They also made little improvement in reading achievement. And the NAEP tests again show wide achievement gaps. Almost half of students of color and students from low-income families enter fifth grade with reading skills below the basic level.

Against this backdrop, American schools and the people who work in them are being asked to do more. All across the nation we are reaching for higher standards, whether it is college- and career-ready standards or deeper learning. And to meet new demands for student learning, teachers need to be empowered to continuously improve their knowhow and skill set to meet the learning needs of different students.

Unfortunately the organization and culture of American schools is often the same as it was in the last century. Teachers operate in isolation from one another and have little time to work with others to cultivate their ability to positively impact student learning. And despite common standards and curricula, researchers and educators are learning that wide variation in teaching exists within schools in the absence of a system devoted to cultivating teachers’ consistent expertise.

So what matters most is the classroom to which a student is assigned and who teaches that class. Too often teachers’ knowledge and skills plateau after a few years, showing only marginal growth towards the more complex aspects of teaching practice. One of the most important factors in achieving academic progress is a student’s consistent exposure to positive, cognitively demanding student-teacher interactions.

Districts spend thousands of dollars per teacher each year on professional development that is known to be ineffective in improving teachers’ abilities to impact student learning. A report released last year by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “Teachers Know Best,” found that many schools struggle to provide meaningful professional learning. The more than 1,600 teachers surveyed characterize professional development as irrelevant, ineffective, and not connected to their core work of helping students learn. These problems are becoming more acute as expectations for all students have changed. But, again, the underlying systems to develop and support educators have not. 

The design of professional learning must move close to the point of practice and place teachers as agents of change in fueling continuous improvement efforts. Schools must move from a compliance mode to engaging teachers’ own ideas, values, and expertise in building evidence-based practice about what works with individual learners. The challenge is knowing how do you get professional learning rooted in the organizational structure of schools. Teachers must play a major role in determining the focus of professional learning both for themselves and for their schools.

So what can educational leaders do to better support those upon whom we depend to ensure every young American receives a quality education? All of these are critical considerations and enormous challenges, and the alliance applauds NCTAF for this effort to pull together the education community, ensuring the right conditions are in place to support great teaching. So we’re gonna begin now.

We’re delighted today to be joined by Melinda George. She’s the president of NCTAF. She’s been a true champion of teachers, leading the NCTAF commission’s work to develop a research-based framework for great teaching. So welcome, Melinda.

Melinda George:    Thank you.

Mariana Haynes:    It’s delightful that you’re here today with us. So I just lightly touched on NCTAF’s efforts. And we know that you’re going to bring together leading education groups with the intent of releasing a report, I believe, next spring; is that correct?

Melinda George:    That’s right. That’s right.

Mariana Haynes:    So can you tell us a little bit more about its purpose and some of the processes in which you’re gonna be engaged in order to develop the commission’s recommendations?

Melinda George:    Sure. Thank you, and thank you for having us. We really value this partnership with the alliance.

Mariana Haynes:    And we as well.

Melinda George:    It’s a really terrific way to support this great teaching initiative, so I’m pleased to be part of the second webinar.

Mariana Haynes:    Thank you.

Melinda George:    As Mariana mentioned, earlier this year NCTAF announced the launch of our Great Teaching Initiative. And it’s really a two-pronged effort to come together and address some major questions that are facing American education. How can states, districts, communities, educators, parents, and schools most effectively support the teaching that facilitates deeper learning? And how can we as an education community come together around a set of common principles that rise above the divisiveness that is currently part of American education and will help to propel American education forward and ensure that strong education you were talking about for every student? 

The goal of this initiative is twofold. We want this to be a positive, collaborative, and action-oriented initiative around teaching. And so first, as you mentioned, we’re looking to launch a report in the spring of 2016 that will bring together some of these recommendations around what effective – what are the conditions that support great teaching in this country. 

At the same time that we launched this report, though – and I think this is really critical. What we are looking for, and this is the collaborative piece of our work, is to really launch a mobilization with all of those groups that I just mentioned:  educators, parents, community members. And how can we put feet on the ground that are really gonna move these ideas that are in the report forward? And so we’ve already done a number of study tours. We’re learning from educators, because we think that what you all are doing in the schools really grounds what should be happening in our report.

One of the most exciting parts of this initiative, and especially for me, is that we talked to a lot of educators in the process, and so I wanna thank both of you all. I know you’re missing school today in order to be part of this important conversation, so thank you for that. As you mentioned, schools and districts are really trying to get better. And the research is clear that, overall, professional development is not having as much of a positive effect as we would hope it would. 

And so one reason that we believe that professional learning really isn’t having the mark that it should is because it feels very disconnected from what is happening in the classroom and what teachers really need. And so we at NCTAF believe that to really transform professional learning, we not only need to listen to what teachers need, but the teachers themselves must become agents, as you mentioned, of their professional learning. Only when teachers are able to identify the knowledge and skills that they want for their classrooms and schools, and can be part of the decision making around their professional learning, will we see a real shift for professional learning to have the potential to positively impact our students.

