Instructional Leadership in Action

One Key Ingredient For Successful Content Area PD: Include Instructional Leaders

by Joanna Michelson on Nov 30, 2015

Instructional leaders in the classroom

It’s a familiar professional development experience for many educators: Seven middle school math teachers gather around student work and content area standards in preparation to observe an experienced consultant teach a group of eighth graders how to talk about their own learning, which today includes how to graph on a coordinate plane.

The teachers are eager to hear their students talk about their learning in the classroom. They are also eager to try out some different instructional strategies to support math discourse. By the end of the day, they leave the session excited to take their learning back to their classrooms.

In practice, however, we find that it takes more than excitement during a professional development session to consistently implement new practices. This phenomenon can be quite frustrating to instructional leaders as they look for evidence of their professional learning sessions “sticking” in teacher practice. And in light of the recent critical study of teacher professional development by The New Teacher Project, schools and districts are asking hard questions about the impact of professional development on teacher practice in specific content areas like math or literacy. 

Here at CEL, we have seen many teachers develop and sustain powerful instructional practices across all content areas. But after almost 15 years of supporting the growth of teachers across the country, we also know that maximizing the reach of professional development into the classroom requires one key ingredient – the instructional leadership of the school’s leadership team.

The Problem

Let’s revisit the middle school math teachers who were learning how to support student discourse in their classrooms. The session had many of the ingredients of effective professional development: a focus on specific content standards, student learning and effective instructional practices. The teachers watched the consultant work with their own students and they left with specific next steps for their own teaching.

Teachers in some districts experience so many seemingly disconnected professional development topics that they are not sure what the priority is or how to connect all the pieces.

Yet, a visit to the classrooms a few weeks later showed that only one of the seven teachers was using the sentence stems the group discussed during the training. Another teacher appeared to be trying to have her students talk to each other one day, but the next day, there was no evidence of student-to-student conversation.

Content-based professional development can lead to weak or uneven implementation across a school. That’s because standards-based instruction is complicated and places major learning demands on teachers. Without classroom-based support like coaching, teachers are often not sure how to make the new practices work. Sometimes this happens because the focus and expectations for implementation are unclear to teachers. In other instances, we find that teachers in some districts experience so many seemingly disconnected professional development topics that they are not sure what the priority is or how to connect all the pieces.

How to Solve the Problem – in Theory

One of the best strategies to overcome these problems is to help principals and other instructional leaders understand their role in supporting teachers during and after professional development sessions. They can frame how the topic will help the students and how it connects with school goals, and then follow up with teachers through strategic observation and feedback based on the teachers’ PD goals. In short, when principals participate strategically in content area professional development sessions, implementation improves.

How to Solve the Problem – in Practice

Let’s pick up the example from above and see how it works in practice.

Recently, CEL provided math professional development to a local middle school’s math department. The school decided to focus on helping students develop their ability to talk about their mathematical reasoning and on helping teachers increase student independence and engagement by making charts in the classroom showing student thinking and procedures for solving problems. Our math consultant provided three days of support, including one day of live “studio” support in the classroom.

In short, when principals participate strategically in content area professional development sessions, implementation improves.

From the beginning, the principal and an assistant principal attended the whole professional development program, learning alongside the teachers and taking notes on the teachers’ goals and learning. We spent a morning walking these leaders through the new mathematical practices the teachers were learning and how these practices might look in classrooms as teachers tried them out for the first few times.

Building on this training, we discussed what the teachers’ practices might look like by the end of the year for each teacher (based on that teacher’s goals) and what we might see at this point. Then, we visited four math classrooms for ten minutes each and took descriptive notes on what we saw. After our visits, we processed our notes — discussing teacher strengths and celebrating evidence of teachers trying out new practices and what those practices did for students — and then planned for feedback for the teachers.

One principal commented, “This gives me so much more focus when I observe and give feedback!”

The Value of Instructional Leadership for Teacher Learning

We know that principals — like teachers — are constantly pressed for time. But we also know that having principals attending teacher PD goes a long way in fostering implementation of new practices. Even just a short ten-minute classroom observation after professional development gives principals invaluable data on teacher practice and the impact of new practices on student learning and engagement. When teachers receive feedback tied to their own goals and content area professional development, they are much more likely to keep trying and using new, research-based teaching moves in their math and literacy classrooms.

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Topics: Teaching Effectiveness, Content Area Professional Development, Educational Leadership

About the author: Joanna Michelson

Dr. Joanna Michelson is the director of teacher leadership and learning at the Center for Educational Leadership. She leads CEL's teacher professional learning line of services. She also provides direct support to lead teachers, coaches and school and district leaders in designing and setting conditions for teacher learning that lead to enriched learning experiences for all students. Prior to work at CEL, Dr. Michelson worked as a middle school language arts teacher, secondary literacy coach and as a consultant for CEL. She holds a doctoral degree from the College of Education at the University of Washington with a focus on coach learning from practice. Dr. Michelson is the co-author of "Leading for Professional Learning: What Successful Principals Do To Support Teaching Practice."

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