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February 1, 2021
Vol. 78
No. 5

Empowering Teacher Growth

How one high school reframed professional learning around autonomy with structured support—and sparked innovation that proved critical during the pandemic.

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As we labored throughout the summer of 2019 to reconceptualize our school's professional development plan for the upcoming year, little did we know we were also preparing to face COVID-19 and, consequently, one of the most challenging years of our careers. Not that we were unaccustomed to challenges. Two of us, Joel and Michael, were emerging leaders (an acting and assistant principal) in a New York City high school serving a 100-percent immigrant student population, while the other, Kristina, provided coaching support to the school. We found every school day presented us—and our faculty—with a series of productive struggles.
As our summer planning progressed, we realized we needed to strike that same balance between challenge and support with our teachers. Unbeknownst to us, the plan we would develop would ignite teachers' passions and energize their efforts, ultimately sustaining their professional learning trajectories throughout the upheaval of the then-looming pandemic.

Time for a Change

We knew our school's professional development model needed improvement. Traditionally, administrators selected topics, books, or theories for study and planned one-size-fits-all workshops around those topics. Observations revealed teachers seldom integrated those ideas into their instruction. In addition, our school's 2018–2019 stakeholders' survey revealed that our faculty desired a clearer vision for professional development, a relationship of greater trust with the administration, and more opportunities to work with their colleagues.
We decided a revamp was in order. But rather than announcing a problem and telling teachers how to solve it, we wanted to engage teachers around self-selected problems of practice. We aimed to focus our attention on empowering and supporting teachers, which in turn, we hoped, would improve students' sense of well-being and academic achievement.

A Philosophical Approach

Before making functional plans for changing staff development, we fleshed out the philosophical and structural principles on which those plans would be based. To that end, we developed a conceptual framework reflecting the school's values and setting the compass for year-long decision making. As shown in Figure 1, this framework featured five pillars for professional learning built on a foundation of trust and reaching toward teacher agency and impact.

Figure 1. Conceptual Framework Guiding Planning for Professional Learning


The Foundation: Building Trust

Our year-end stakeholder survey had revealed that establishing trust with our teachers was an imperative first step. We took deliberate actions in this regard. First, we dedicated ourselves to communicating a message of trust by giving teachers the freedom to choose the problems of practice they wanted to explore. Second, we committed ourselves to supporting teachers by regularly visiting classrooms and planning meetings to provide continuous, nonevaluative feedback. We believed these two measures would result in staff feeling more comfortable taking risks and being innovative.

Pillar 1: Consistency and Cohesion

To guide teachers in framing their problems of practice, we selected three schoolwide instructional goals, derived from data analysis and included in our comprehensive school plan:
  1. Design robust projects that challenge students to create high-quality work.
  2. Develop structures for the teaching and learning of literacy across the curriculum.
  3. Plan lessons and assessments that establish highly successful thinking routines.
These goals would drive our scheduling, community building, messaging to parents and students, teacher reflections, coaching models, and our professional development plan.

Pillar 2: Adult Learning Theory

One of our aims was to empower staff to push each other toward growth. Adult learning theory asserts that, in an ecosystem of trust, teachers are "willing to expose their challenges, mistakes, and questions—as well as their hopes, strengths, and successes—and be comfortable discussing all of these with their colleagues" (Drago-Severson & Blum-DeStefano, 2016). We believed that such vulnerability should be modeled, so we launched our plan by sharing an overview with teachers before the school year began and asking for their feedback. We then opened the year with a full-staff meeting in which we discussed the teachers' feedback, shared the prior year's data, and used both to shape a staff-wide discussion of instructional goals.

Pillar 3: Time for Collaboration

Our district dictates that schools designate time for professional learning each week. To make the most of these meetings and create opportunities for authentic collaboration, we decided on a number of protocols designed to overcome barriers to engagement. These included:
  • Encouraging teachers to select "problems of practice" (aligned to school goals) that intersected with challenges arising from everyday instruction.
  • Providing flexible time and space to pursue inquiry.
  • Structuring purposeful collaboration between colleagues around shared areas of challenge.
Ultimately, we wanted professional learning to be so intrinsically motivating that it expanded beyond the confines of a weekly meeting and into every area of professional interaction.

