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January 13, 2023
ASCD Blog

Raising Teacher Expectations Without Burning Teachers Out

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To lift demands, build teacher agency while concentrating on a few strategic goals.
Leadership
Raising Teacher Expectations Without Burning Them Out: Lessons from Whitney Elementary
Credit: wk1003mike / Shutterstock
School leaders are expected to lift schools from exponentially difficult situations. They must attend to students’ post-pandemic “learning loss;” the current mental health crisis; teachers leaving the profession; and the endless political ping-pong game of funding issues, curriculum controversies, or pandemic health guidelines (to name a few challenges). When leaders transfer the demands of addressing interrupted learning while juggling constantly changing initiatives to their overworked, well-meaning teachers, it understandably prompts teachers to run for the nearest exit. At a time like this, pulling back on expectations (or initiatives) may seem like the only solution. But what if the answer lies not in removing teacher expectations, but in strategically raising them?

One School Bucks the Trend

At Whitney Elementary School in Las Vegas, Nevada, we have witnessed how the pandemic has impacted an already fragile student population. Beginning her principal tenure at Whitney in 2020, coauthor Melissa Roehm knew students' futures would hinge on where to focus recovery efforts.
The lessons learned at Whitney Elementary, which serves a 100 percent free-and-reduced lunch student population and has a history of low student achievement, suggest that 1) a consistent development of teacher autonomy, 2) laser-like focus on a few key priorities, and 3) a goal-oriented culture can empower educators not only to deliver on lofty demands, but to stay in the field.
Within one year of establishing these three practices with fidelity, student achievement on state assessments increased significantly and their growth on the NWEA MAP assessments was among the highest of the 350 schools in Clark County. Now, with three years of sustained implementation, the students at Whitney Elementary continue to exceed typical growth rates, and staff culture thrives, with a nearly 100 percent retention rate.

1. Foster teacher agency at every turn.

Teachers have a lot to juggle in the classroom—schedules, curriculum, student behavior, etc.—which can quickly get overwhelming and leave teachers feeling a loss of control. For this reason, intentionally cultivating teacher agency—or the feeling of control that a teacher has over their actions and their impact—can help mitigate uncertainty and bring teachers to the table as authentic agents of schoolwide change. Whitney leaders believe that, by their very nature, teachers possess leadership qualities that should be nurtured, recognized, and appreciated.
At Whitney Elementary, for example, a volunteer team of teacher leaders is trusted to have ultimate control over implementation of the school’s professional development plan. This team researches, schedules, and presents professional learning (tied to school improvement goals) throughout the year to the entire staff. They also meet regularly to reflect on progress of the professional learning plan during bimonthly leadership meetings with administration. The teacher leaders collect data from classroom observations, identify trends, and determine relevant next steps in professional learning for the whole staff. Plus, all teachers participate in analyzing the success of each professional learning experience by engaging in peer observations of instruction.
Administrators provide guidance and support the teacher leader team to uphold high expectations of the staff; however, the teachers lead their own learning. This has cultivated deep engagement, not solely compliance, in a schoolwide pursuit of continuous improvement.

Intentionally cultivating teacher agency ... mitigates uncertainty and brings teachers to the table as authentic agents of schoolwide change.

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2. Clear the weeds: Focus on fewer changes with sustained effort.