Mariana Haynes:    Well, you’ve addressed a lot about the overall charge and begun to have this conversation about teacher agency. Let’s just go into this a little bit more in terms of why it’s important and some of the forms that it takes.

Melinda George:    Sure. Teacher agency is an interesting word. If I had to define it, I would say it was about teachers having choice and leadership potential to see that choice through. 

Teachers are really experts in their practice, and we need to count on them and on that expertise to help facilitate professional learning. Let’s give teachers the capacity building and skills that they need to be more effective facilitators among their peers, for both professional learning and for helping to lead teams within their schools. Let’s ask teachers to provide input to states, districts, and schools, and policymakers around what professional learning should look like. Let’s personalize professional learning. We talk a lot about personalizing learning for students. We need to do the same for teachers, based on the specific local and classroom needs of teachers and his or her students. And let’s constantly reflect on how professional learning is working. We need to assess and reassess, and if we can continue to improve the professional learning, we’ll continue to see improvements in student learning. 

This really means a shift in the paradigm for how we’ve traditionally managed professional learning, but at NCTAF we’re really heartened to see great examples of schools and districts that are beginning to really use teacher agency as part of their professional learning models. And we believe that this is going to do two things. One, it’s gonna really improve teaching. But it’s also going to recognize that teachers are the craftsmen, the problem solvers, and the professionals who are on the teams and can really help their peers as well.

Mariana Haynes:    That’s terrific. And in the original mission, you always talk about great teaching in the context of schools organized for success.

Melinda George:    Right.

Mariana Haynes:    And I imagine that there’s this close connection, once again, with the idea of teacher agency and what schools need to do to help teachers be successful.

Melinda George:    And I think that’s part of this paradigm shift. So we’re really talking about schools that are reorganizing in order to put the needs of the student at the center, and then recognizing that the teaching force that is working with those students day in and day out are the agents that can really help those students meet their needs. And professional learning is one tool that we have to equip those teachers to be at their best every day for those students.

Mariana Haynes:    Great, thank you, Melinda.

Melinda George:    Sure.

Mariana Haynes:    So we’re gonna turn now to Stephanie Hirsh, who is joining us remotely from Texas. Again, Stephanie is the executive director of Learning Forward, which was responsible for updating the standards for professional learning that have been adopted by more than 40 states. Am I getting that right? Is it about 40 states, Stephanie?

Stephanie Hirsh:    That’s correct.

Mariana Haynes:    So what we’re gonna ask you right out of the box is to describe high-quality professional learning. What does this look like?

Stephanie Hirsh:    Well, you’re going to see a slide in just a minute with some of the critical attributes of effective professional learning. And I will tell you that, hopefully for many who are viewing today and view later, that some of those characteristics will be familiar, because they’re part of, actually, the definition of professional learning that appears in the SIG rules and something that we’ve actually tried to get into ESEA reauthorization, to change the definition in Title IX to one that looks more like what’s on the screen and more like what teachers tell us is what they want to experience in school.

Another way of talking about the elements of effective professional learning is to look to those standards that states have adopted and school districts are adopting to define the essential elements of the professional learning that they want all teachers to experience. The characteristics of that, or the standards, define those elements, and they focus on the things that we all know are really important. They focus on learning communities. They focus on the role of leadership, the role of data, the importance of effective design, follow-up, support and implementation, and being clearly focused on outcomes.

Mariana Haynes:    So tell us why this isn’t the norm. I mean, if we know that this is high quality and people do invest considerable dollars into providing professional learning, why is this not the norm?

Stephanie Hirsh:    Well, isn’t that a great question? I hear that a lot. And so I’m gonna posit four reasons why this isn’t the norm, and I hope some people maybe in the question-and-answer might challenge some of those reasons. 

So the first one is that good professional development is really actually very hard to plan and to execute, and so it doesn’t happen, because it demands hard work. A second reason is that those who are responsible for the planning and execution of professional learning probably, in their career, never experienced it themselves, and so what they plan is based on their past experiences, which weren’t probably very good for them. 

At the system level, a lot of people have a lot of responsibilities for different programs and implementing a variety of initiatives, and they frequently plan those initiatives in isolation of each other, and they’re planning professional learning attached to each one of those initiatives. And as a result, what educators experience is really fragmented and really never reaches the level of really supporting their immediate problems and challenges that they have with the goals that they’ve set for their own students as well. 

And then finally – and I think what’s really frightening about this question and about this answer is that I think a lot of people have lost confidence in the power of professional development to really substantively improve educator practice and student results. And so because they’ve lost confidence in it, they’re unwilling to invest in it. And as a result of that, they give very little attention to it, and then we just repeat that cycle of failure of professional learning.