Pillar 4: Innovative Design Thinking

We were inspired by the premise, "When people are operating in conditions of high-trust, collaboration, and effective leadership, they are more willing to innovate and take risks" (Fullan & Quinn, 2016, p. 26). Giving our teachers permission to "fail" felt counterintuitive; still, we were committed to encouraging our teachers to take instructional risks. We were certain that if we implemented nine-week learning cycles and embedded opportunities for on-demand coaching and feedback, teachers would have the time and liberty to experiment, analyze results, regroup, and try again. Our goal was to balance autonomy with support, thus encouraging teachers to expand beyond their comfort zone.

Pillar 5: Autonomous Learning

Ultimately, we wanted to signal that professional development would not happen to teachers as an audience; rather, it would be driven by their interests and expertise as professionals. In addition, staff development would not be "accomplished" within a short time period; rather, it would become a sustained effort toward progress in becoming more versatile and well-equipped to handle instructional dilemmas. Professional learning would be transformed into a shared culture that unfolded daily throughout a year-long process, personalized according to interest, pursued in the company of peers, and supported by the administration.

Putting Ideas into Action

With our philosophy and goals firmly in place, we turned to the plan itself, taking care that the foundations of the plan mirrored our beliefs. Specifically, we outlined the following five priorities.

1. Making Time for Teacher Learning

No plan will succeed without time carved out for its success. Accordingly, we incorporated both long-term cycles of inquiry and weekly opportunities for collaboration. For our year-long plan we adopted continuous cycles of improvement (Bryk et al., 2015). During each nine-week learning cycle, staff members were asked to make plans based in their interests, targeted toward our school instructional goals, and supported by relevant literature. Teachers implemented one or more instructional changes each cycle, analyzed their results, and shared their findings.
We maintained our regular weekly meeting dedicated to PD but reconfigured it to provide time for teachers to collaborate in smaller groups on self-designed projects. In addition, we created more flexibility in teachers' daily schedules, gaining time by rearranging class offerings and restructuring teaching loads. Our external coaches' visits were scheduled, based on requests from teachers, to provide resources to support teams and/or individuals, both during PD time and throughout the school day. These proactive adjustments deliberately reinforced our premise that professional learning is most effective when driven by organic inquiry rather than by mandated topics du jour.
Inquiry would flow through four distinct nine-week cycles. The first three cycles of the year would focus on our schoolwide instructional areas. The final cycle was geared toward connecting the initial three cycles by consolidating all of the work from the year, sharing lessons learned, and assembling materials created for future use.

2. Guiding Groups and Areas of Focus

To determine collaborative groups for each cycle, each faculty member developed an inquiry question to pursue growth in self-designated areas of challenge. These "challenges" had to be (1) geared toward promoting student growth; (2) central to improving teaching effectiveness; and (3) instrumental in improving our instructional practices toward at least one of our three schoolwide instructional goals.
Once each teacher identified a unique challenge, we created faculty groups of four-to-six members around common themes that emerged from teacher choices. Each group chose a problem of practice (Bryk et al., 2015) that encompassed individual members' personal challenges. They then sought a book, article(s), or other relevant research to ground their inquiry (Fisher et al., 2020). Teams directed their own vision and work, supporting one another as they pursued their individual questions within their common area of inquiry. Teams were changed every cycle, so teachers had opportunities to work with a variety of colleagues throughout the year.

3. Establishing Parameters and Accountability

While we wanted our plan to be malleable enough to bolster autonomy and energize staff, we realized we had to provide reasonable parameters to frame productive work. Accordingly, we shared examples of inquiry projects in action, sample problems of practice, frameworks for pursuing inquiry, and avenues for sharing professional lessons learned (see options in bulleted list below). To foster motivation and a sense of agency, we ended our weekly PD time by gathering teacher teams into a full group where they could share their progress and problems. In addition, we asked each team to present a more formal summary of their findings at the end of each cycle. Figure 2 illustrates the stages of inquiry and reporting in Cycle One.