Volatility, uncertainty, chaos, and ambiguity (termed VUCA during the Cold War) are familiar concepts to educators and school leaders. Rapid institutional change, such as constantly evolving health-safety guidelines or frequent changes in curriculum resources, can pose a significant threat to teachers’ confidence and autonomy. It can create teacher confusion, uncertainty, a heavy workload, and conditions for burnout.
To protect teachers from burnout while asking them to embrace a demanding workload, Whitney teacher leaders and administrators held a series of strategic planning discussions and asked themselves: “What are the highest-leverage, research-based practices that would enhance Tier I instruction in our classrooms?”
After reflection, these focus areas—a compilation chosen for being realistic and manageable—became the “Whitney Big 5”:
  1. Metacognition
  2. Engagement Strategies
  3. Writing Across the Curriculum
  4. Consistent Openings and Closings in Every Lesson (Communicate the "what," "why," and "how" with students)
  5. Unwrapping Standards/Teacher Questioning
For the past three years, Melissa and her assistant principal have tied every initiative or decision to fostering consistency and teacher expertise in these five areas. The expectations of teachers are clear and unwavering: each of these practices is applied to some degree in every lesson. Feedback from classroom observations is tied to teachers' growth goals. Once the "why" and "how" were strongly established in year one, administrators continuously challenged teachers to refine their practices through feedback cycles and engaged all staff in analyzing student learning data in weekly PLCs to determine impact or identify improvement areas with the Big 5.
For teachers, the laser-like focus on the Big 5 instructional strategies worked. Kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Mulvey shared in a recent staff feedback survey that “the Big 5, along with our structured PLCs, give us a particular focus across the entire school. We are confident in what we are doing to impact student learning and know that it is taking place in every classroom.”
Each teacher understands the purpose and development process of the Whitney Big 5, and these five practices are also supported and held to high expectations.
“The Big 5 has given me a clear, consistent, and measurable framework to build lessons around,” reflected 1st grade teacher Shaunna Alcorn, adding that the transparency in the expectations of teachers is refreshing.
Grounded in clarity and consistency around specific instructional strategies, teachers then focus their growth journey, and the learning of their students, using goal-setting practices.

3. Celebrate growth with goal setting.

Not only do Whitney Elementary administrators believe that teachers possess natural leadership skills, they understand that teachers are also inherently goal-oriented and deserve to be recognized when they achieve success. Melissa and her assistant principal set a clear, personalized learning path for every teacher each fall. They set goal-setting conferences where they created specific, measurable growth goals with teachers based on data and tied to school initiatives within the Whitney Big 5. Each teacher's objectives are highly personalized and fueled by their own reflections as well as administrator feedback.
Ongoing goal-focused conferences between administrators and teachers present rich opportunities for establishing that everyone on the team is engaged in continuous improvement, and that monitoring progress is crucial to success. Further, the message from leaders is clear: We are dedicated to the personal and professional development of each teacher in the school.
Through engaging in the process themselves, teachers know how to replicate goal setting with their students; they host individual, developmentally appropriate goal-setting conversations with each of them. NWEA MAP growth assessments provide a meaningful baseline for launching these discussions and enabling students to understand and determine their own academic goals. As experts suggest, students thrive when setting their own goals and monitoring progress. Cultivating Whitney students' agency in the goal process ensures their engagement, too.

Each teacher's objectives are highly personalized and fueled by their own reflections as well as administrator feedback.

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Melissa and the Whitney Elementary teacher leader team celebrate progress toward goals—whether subtle or significant—for teachers and students at every opportunity. This can mean giving a personal acknowledgement to a teacher who is striving to improve alignment between her learning tasks for students and the standard they address, or celebrating schoolwide for achieving above-average growth across every grade between fall and winter MAP Growth assessments. The intentional recognition tied to explicit goals empowers every community member to continue striving toward excellence.

On the Right Path

Yes, teaching is complex, difficult work. Yet clear, consistent, and high expectations of teachers conveys trust and confidence in their expertise. While it seems counterintuitive to imagine asking teachers to do more, or work harder, or tie themselves into more knots to reach every student in the current education environment, the notion here is not to overwhelm teachers to the point of burnout. Rather, it's to focus on empowering teachers and deepening engagement in fewer initiatives.
Whitney Elementary has endured its share of interruptions and wrong turns like many other schools, but equal focus on high expectations and consistent support of teachers has changed the trajectory of many students' learning journeys. Moreover, Whitney teachers feel they are valued and respected because they help shape the direction of the school. Thus, they stay—only one teacher has transitioned away in the past three years.
By clarifying the school’s vision, protecting teachers from initiative overload, and celebrating the growth of the entire school along this bumpy, chaotic journey, Whitney Elementary highlights how, even in turbulent times, leaders can build teacher teams that are engaged, empowered, and capable of thriving.
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