Mariana Haynes:    Excellent. Those are excellent points. As you’re talking through it, it makes perfect sense when you’ve kind of been in schools and you realize a lot of times that’s what happened, is we’re repeating our own experience that we had in school, rather than really looking at the research and applying what works, so thank you.

One of the things – I just got a question from a viewer from D.C., and they talk about the leadership’s role. Obviously, this is really important both at the district, probably, and the school level. You wanna just sort of add a few other additional remarks just in terms of that role of leaders in ensuring that the professional learning is something that their teachers believe is important and relevant and is having an impact?

Stephanie Hirsh:    Sure. In fact, the second of the seven standards is on leadership. And there are a number of roles that leaders have and responsibilities if we’re going to ensure that professional learning for everyone in the school, again, achieves hopefully the goals that everybody in the school has identified together. So some of the responsibilities of the leader are (a) to make sure that they provide the resources that are necessary to support teacher learning. And when we talk about resources, the first and most important is time for teacher learning, time built into the school day, time scheduled on a regular basis, time that allows teachers to get the immediate support and feedback they need to the problems they’re facing in the classroom.

Another one is that there are protocols and resources to guide the collaborative learning among teams of teachers so that time is not wasted in figuring out how we’re going to participate in a cycle of inquiry or continuous improvement, but instead where we sit down and we’re ready to go with the time that’s been allocated for our learning.

And then a third one is to make sure that we have the support we need in terms of a skilled facilitator, or even sometimes the principal him- or herself, to lead us through that learning process until we’re able to do that on our own.

Also, two other things that principals really need to do in their role to ensure effective professional learning. One is to be a model of effective professional learning him- or herself, and that means engaging in one’s own community of learners and talking about the impact of that experience with teachers within the building and then, secondly, being an advocate for the importance of professional learning to all the stakeholders within the school so that when teachers are engaged in professional learning, that parents understand and value it for teachers as much as principals and teachers value it as well.

Mariana Haynes:    Well, you’ve already touched upon some of the things that Melinda was talking about, right, about this importance of teacher agency. So can you talk a little bit more about how it fits into the research about what’s effective professional learning and the professional learning standards themselves?

Stephanie Hirsh:    Yeah, that’d be great, thanks. So let’s go back and just look at three of the standards, ’cause I always use the standards to frame just about every conversation about whosever role it is in relationship to professional learning. So if you work from outcomes, then in terms of teachers, teachers need to be looking at the data that they have on student performance and they need to be determining their needs according to the needs of their students. When you look at design and implementation standards, teachers need to be engaged in determining which design for learning best matches their own preference in terms of learning, but also which the research says will get them to the outcome that they’re seeking to achieve, which one’s gonna help them best to change their individual behaviors and practices in working with students.

When you think about the role of teachers with regard to the implementation standard, you think about teachers in the role of supporting each other with the changes that they’re trying to put in place in classrooms, and being in the role of giving feedback to colleagues, and also co-crafting and improving the lessons that they’re creating for sharing among the grade level or the subject matter. 

And I’m gonna pause a second and step back because I’m operating – or I’m sharing ideas on one fundamental assumption, which is the very first standard on learning communities, because the standards say that while individual learning is important and ultimately it’s only individuals who can change, the bottom line is that the most effective professional learning occurs among teams of teachers, teachers who are committed to the success of all the students represented by the team, as well as making sure that they share knowledge and expertise across their team, and collectively they get smarter and better every day.

Mariana Haynes:    That’s great. You’ve emphasized so many critical points about changing roles for teachers in terms of broadening their role into teacher leaders and facilitators, this idea of always going back to the impact on students to determine what kind of instructional prose that particular teacher may wanna select, if I understand correctly, in response to how the students are learning, and this idea of collaboration as a key element to ensuring that it’s quality professional learning. I may have missed a couple of points there, Stephanie.

So moving on, I wanna talk about the Gates study, where they found that administrators and district personnel believe professional learning communities can be an effective form of professional learning, but the teachers rate it very low. And it’s interesting, again, there’s these different perspectives about what is working on the part coming from the lens of the school leadership versus the teachers, and that’s something to be aware of, that there sometimes are these disconnects. 

But we hear a lot about professional learning communities. What do you think is going on here? Why do some people feel like that it’s effective, then others sort of don’t think it’s as effective in terms of their own experience?

Stephanie Hirsh:    Well, I think – getting some feedback, so I wanna make sure I’m okay. Good. In too many places, PLCs operate in kind of name only, and I think it was rated so lowly because in too many places, administrators have hijacked the PLC time to fulfill some administrative tasks that they want of teachers. And so as a result, teachers hear PLCs and they have a new mental model for what the PLC is, and it’s really just another potentially poorly designed faculty meeting. 

