For districts that struggle to attract and retain instructional leaders, a solution to improving instructional practice may lie in the hands of their existing educators. In the Center for Educational Leadership’s work in the field, we have found that seeking out and empowering a few aspiring leaders from within a district’s ranks is a powerful strategy in support of improved teaching.
In central Louisiana, as in many rural, high-poverty areas across the country, just getting qualified teachers into classrooms is a challenge. School districts in this area know that improving the instructional practice of their existing teachers is essential to helping students succeed. With CEL’s assistance, nine central Louisiana school districts are helping their teachers not only make changes in their own teaching but also motivate their colleagues to implement similar changes.
Recently, CEL partnered with the Orchard Foundation to introduce a program called Aspiring Leaders. Through this program, exceptional teachers and assistant principals who are in leadership positions within their schools take the time to learn how to improve their teaching practice, how to influence colleagues’ practice, and how to explore the next step in their career.
Since the fall of 2012, CEL has been coaching 30 educators on how to recognize high-quality teaching and at the same time provide feedback to their colleagues in a nonjudgmental manner.
Since leaders cannot lead what they don’t know, the work begins with a firm grounding in a research-based instructional framework, in this case, CEL’s 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning™ and its alignment to Louisiana’s Compass Teacher Rubric.
From there, group work addresses three questions that are foundational for instructional leadership success. What do leaders notice and wonder about teaching and learning when they are in classrooms observing instruction? Based upon what they notice and wonder about teaching and learning, what feedback would they provide for the teacher? How would they use these “noticings” and “wonderings” within and across classrooms to lead, guide and support the professional learning of teachers?
These educators learn how to analyze the evidence gathered from their classroom observations so that they can provide in-depth feedback. Specific and useful feedback is key to creating a districtwide shared vision of highly effective teaching. With an improved and more consistent form of observation and feedback, these aspiring leaders are better able to help guide teachers toward improved teaching methods.
One of the participants in the Aspiring Leaders program commented, “Through this program, I have modified and molded my way of thinking not only as a teacher but also as a teacher leader. As both, I have deconstructed the 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning and the Compass Rubric piece by piece to better understand what an ideal classroom should look like.”
The power of getting teachers on board with this program has had immeasurable value. Teachers come away from this program feeling empowered, leading to a more positive perspective on why the instructional changes are needed and how they impact student learning. They are energized around their improved ability to recognize characteristics of high-quality teaching. They gain the capacity to guide their peers toward becoming stronger educators. These abilities are incredibly powerful tools that districts can put into action.
Districts have found that this program is successful because every level of a school is involved. The Aspiring Leaders program – combined with an additional program for principals called Leading for Better Instruction, also funded by the Orchard Foundation – creates a cohesive movement where all levels of the school begin speaking the same language. They all work toward a common goal of creating an environment centered on practices that have been proven to be the best way for students to learn. The vertical nature of this program is critical to its success. By reaching into classrooms and developing the leadership skills of teachers, the whole goal of instruction becomes more authentic.
While in reality implementing these changes is no small project, the worthiness of these efforts will be reflected ultimately in the improvement in student learning. We know that learning increases when schools and districts have focused and intentional instructional leadership. By inspiring our aspiring leaders, we are investing in the future of our education system.
Dr. Cathy Thompson, as a CEL project director, provides instructional leadership support for CEL district partnerships. She has spent her career seeking solutions to close the achievement gap, in part by supporting the improvement of instructional practice at both the school and system levels.
Topics: School Leadership