- Educators work collaboratively rather than in isolation, take collective responsibility for student learning, and clarify the commitments they make to each other about how they will work together.
- The fundamental structure of the school becomes the collaborative team in which members work interdependently to achieve common goals for which all members are mutually accountable.
- The team established a guaranteed and viable curriculum, unit by unit, so all students have access to the same knowledge and skills regardless of the teacher to whom they are assigned.
- The team develops common formative assessments to frequently gather evidence of student learning.
- The school has created a system of interventions and extensions to ensure students who struggle receive additional time and support for learning in a way that is timely, directive, diagnostic, and systematic, and students who demonstrate proficiency can extend their learning.
- The team uses evidence of student learning to inform and improve the individual and collective practice of its members.
In simple terms, instructional tights = those actions that are non-negotiable. Solution Tree would argue, and I would agree, that in order to be a highly functioning professional learning community, these tights must be adhered to. In addition to these tights, it is appropriate for school systems to outline additional tights around routines, procedures, and behavior expectations for both students and staff. Each “tight” can be tailored to the building within the school system to match the needs of that population.
What About Autonomy?
When talking about instructional tights, one might feel like this is a “top-down” approach, which leaves teachers out of the decision making. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teacher teams have many critical decisions to make, including (as outlined by Solution Tree):
- What to teach
- The sequencing and pacing of content
- The assessments used to monitor student learning
- The criteria they will use in assessing the quality of student work
- The norms for their team
- The goals for their team
In addition to those decisions outlined by Solution Tree, I would add that individual teachers have autonomy in the approach to teaching content – each teacher has full autonomy in bringing their personality to the delivery of lessons – they get to maintain the art of teaching. I get to witness this every time that I visit classrooms: our teacher teams adhere to the same pacing calendar (that they have developed), so the same lesson is being taught on the same day in each classroom. It is so fun to watch each teacher put their own spin on the approach! They maintain the same learning targets and outcomes, they use the same instructional materials, but their delivery is always unique. It has to be unique, as it matches the students in their classroom.
Neither fully top-down nor fully bottom-up approaches work. Fully top-down leads to frustration and a lack of understanding of district initiatives, while fully bottom-up leads to failure to achieve at high levels with a lack of collective efficacy. When every person in the system feels valued, when teams are supportive of each other and of other teams, when there is mutual accountability for adhering to defined “tights,” when the need for autonomy is recognized and granted, a beautiful educational system with high levels of learning for all students and staff results.
I recently wrote about professionalism, reflecting on the pattern I see with those educators who ask to be treated as professionals yet have a tendency to be the very same people who don’t act like professionals. These are the people in an organization who question everything, seemingly content to be contrary for the sake of being contrary, rather than for the sake of understanding. These are the people who struggle with self-reflection and point fingers of blame in multiple directions.
In the field of education, among many other traits, I believe that professionalism is defined by the ability and desire to maintain a growth mindset. As I wrote in December, “Perhaps in our quest to be treated as professionals, we could act the part. We could be open to and model a passion for learning. We could do our part to embrace collective efficacy (‘the shared belief that through their collective action, educators can influence student outcomes and increase achievement for all students’). We could do our part to contribute to the the positive culture that we desire. We could forge a path to ‘getting it right, rather than being right.'”
Professionalism is recognizing the need for instructional tights and the need for autonomy. It is questioning to understand, rather than to diminish. It is adhering to instructional tights and working with colleagues to do the same. Professionalism is stepping into leadership roles, and encouraging others to do the same.
There are many opportunities for leadership in an educational system beyond administrative leadership. Some of the best leaders recognize and encourage leadership in others. I have experienced tremendous professional growth because of the encouragement of administrators and other teachers in leadership positions. If it had not been for the reaching out and encouragement from our former district literacy coach, I would never have pursued this position. Serving as our district literacy coach has granted me the ability to see our district from a birds-eye view, has led to partnerships with people from other professional organizations, and has led to my journey of learning about the science of reading.
I have made it a mission to do the same for others: to recognize their strengths and encourage them to pursue new pathways, including leadership positions. Leadership does not have to come with a title change, however. Leadership is seen in the day to day work that educators do by establishing relationships with students, engaging in self-selected professional learning, practicing and applying effective teaching strategies, leaning in to vulnerability, and collaborating with colleagues in the spirit of improving outcomes for students. We have leaders everywhere! Are we recognizing them?
I believe that one of the things that makes all of the above easier is when districts maintain a narrow focus. It is easy to get caught up in chasing after initiatives that are the latest and greatest – there are many. It has never been more important to narrow the focus. It has been encouraging to see that very thing happen in Fort Madison Community School District. It started six years ago when the decision was made to become a Professional Learning Community under the guidance of Solution Tree. We have remained committed to that mission, so much so that our district has sent every teacher, administrator, and school board member to at least one PLC at Work summit. We are reminded of our commitment at the start of every school year and in our day-to-day work. We attend weekly team meetings, focused on four critical questions, and led by Guiding Coalition members.
In addition, we have hired Kim Cano, a Solution Tree consultant, to strengthen our work and commitment to the process. The plan is to have Kim work with us for three years. Adding Kim Cano to the equation has already had tremendous benefits including, but not limited to, helping us narrow our focus. As part of a larger district action plan, the district has identified an action that states, “Develop and establish common expectations for instructional staff districtwide.” Underneath that action are three instructional expectations:
- Teacher uses total participation techniques to engage a variety of learners.
- Students do the majority of thinking or questioning to clarify or build on each others’ thinking.
- Teachers use frequent checks for understanding to assess student learning.
Identifying these three instructional expectations has greatly narrowed the focus of our work. It has made my coaching work substantially easier! As I work with teachers on meeting their individual goals, it is incredibly easy to work toward those goals with a focus on these three expectations. They get at the heart of quality teaching. Are these the only three practices that will impact student learning? Absolutely not, but they sure are a sensible starting point. As far as I can tell, these three could easily remain our focus for the 23-24 school year. Even with this narrow focus, There is a LOT packed into these three practices.
It’s Big Work
As much as I see the power in a narrow focus, I realize that there are bigger things at play. Achieving high levels of learning for all of our students will never be simple, but we can make the work, the BIG work, manageable by limiting initiatives and building explicit connections for all staff around the initiatives that we do have established. There are days when the work seems too big, but then a student shares the growth they are making on letter-sound acquisition with the biggest smile you’ve ever seen, and winter screening results come in showing growth, and a teacher thanks you for helping them understand a concept… and they all serve as reminders that the BIG work is worth doing.