And probably across this country, more educators have been exposed to the concept of PLC over the last several years, but very few people have really been given the opportunity to develop a deep appreciation and understanding of what it takes to have a high-functioning PLC. As my good friend Shirley Hord likes to say, you need to pay attention to all three of those words:  that it’s professionals in collaboration for the purpose of learning, and it’s about taking time for that intentional learning so that you’re clear on the behavior changes that you want to achieve in order to benefit students. 

So if we really believe in PLCs, then we really need to look at what’s happening with PLCs in this country. And going back to some of the things I said that are the responsibility of the leader, we need to make sure that there is regular time scheduled during the school day, not after school when teachers are tired, not every six weeks when the conversation is no longer relevant to the challenge that we had at the beginning of the last six weeks; that we have protocols and structures to ensure that we are protected in what we want to achieve within our groups; and that we have skilled facilitation so we can stay on task and we can certainly improve our practice, improve our lessons, learn from each other. So those are some of the things that we need to think about if we’re truly committed to what PLCs ultimately stand for.

Mariana Haynes:    Great, thank you so much. And here’s another area that seems to be a major challenge in terms of the design of professional learning. We’re hearing more about that a lot of the professional learning has not embraced the kinds of skill sets and knowledge on the part of teachers that will unlock learning opportunities for students to develop these deeper learning outcomes. And those are their abilities to problem solve and think critically, work collaboratively, learning how to learn. And so in this context, when you’re really trying to up the ante on what it is that we’re trying to elicit from students and the kinds of outcomes we’re after, why is it particularly important that teachers become agents of their own learning?

Stephanie Hirsh:    That’s a great question. I wanna comment about something you said at the beginning of it, because we’re asking more of teachers today than I can think of in the last two decades that we’ve asked of them. And we’re asking teachers who have embraced new standards for student learning to let those new standards drive instruction in the classroom, and yet what we’ve unfortunately done is put too many teachers in the situation of learning about the standards but never experiencing the standards. And the most powerful professional learning is the professional learning where educators experience exactly what they’re going to be asked to implement in the classroom, and we have too little of that right now. 

So how does that translate into what the role of teachers are in ensuring they get the professional learning that they need and want most? I think teachers need to be experts in professional learning themselves so that they can become critical consumers of the professional learning that they’re offered, that they can demand the professional learning that they need in order to be successful at implementing standards. I think that teachers also need to be willing – more teachers need to speak up, and when professional learning is presented in a way that is not going to help them achieve their specific outcomes and address their immediate problems in practice, that they can ask for something different and demand something different:  that professional learning be transformed so that they experience the kind of practices they’re trying to put in the classroom. And teachers should be participating in all decision levels within schools and districts with regard to the planning and execution of professional learning for today.

Mariana Haynes:    Great. This is terrific. And you talk about it so well, I guess ’cause this is the business that you’re in. But it seems that we often grapple for finding words and to articulate what we mean by “quality professional learning” in this manner, and obviously there’s a lot to it. It’s very complex. Not an easy lift by any means. So I really appreciate all of your comments. 

We do have a question from another viewer. This one’s from Minneapolis. What can the United States learn about effective professional development from high-performing systems around the world?

Stephanie Hirsh:    I love that question. So probably the number-one thing we can learn is that, in high-performing systems around the world, professional learning is not optional, and every educator views it as part of what they do in every workday. I go to work to learn, I go to work to collaborate, and I go to work to teach. And it is just fundamentally part of how you would describe the work of teachers in other countries, and they rely on it in order to get better. 

Specifically, this past year I had the opportunity to go to Shanghai. I visited a couple of schools. I followed teachers who were observing each other, who then immediately went into a lesson debrief, who were asking for feedback, who were talking about how they would revise what just happened for the next teacher who was implementing the lesson, who were talking about the research that they were doing within their own school around some other practices that they were trying to confirm. There was no separation of “here’s PD time and here’s teaching time.” It was just this continuous cycle of improvement that was driving the work of teachers. 

And I think that’s the biggest thing that distinguishes higher-performing countries, is that every teacher is engaged in some form of a cycle of inquiry with other colleagues, or a cycle of – it could be action research. It can be other cycles of continuous improvement. But that, as a teacher, is my work. And here in this country it does not happen for every teacher. And when that ultimately happens for every teacher, then you can also dismiss external accountability systems, because teachers are holding each other accountable for getting better because they, like our teachers, just share this commitment to students experiencing great teaching every single day.

Mariana Haynes:    Thank you so much. Thank you, Stephanie. We’re gonna turn to Bill Day in just a second. But Melinda, you have a comment you’d like to make.

Melinda George:    I just wanted to add to what Stephanie said about what other countries are doing. So NCTAF had the pleasure of partnering with OECD to release the Teaching and Learning International Survey. And Stephanie mentioned this earlier in her comments, and I think it bears repeating. Another big finding of that survey was that it is about time and collaboration. And so one of the things that other countries provide is time for collaboration and for professional learning. The survey found that, of all of the 34 countries surveyed, the United States teachers spent more time at the front of the classroom than teachers from any other country. And so one of the things I think we need to do in supporting educators overall is to find time within the school day to really allow for this kind of high-quality professional learning that we’re talking about.

