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Promising Practices, School Community, Teaching

From Good to Great

A new system-wide approach to improving instruction

Sarah,1 the sole English-Language Arts consultant for a major school board in Eastern Canada, shares a familiar refrain: “I don’t have time to work with the teachers who are doing an ‘okay’ job – I have to go where I am most needed.” When teachers are “crashing and burning,” principals call Sarah. “I need you to fix my teachers!” they half-joke. As a result, Sarah spends the majority of her time with teachers who are having a difficult time meeting the minimum expectations of the job – preparing lessons, assessing student learning, and maintaining an orderly and safe classroom.

Educational leaders, from school principals to board directors, face an immense challenge: they must support a huge number of teachers – with widely varying degrees of skill – to such an extent that student achievement improves across the system. Further, they need to do this while managing shrinking budgets. As a result, school leaders often target the weakest teachers for additional support. Unfortunately, those teachers who struggle the most are often the teachers who grow the least, even when they have intensive support. Thus, the typical approach to instructional improvement often fails: while a handful of teachers in a school may improve with additional support, overall, not enough change is seen to warrant celebration.

In this article, I argue that as leaders in education, we need to make three key moves in order to improve instruction at scale. First, we need to make the development of expertise across the system our shared goal. Second, we need to provide significant support at the top and not just the bottom. Third, we need to develop systems of mentorship within schools for all teachers.

Developing a culture of expertise

Researchers have shown that there is a startling lack of expertise in teaching across North America.2 Because there are so few expert teachers in schools, learning teachers rarely have opportunities to examine exemplary teaching practices.3 As a result, struggling teachers often have low-hanging goals for student learning and vague visions of more successful instruction. It will come as no surprise to learn that in schools where there are higher numbers of accomplished teachers, the whole school community begins to adopt more ambitious forms of instruction because teachers have access to models of effective teaching. Thus, if we want all teachers to improve their practices, we need to cultivate expert teachers to act as models, mentors, and aspirational figures for their peers.

Support competent teachers

We need to support competent teachers so that they become models of exemplary performance we can draw upon to help support others. This mandate is exciting because it’s relatively easy: competent teachers tend to seek and embrace professional development opportunities, they are more likely to welcome feedback, and they need less support to reveal greater progress. With a little coaching from people like Sarah, strong teachers are then able to support other teachers by acting as peer coaches and mentors. Thus, Sarah’s role should shift from supporting the most struggling teachers to supporting the teachers who are next in line for a role like her own.

Most school improvement efforts are targeted at the teachers who command the most attention – the high-fliers and the low-riders. However, school leaders often ignore those competent, reliable, committed teachers who are “doing just fine.” Those teachers, though not often targeted as being “leaders,” are a key and underutilized resource for school improvement, leading not only to wasted potential for the school community, but also often leaving these effective teachers feeling unappreciated and unsupported. School leaders who are interested in systemic change need to attend to these teachers, both by providing them with more support and by expecting them to act as local leaders.

For example, rather than coaching a teacher struggling with classroom management, Sarah, our systems leader, might choose to work with Jim, an English Language Arts teacher who, though he models exceptional pedagogy in his classroom, needs support to learn how to share his expertise with his colleagues. Thus, Sarah might meet with Jim to help him articulate how he approaches a particular pedagogical task that other teachers in the school find challenging. Coaching Jim to articulate his methods in a clear way might allow him to share his work with his colleagues at an upcoming faculty meeting, while simultaneously supporting him to develop more conscious control over his work and further refine his classroom instruction. At the same time, preparing Jim to be a school leader positions him as a local expert with talent worth sharing, affirming his skills and developing a culture of professionalism in the school. 

Establish systems of mentorship

When teachers like Jim have additional support from systems leaders like Sarah, they are better able to support those teachers within the school who struggle. In fact, with some support, Jim is even better positioned than Sarah to support a novice teacher in the school. For example, as a systems leader, Sarah does not have her own classroom any more and thus rarely thinks about classroom management – she figured that out so long ago that those skills have become automatic and unconscious. Teachers like Jim, on the other hand, are closer to the reality of the classroom, and they are often more readily able to share their knowledge of best classroom practices with novice teachers.

Another advantage to this approach is that it de-stigmatizes teacher support. As a systems leader, Sarah’s presence communicates authority. When she works with Jim to prepare him as a leader, she positions him as a school-level leader. However, when she works with a struggling teacher, she positions the teacher as “underperforming.” That perception makes it difficult for teachers to ask for support. On the other hand, if Jim, as a peer mentor, works with the same teacher as a way of welcoming her into the school and providing routine, “in-house” assistance, he normalizes the encounter and lowers the stakes. When all teachers in a school receive some form of support, it becomes a part of the culture of the school.

There are many forms of expertise required for teaching. Teachers need deep knowledge of their discipline, they need a varied repertoire of pedagogical strategies, and they need knowledge of students and how they learn. Teachers need to develop positive and meaningful relationships with students and they need to engage in professional conversations with parents. Competence in one area does not necessarily translate into other areas. Teachers can be mentored in one area while simultaneously acting as mentors in another. Effective school leaders invest significant time in learning about teachers’ skills and needs, and they partner teachers strategically with one another, rather than only seeking support from “outside experts.”

Supporting the development of more ambitious forms of instruction is challenging work that requires a systems perspective. In order to develop more expertise in our schools, we need more strategic deployment of our systems leaders and greater engagement with teachers who have so much to offer their colleagues.

En Bref: Un immense défi confronte les dirigeants en éducation : ils doivent soutenir un nombre considérable d’enseignants – détenant des degrés très variés de compétences – de façon à rehausser la réussite des élèves à l’échelle du système. Cet article propose des mesures clés que peuvent prendre les dirigeants en éducation pour améliorer l’instruction à grande échelle. Les dirigeants doivent viser à améliorer les compétences dans l’ensemble du système et fournir un soutien important aux enseignants performants, plutôt qu’uniquement aux enseignants en difficulté, tout en instaurant dans les écoles un système de mentorat pour tous les enseignants. Cet article comporte des implications pour le travail des dirigeants des conseils scolaires et des ministères, des directions d’école, des consultants et des dirigeants de la profession enseignante.


Photo: Chris Schmidt (iStock)

First published in Education Canada, December 2015

1 Note that names and other identifiers have been changed.

2 James Stigler and James Hiebert, The Teaching Gap: Best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999).

3 P. Grossman, C. Compton, D. Igra, M. Ronfeld, E. Shahan, and P. Williamson, “Teaching Practice: A cross-professional perspective,” Teachers College Record 111, no. 9 (2009): 2055–2100.

Meet the Expert

Megan Webster

Megan Webster is a PhD candidate at McGill University whose work focuses on how to improve instruction through more effective professional development for teachers.

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