As a leader in a district in Indianapolis with nine schools and limited resources, I’m well aware of the fact that most districts don’t have the time or money to devote to one-off workshops and training sessions that may or may not improve instruction. An effective, efficient professional development (PD) initiative has a few key components: It must be grounded in a culture of student achievement, it needs to be systematized, and it needs to be based in student need.

In the past, each of our schools handled PD differently. There was no unified system. However, over the past year, we have developed an approach that allows us to run an affordable and sustainable PD program aimed at systematically identifying and addressing student needs through instructional leadership and personalized teacher coaching. The system has three parts, each of which works together to help schools improve instruction in order to ultimately drive student achievement.

1. Form instructional leadership teams that focus on strategy and action.
Our instructional leadership teams (ILTs) are highly structured school-based teams that drive each school’s most important school improvement initiatives. They are made up of lead teachers and mentor teachers. We believe we couldn’t do the work of improvement well without teachers at the table.

Our ILTs create clear goals and plans to meet them. The approach is built on uncovering and addressing “rocks,” or 45-day projects. After identifying these projects, we assign specific tasks to members of the leadership team, encouraging execution and ensuring effectiveness and accountability along the way.

In addition to ILT meetings, each school also runs a regular PD meeting to continually unpack the gaps and opportunities. This is just one more touchpoint we’ve put in place to ensure the PD we are providing is truly making an impact on student achievement.

2. Identify, share, and celebrate excellent teaching.
Our professional learning communities (PLCs) will use an asset-based approach called STEP (Supporting Teacher Effectiveness Project). Developed in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Insight Education Group, Kitamba, American Institutes for Research, and other organizations, STEP is a PLC structure that guides educators to identify bright spots in grade levels or departments. Once we find these positive results, we can work backwards to discover the strategies that a teacher used to achieve them. We then develop a plan for replicating those great results in other classrooms.

We’re also part of Empower Educators to Excel (E3), a networked improvement community with four other similar districts across several states. This network allows us to see outstanding teaching from outside the district and share our successes with peers who face similar challenges.

For next year, we plan to celebrate our teachers in a few different ways. We’ll make a point of shining a light on the teachers whose formative assessments show the most student growth. With our lead teachers and our mentor teachers, we’re excited to offer them a path to greater responsibility. We want to acknowledge the importance of their work and show its far-reaching impact.

3. Offer personalized coaching sessions from designated lead and mentor teachers.
Lead teachers are full-time release. Their primary responsibilities including coaching and running PD meetings. Mentor teachers have a classroom of their own, and also do some coaching. These two roles work together to run PLC meetings and PD sessions.

Our coaches begin the year by coaching every teacher regularly, then differentiating their efforts based on teacher need. Coaching takes a variety of forms, including:

  • Discussing PD strategies that we’ve been working on
  • Providing instruction on specific teaching practices
  • Examining challenges and seeking to find their causes
  • Offering feedback on classroom observations
  • Co-teaching or model teaching opportunities

Our coaching system is based on documenting results so that we can account for effectiveness.

Creating culture and systems
For districts looking to implement a similar program to ours, I recommend starting with culture, making sure that everyone knows the mission is improving student learning. Research is clear that schools with a negative culture will struggle with implementing coaching and other collaborative approaches to improvement. Matthew A. Kraft, assistant professor of education and economics at Brown University, sums it up well: “Teachers do not work in a vacuum; their school’s climate can either enhance or undermine their ability to succeed with students.” If a school culture is based on doing whatever it takes to meet the students’ needs, then teachers will view coaching and other initiatives as another tool to help do what is best for students.

Once a positive school culture is in place, ensure that your district has a systems approach to identifying and implementing best practices. Systems are essential for several reasons.

1) Systems lead to consistency, and consistency leads to improvement in an area of focus.

2) Systems reduce variability, which can be a school or district killer. If nine or 10 schools in a district are all acting differently, then identifying challenges or best practices becomes very difficult.

3) A systems approach allows you to say that a problem might be due to a necessary change in PD, or coaching, or assessments, or data-analysis approach.

With a student-centric culture supported by a systems approach to PD across your district, you can bring an initiative to your teachers knowing that everyone understands the mission and trusts the process for getting there.

About the Author:

Dr. Danny Mendez is the director of secondary education in the Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township (IN). He tweets at @dmendez2378.