Mariana Haynes:    That’s an excellent point. Excellent. Thank you. So it’s a pleasure to introduce Bill Day, again, math teacher at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. So Bill, if I understand, you have worked in two different school situations and experienced different kinds of professional development that was more, in somewhat – in other situations, less effective for you.

William Day:    Yeah, and actually, I’d expand it to three, and it’s been a pleasure to hear Stephanie and Melinda talk about the research on this, because it rings so true in my own career. When I first started out, I was at a school that didn’t have professional development built into the school day, and it was really up to me to go out and seek it out. And as a first-year teacher, dealing with all of the challenges of that, I didn’t really have time, and I felt swamped, and I felt like I didn’t have a lot of places to turn for learning.

Mariana Haynes:    What level were you teaching at?

William Day:    I was teaching at the high school level.

Mariana Haynes:    At the high school level?

William Day:    I was teaching at the high school level. And as soon as I hit summer, I was – “[Breathes a sigh of relief] I made it through,” and felt totally drained, and then turn around to come back in the fall and felt like there were some things that I had intuited that I would change, but for all intents and purposes, I wasn’t really making that many changes in my practice.

And then in the second teaching – the second school that I taught at, they did take many of these recommendations. They had built-in time in school. Professional development was a part of the job, and we operated in department-based professional learning communities. And this was watershed change for me. Being engaged in a weekly basis with my peers talking about how to teach math and really digging into how students learn made me change my practice entirely.

But at the same time, I felt like in that setting the school was doing a great job of looking at some aggregate student data and helping to craft an agenda for these professional learning communities. And I felt – I’m a team player, and I want to be a part of a team of teachers that are contributing to a goal. But in some ways, the agenda felt a little disconnected from what I felt would make a difference in my classroom. And this was me now having a few more years of teaching under my belt and knowing a bit more about where my strengths were and where my weaknesses were. 

And step forward to today, where I teach at Two Rivers Public Charter School, my professional development regime there takes advantage of pretty much all the bullet points that I saw on Stephanie’s slide. It’s time during the day. It’s team-based. It is coherent. The school picks an instructional focus for the year that’s a flexible focus, that could be used in an English class, in a math class, could be used at the kindergarten level or at the eighth-grade level. I teach in the middle school. And it’s this flexible focus that allows me to implement that in my class in ways that I think make sense.

Mariana Haynes:    Can you give us an example of what you mean by an instructional focus?

William Day:    Yeah, so –

Mariana Haynes:    I don’t know if you’re talking about content or you’re talking about the pedagogy around that content.

William Day:    It’s a pedagogy around the content. So since we engage in professional development as a whole staff, it can’t be entirely content-based, ’cause we all teach different content. And one good example is critique protocol. One of our focuses two years ago was, how do we use peer-based critique to help students develop high-quality products? And this is something that, to be honest with you, I would picture in an art classroom but maybe not in a math classroom. 

But I feel like the way that this was presented to us, we engaged in critique ourselves. And that’s another thing that I heard Stephanie say, that if we want teachers to develop 21st-century skills with our students, they need to experience those. So we did some critique of our own work, and through that, I started to get these pictures in my head of my students looking at each other’s mathematical work and noticing “Okay, well, what’s strong about this work? Where does it need to be improved?” And I’ve had unbelievable conversations in my classroom. 

And what I love about it is, I don’t need to be in the front telling my students what’s high quality about their work. They get a chance to tell each other. And I feel like that’s the sort of structure that makes sense if we want students to become leaders of their own learning. And I feel like partly it was accomplished by allowing the teachers that are implementing it to be leaders of their own professional learning. I didn’t have to do the critique protocol in exactly the same way as a kindergarten teacher or as an ELA teacher, because the students that we teach and the content that we teach are different. And that was respected by the administration and led to some really wonderful results for our students.

Mariana Haynes:    Did your practice change as a result of hearing what the students said to each other about the relative merits of their work?

William Day:    Absolutely. Now I teach certain subjects in totally different ways based on what students have brought up. But more generally, when I think about that transition from being at a school where I had to seek out my own professional development or it wasn’t school-based, to a school that had it school-based but didn’t allow for as much teacher agency, to where I am now, I feel like the practices that I work on in this environment stick with me. And the topics that we have focused on from my very first year at Two Rivers have stayed with me, and I’ve built upon them. And it hasn’t felt like the new topic for each year overrides what we had previously been working on.

Mariana Haynes:    They build. It sort of builds, and it’s cumulative in terms of the –

William Day:    It builds and it’s cumulative.

Mariana Haynes:    – practices.

