My school, long rated as top-performing, was this year given a rating of “targeted” for underperformance among student subgroups—including African-American, free and reduced-price lunch, and special education students. Though this is understandably not an ideal rating, I look at it as a blessing in disguise. We now have a very clear mandate to look at the performance of these subgroups and make immediate improvements. To me, this gives us an opportunity that will ultimately benefit all students, depending on the measures we put in place and the kinds of practices we implement. As an instructional leader, I am reminded that this work starts with me.
Over the summer, I was fortunate to attend several conferences, including the National Principals Conference in Boston and the High Reliability Schools Summit in Denver. In addition, I’ve been reading Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain by Zaretta Hammond and Reading for Understanding by Cynthia Greenleaf, Ruth Schoenbach, and Lynn Murphy. From this professional learning, I’ve been reminded of three principles for improving practice:
1. Instructional leaders must model the behaviors and practices we want teachers to practice in their classrooms.
We know that teachers can better leverage their time and energies if they work together. Many schools implement professional learning communities (PLCs), but many function as cooperative groups rather than true PLCs. If we hope to have teachers practice authentic PLCs, we must do that work ourselves. As a PLC, as an administrative team, as well as with our instructional coaches, we must establish our group norms and develop a data review protocol in order to inform our feedback and professional learning with teachers. In keeping with this notion, our administrative team established six team norms and a meeting process that will regularly look at various data to examine elements of our work toward school improvement, then share this information with our staff through a weekly email.
2. Dependent learners need both opportunities and explicit instruction in order to grow.
Hammond defines dependent learners as those who are “dependent on the teacher to carry most of the cognitive load of a task always; [are] unsure of how to tackle a new task; cannot complete a task without scaffolds; will sit passively and wait if stuck until [the] teacher intervenes; and [doesn’t] retain information well or ‘doesn’t get it.’” As instructional leaders, we need to assist teachers’ efforts to build students’ cognitive understanding and skills, as well as their confidence and mindset so they can become empowered and capable of accessing various strategies and processes to develop information.
In order to do this, we need our interactions with teachers to have a sharp focus on instruction, including helping them to explicate the domain-specific knowledge and skills students need in order to experience success. We also need to help teachers better define the cognitive and metacognitive moves students must achieve in order to master these elements. For example, in a recent conference with a social studies teacher, we talked about the ways he can help students improve and expand their reading skills through note-taking and close reading strategies.
3. Be present.
It goes without saying that our presence in classrooms matters. Students know that their progress and development as students matters to us when they see us frequently in their classrooms. Doing so also builds rapport and provides additional opportunities for us to find connections with them. Teachers not only appreciate our presence but also benefit from the frequent and specific feedback that such visits provide. By creating processes that track our visits, we can ensure that we get to each teacher in a timely manner. This year, I’ve already been in more classrooms and conferenced with more teachers than I have in years past.
Of course, there are other important elements that improve school performance, including focusing on school culture and ensuring a safe and orderly environment. But to me, these and other important levers of school improvement are encompassed in the three principles I’m already starting to practice for the 2019–20 school year. One other valuable lesson I learned this summer is that, as administrators, we are each other’s best outlets and resources, so we must take opportunities to share our thinking, practice, struggles, and victories.
What are the principles that guide your efforts toward school improvement?
Valerie Nyberg has been assistant principal at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, IA, since 2013. She is the 2019 Iowa Assistant Secondary Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter at @vnnyberg.