Figure 2. Professional Learning Schedule Example

Cycle 1: Design robust projects that challenge students to create high quality work

Empowering Teacher Growth - table


Weeks 1–9


Week 1Team Building, Reflect on current practicesIdentify Common Challenge + Text Chosen
Week 2ResearchText protocol and text completed
Week 3Research + Check-InText protocol and text completed
Week 4Research + Action ItemsTransform text into action items
Week 5Research + Action ItemsTransform text into action items
Week 6Determine Necessary Work (no meeting this week)Execute action items
Week 7Determine Necessary Work + Check-InExecute action items + Progress report
Week 8Convene on FindingsOrganize what we've learned
Week 9Expo IShare what we've learned, assemble for future use

4. Sharing and Using Results

For their formal presentation of findings at each cycle's end, teams were asked to showcase how their work (1) illustrated practical, unique applications of research and (2) impacted student outcomes. To do so, they could use any two of the following work products:
  • Analysis of student work/data, with interpretations shown in written or visual form.
  • Analysis of actions taken in the classroom through annotated running records.
  • Annotation and analysis of video recorded teaching practices.
  • Annotated before-and-after snapshots of lesson/unit plans and teaching materials.
  • Screencasts, annotated whiteboard videos, or "panel interviews" illustrating student reactions to work.
  • Debrief of classroom peer-visits (conducted by members of the same team), including resulting action items.
  • Any proposed alternate product that aligns authentically with area of inquiry.
Groups shared their practices and findings with members of different teams in a full-staff expo, using a round-robin protocol so that each teacher shared the work of their entire group. Teachers were able to learn about the work of the other groups while presenting their own.

5. Administrative Participation

As an administrative team, we fully participated in the learning alongside our staff. We used our own inquiry projects to generate conversations with teachers about their practice and to solicit feedback about schoolwide areas for improvement. Most important, we modeled leading from a vulnerable standpoint. We followed the same foundational structure and participated in each cycle, sharing like the other teams but with a leadership focus on school structures and culture. We sought input from faculty and incorporated their feedback into our work.

Reaping the Rewards

Overall, the returns exceeded our expectations regarding teacher engagement, creativity, and collaboration. One of the most exciting parts of this journey was seeing the steadfast motivation of our staff through the fall and winter. Along with adopting innovative practices and making progress toward instructional goals, the most significant outcome was how our staff began to operate as a bonded team. Over the course of the year, we saw marked increases in staff initiative to support students in innovative ways, staff support for each other, nonstructured collaboration, and staff happiness.
These positive impacts were felt most fully in the spring when, overnight, schools closed their doors and were forced to reimagine classroom formats in the wake of the pandemic. We believe that our professional learning plan's momentum allowed our staff to adjust in stride, continuing the work we had pursued all year. Our plan was purposefully designed to build staff capacity; as a result, teachers felt empowered to meet challenges head on. This sense of self-efficacy propelled them to develop innovative models of remote instruction.
Cycle Four was originally designed for teachers to regroup into teams teaching the same cohorts of students, synthesize lessons learned from the first three cycles, and apply them to new innovations. Though not in the format we imagined, this is exactly what happened—even without the structure and accountability established in the first three cycles.
Throughout all four cycles, we conveyed a message of trust with our words and actions, emphasizing autonomy and engagement and encouraging teachers to share their reasoning along with their results. Professional development became efficient to plan, smooth to implement, and rewarding to undertake. Our hope was that "teachers who were motivated, connected, and collaborative would be happier about pursuing meaningful work and therefore be more innovative" (Fullan & Quinn, 2016, p. 26). That hope was realized.
Because of COVID-19 disruptions, students did not take their state exams, nor did we receive a 2019–2020 year-end review. Recognizing this lack of hard evidence, our faculty crafted and shared an open letter (signed by every teacher) testifying to improvements in professional learning and school culture. It ended with this statement:
Through their actions and genuine efforts, Dr. Heckethorn and Mr. Giovacchini have shown that teachers at [our school] are valued, trusted, and respected as professionals. It is through these efforts that we have witnessed tremendous student growth and engagement in student activities both inside and outside the classroom…. We would like to thank both of them for leading the charge to be better practitioners while respecting us as individuals with needs, preferences, and concerns. Upon returning in the fall, we are hopeful that our school environment continues to be one of invention, promise, and pride.

Bryk, A., Gomez, L., Grunow, A., & Lemahiue, P. (2015). Learning to improve: How America's schools can get better at getting better. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Drago-Severson, E., & Blum-DeStefano, J. (2016). Tell me so I can hear you: A developmental approach to feedback for educators. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., Almarode, J., Flories, K., & Nagel, D. (2020). PLC +: Better decisions and greater impact by design. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Fullan, M., & Quinn, J. (2016). Coherence: The right drivers in action for schools, districts, and systems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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