William Day:    And then one other thing that I’d like to cite about my current professional learning opportunities is that I’m able to still go outside of school. Being at a small school, there’s not very many math teachers, and often I need to reach outside of school in order to be in contact with other math teachers. And I found an organization, Math for America, which is a community of math teachers here in Washington, D.C., and they have several other locations, where I’m able to lead a professional learning community. 

Right now I’m engaged with a group of teachers that are working on how do we do group work in math, and we get together and we read common texts and we look at video from each other’s classrooms. And my school has supported that. They’ve given us a place to meet on campus after school, and I’m able to share articles from – sorry, artifacts of my teaching with teachers that are outside of the school. And I just feel like this openness in treating me as a professional who needs outlets for pursuing my own interests has really led to me developing more as a teacher and led to greater mathematical learning for my students.

Mariana Haynes:    That’s terrific. And it speaks to that deeper collaboration Andreas Schleicher always talks about, that the U.S. often isn’t – it’s not common where you’re actually critiquing each other and observing their practice and so on, and doing joint planning. And those are the kinds of deep-level collaboration that really can make a difference ultimately in students’ achievement, so I mean, that’s what you’re speaking to. 

I have a question about – I understand you use something called a data analysis strategy. And I’m wondering, is this a professional learning community? Could you explain what that is, and is that in fact a professional learning community? How does it function, and what are the teachers’ roles in them?

William Day:    Yeah, so this relates to the cycles of learning that Stephanie had mentioned. So for instance, the critique work that I did was the outcome of a data analysis strategy loop. It was the DAS loop, as we call it. It involves, first, learning about an instructional practice like critique, and then developing a plan for implementing it, implementing it, bringing data from that to discuss with your colleagues, and summarizing or finding out what works, looking at it really in an interpretive stance instead of an evaluative way, and then coming up with how do you adjust the strategy to make it work, and then going through it again. And that second round is actually the most important part, because if you just do a single cycle of trying something out and seeing how it goes, you don’t – that doesn’t lead to it being ingrained in your practice.

Mariana Haynes:    And it doesn’t allow you to improve the practice necessarily.

William Day:    Right, and throughout that time, every time I take on a new practice, it feels foreign, it feels clumsy, I feel as if maybe my students would’ve just been better served if I’d gone with the good old lesson plan that I normally go with. But by having this impetus to try out something new and to iterate on it, that’s where I see real change in my practice.

Mariana Haynes:    And we’re hearing a lot of that. We’re hearing a lot about improvement science now, where there’s sort of a collective impact that can be achieved when you have sort of a clear goal in terms of what the teaching and learning needs to look like, some common metrics, things where you have some ability to go back and share with others what that looked like, these inquiry cycles that you’re referencing, and that they are very effective in developing the expertise to actually make a difference in student outcomes. And we’re seeing that across a lot of different sectors now, which is exciting, and you’ve given another example of your own experience where that’s proved very beneficial.

One of the things is we hear a lot about variation within schools, inconsistency from teacher to teacher. You have some suggestions about how – if we want everybody to reach these standards – the way that curriculum and standards get implemented is really critical, so how do we create more consistency from classroom to classroom?

William Day:    Well, I would say one of the first steps seems to be allowing teachers time to see each other’s classrooms. I don’t know how you can insist on teachers bringing students to the same levels if they have no conception of what’s going on in each other’s classroom, and it reaches beyond the curricular materials. Even if you’re teaching out of the same textbook or using the same lesson, you really need a chance to see what other teachers are doing if you’re going to learn from their practice. And there’s a couple of different ways to do that – administration building in time for teachers to do peer observations or to make use of video. These are strategies through which you can open a window into a classroom, but then you also need that dedicated time to talk over what’s been observed in those classrooms.

But underlying that, actually, is the issue of teacher vulnerability. It is extremely – it makes you feel extremely vulnerable to have someone in your classroom judging you. It feels like they’re judging you.

Mariana Haynes:    Does it still feel that way over time after you’ve experienced it, or is that something that you work your way through?

William Day:    No, I don’t think it ever –

Mariana Haynes:    It never changes. [Laughs]

William Day:    – it ever quit goes away. It never quite goes away.

Mariana Haynes:    Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s a good thing.

William Day:    Something goes wrong, somebody’s in there observing – and I have a lot of observers in my classroom over the course of a year, and something goes wrong in the classroom, I’m like, “That’s what that person is going to remember my classroom as.”

Mariana Haynes:    A good learning experience for everyone, I guess.

William Day:    Right, but I think you need to invest the time for teachers to interact with each other and to engage in content in ways that they get to know each other and feel comfortable exposing work that might not be exemplary.

Mariana Haynes:    Yes, yes. And that that’s okay, and that’s how you learn, and that’s how you experience, and that’s how you get better. Absolutely, yes. So thank you so much. This is interesting. It’s really interesting – and interesting to talk to teachers. That’s great.

Melinda George:    The best way to learn.

Mariana Haynes:    Yeah. So we’re now gonna turn to a school leader, and that is Dwight Davis. He is an 11-year veteran teacher now serving as the assistant principal of Wheatley Education Campus. He has served as both a teacher and administrator, and continues to be very passionate about the need for reading instruction that is culturally and contextually relevant to the students.

So Dwight, you’ve held different roles in your school, starting as a teacher and then becoming a teacher and a coach, and you’re now working as an assistant principal. So you have a lot of different lenses and perspective on this work. So what is your perspective on the importance of teacher agency in professional learning?

Dwight Davis:    Well, I do think that teachers need to be able – teachers need to have a voice, first and foremost. I think oftentimes it’s difficult for an administrator to be in classrooms as much as we would like to be. If I could wave a magic wand, I would like to be in every classroom every day for at least 30 minutes, but that’s impossible. There’s so many different things that an administrator has to be aware of. And at my school, we are the administrators who actually go out and we do recess duty and we do cafeteria duty so that we can make sure that teachers have the time that they need within their classrooms.

But due to that, I do think teachers need to feel as if they can say to an administrator, “Hey, the PD that we’re doing, I feel like I have that well under wraps. There is actually this PD or there is this opportunity that I would like to attend,” because then that’s when you’re able to personalize the professional development for teachers, and that’s when teachers understand and know that you value what they already know and that you would actually like to see them become better, because the best teachers wanna become better, because everybody wants to be better.

Mariana Haynes:    Is there certain things that you need to think about in terms of cultivating teachers as leaders so that their role can become more apparent, working with other teachers in helping them become more sort of agents of their learning? I mean, is it – it’s hard, I think, to just have it come from the administrator, ’cause you’re only one person with so many different duties. Are there things that you are finding to sort of cultivate that amongst teachers by helping certain teachers who have an inclination to really step out and be much more the leaders of other teachers in their professional growth and development?

Dwight Davis:    Right. You’re absolutely right. So it’s small things, though. It’s what we call a shout-out, so at staff meetings, we always have an opportunity to shout out other staff members who are doing exceptional jobs at different things. And so one thing that I try to do is, in my classroom visits – I’m not judging, Bill. But in my classroom visits, I’m always looking to – and I’m saying to myself, “What is this teacher doing that is phenomenally well that other teachers can benefit from?” And every time we have a grade-level meeting, I’m always saying, “Hey, listen, if you really wanna see great guided reading, you need to go to this class. If you wanna see excellent classroom coaching, you need to see this. If you wanna see excellent vocabulary work, if you wanna see excellent fluency drills, this is where you need to go,” because like Bill said, oftentimes teachers are in their own classrooms oblivious to what’s happening. And the best professional development that I’ve ever received as a teacher happened when I had the opportunity to go see my colleagues do their thing. And –

Mariana Haynes:    This is what Bill has been talking about.

Dwight Davis:    Exactly. Because when you –

Mariana Haynes:    That that has huge power.

Dwight Davis:    Because oftentimes, for administrators, what you need is already in your building. We are the help that we’re looking for, right? But it’s about targeting, figuring out who are those teachers who are exceptional at certain things, and providing opportunities for other teachers to get to the classroom, and that is the tricky part. 

I’ve heard it said before, the most powerful person in the building is the person who controls the time. So if you are an administrator who’s able to use time effectively, if you can get someone to cover this class so that you can have two teachers go see this teacher and then give them time to reflect, that’s when you develop the capacity of teachers, and that’s when teachers naturally emerge as leaders. And that’s the foundation of, as Stephanie said, professionals in collaboration for the purpose of learning. But you have to figure out how you can work it for the time, how do you get teachers to see other teachers.

Mariana Haynes:    And that time issue seems to keep cropping up –

Dwight Davis:    Yes.

Mariana Haynes:     – just the shortage of time in order to be able to do this in the ways that you want to. 

So let’s talk a little bit about principals. What are expectations of school principals for the next generation of teachers? So there’s a lot of focus on sort of reconfiguring the systems by which we develop, including preparation and so forth and recruitment. So even before they walk through the door and into classrooms, what would you like the skill sets of teachers so that they have those skill sets to be an agent of their own learning and to continue to have a mindset around improving their practice on an ongoing basis?

Dwight Davis:    Right. So the educational landscape within the last five years has shifted so much. But something –

Mariana Haynes:    In what ways? Just be specific. What ways are you talking about? And how do you see this?

Dwight Davis:    So five years ago, blended learning, personalization – great teachers always personalize the educational experience, even without technology. But the big push to have technology within the classroom; the understanding that learner agency is important; the shift that children are not students, actually, they are learners, right? And that learning is reflexive. Just as teachers are hoping to teach and impart knowledge onto students or learners, learners are actually teaching teachers to be more effective teachers. So just mindsets have changed. The use of different technologies have changed. And so it’s a very different classroom from the classroom I was in, from the classroom I taught in even a couple years ago. 

So that’s key, so I think teachers need to have a very different toolkit. One of the things that really gets talked about when we have conversations like this is family engagement. I want a teacher who is not afraid to engage families, to partner with parents, to cultivate relationships with parents, because when that happens, the student is far more successful, right? I want a teacher who understands that there are issues and things that impact children way before they come into the classroom, and that we have to build and construct classrooms that will negate the negativity that often comes into the building with the child, because that is where – because the classroom is this environment where learning has to happen, and there are certain conditions that need to be in place in order for learning to happen at a great rate.

And so if we start there – with creating an environment with a teacher who is engaging with parents, who understands that the classroom environment needs to be safe and loving – then we can talk about the importance of reading, because even though Bill is a math teacher, he’s also a teacher of reading. So I want my teachers to know that no matter whether they’re teaching science, social studies, math, Spanish, music, you are teaching literacy, and you are constantly teaching children to think critically about the words and how they fit together.

So those are just some things. That’s a huge ask from the beginning, but those are some of the things that I would –

Mariana Haynes:    And this is for all of you. What do you see as some of the major challenges for teachers today? I mean, as you’re saying, there’s been so much change. There’s new college- and career-ready standards and, like you say, new technology. Demands are different. What are some of the things that seem so challenging and really frustrating for teachers, particularly when they’re young teachers that are just beginning?

Dwight Davis:    The balance.

Mariana Haynes:    The balance? What do you mean? What do you mean “the balance”?

Dwight Davis:    Okay, so one is the work-life balance.

Mariana Haynes:    Oh, okay, yes. We all know that one, right, Melinda? [Laughs]

Dwight Davis:    So as a father of four, I’ve been doing this for a long time, but I see a lot of teachers who have the best intentions and who just wanna – they literally wanna change the world, and they grind themselves into the ground, because as I’m sure Bill would say, after a while you learn to work smarter, not harder. And we need to figure out ways to provide opportunities for these young teachers to sit alongside an experienced teacher and learn these lessons a lot faster, right?

Mariana Haynes:    They need support.

Dwight Davis:    They definitely need support.

Mariana Haynes:    They can’t do it alone.

Dwight Davis:    Right.

Mariana Haynes:    They need support for all of this, yeah.

Dwight Davis:    Similarly, though, leaders like myself, we also need support in how can we best facilitate that. So I think leaders need support, teachers need support.

Mariana Haynes:    Stephanie, I’m gonna bring you in.

Stephanie Hirsh:    Okay.

Mariana Haynes:    Okay. And we only have a little bit of time left. So we’re gonna talk about policies and practices, sort of what are things that states/districts can do to help build collective ownership and responsibility for teaching and learning, and put into place the kinds of recommendations that you have been making around what quality professional learning looks like? And what’s the role of the policymakers and district and school leaders here?

Stephanie Hirsh:    Okay, well, let me think about two or three of those. So of course I’m gonna say that if you’re a state that has not adopted the standards or a school system that has not adopted the standards, I think that’s one of the most important first steps you take, because it’s evidence of your commitment that you recognize that we have a body of science that says what is most effective professional learning, and as a policymaker, you are saying that we want our teachers, our principals only to experience what we know is most effective, and you can’t be responsible for delivering it. So you make a statement about – that you know it’s important and that’s what you want for the educators within your state or within your system.

Then the second thing – I think a lot of people have gotten to that point, but then the second place where they haven’t really addressed it is – so we say we want it. Now, how do we follow up to see if it’s actually happening for educators? So what information do we gather from the stakeholders who are experiencing professional learning about whether their experiences truly align with these standards? So listening to teachers, organizing advisory groups, having focus groups, doing surveys, just having teachers inform policy at all levels is really powerful in terms of then being able to have the professional learning system that you need in place to be able to support all of the stakeholders that are vested in it. 

I think another thing that states and local districts can do is make sure that they pay attention to all the different investments that they make in professional learning, and that when they invest in new initiatives that require it, that they’re thinking really deliberately about all the steps that will be necessary to achieve the intended outcomes, and that they’re truly committed and have allocated the time and resources that are going to be necessary if you wanna achieve the outcomes that you expected to achieve by adopting a particular initiative.

And one last thing I would add in referencing one of the two speakers in the webinar that are great practitioners – y’all were wonderful – is that looking internally for expertise to solve problems, and helping teachers have options for career pathways that encourage them to stay in schools as leaders so that alongside principals they are the leaders of professional learning. So looking for incentives that you can create so that there truly is a profession of teaching that keeps you inspired and growing and rewards you for that, for devoting yourself to your colleagues and your students.

Mariana Haynes:    Thank you. Well, this is a great place to end. Thank you so much to all of our panelists. I’m afraid we’re running out of time. So, again, wanna thank our audience for joining us today. The slides will be posted along with the archive video in a couple of days. Thank you very much and have a great day.

Melinda George:    Thank you.

[End of Audio]

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