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November 1, 2021

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Rebuilding Teacher Efficacy

With so much talk of learning loss, teacher efficacy may be shaky.
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Professional Learning
School Culture
November 2021 Fisher Frey Header Image: Masked teachers bumping elbows.
There's a COVID-19 narrative that's been hard to shake: that there's been a loss of learning for students. While there is no evidence that students have lost skills they formerly had—or failed to gain key skills—the rhetoric persists. But data overall suggest that students did learn last year, albeit not always at the same pace as in non-pandemic years. Still, many are rightly concerned that the twin disasters of disease and persistent social injustices have exposed structural barriers that have unevenly impacted students, especially BIPOC youth. A report by the Office of Civil Rights notes that rural and high-poverty schools were especially hard-hit by these disparities.
Less discussed is the toll the learning-loss narrative takes on educator agency. The damaging message inferred from the learning-loss narrative is that educators' "extraordinary commitments" and dedicated "talents, energy, and resources" last year were all for naught. Imagine facing your colleagues and telling them "Thanks—but your efforts didn't matter." So, for the first time in the history of this column, we are diverging from discussing instructional practices to focus on those who make learning possible—the committed adults who lead, teach, and support schooling.

Educator Agency—on Shaky Ground?

People with a strong sense of professional agency in their lives believe they can achieve their goals. They see themselves as capable of making reasonable choices from the options available to them and perceive that, individually and collectively, they have influence over the quality of their jobs. However, agency is fluid and subject to changing circumstances. Past experiences, as well as current circumstances and future projections, can impact educators' sense of agency. Considering how unsteady education has been since the beginning of the pandemic, even educators who were previously self-efficacious may not be feeling so solid right now.

How to Rebuild Agency

We should address the rebuilding of educator agency with the same vigor as we do the recovery of student learning. Attending to the latter while neglecting the former won't deliver the breakthrough learning results we need. Nor is it realistic to simply tell educators that they need to work harder, longer, faster. Instead, let's invest in three areas for rebuilding agency: collaboration, feedback, and spotlighting success.
Refocused Collaboration. Educators need regular opportunities to share their stories with one another and discuss their practices. In a typical school year, collaboration commonly happens in professional learning communities. This structure allows time for teachers, coaches, and administrators to pinpoint a common challenge they face, develop a plan for addressing it, monitor progress, and see what impact their efforts ultimately have.
However, there's nothing typical about this school year. So, we must revitalize PLCs by ensuring there is an emphasis on the adults' learning. Every time a collaborative team meets, they should discuss their practice in terms of what they have learned—as a group and individually. Carve out crucial time for members to engage in learning walks to monitor their efforts and improve practice. Opening our classrooms and ensuring teachers have positive shared experiences fosters the kind of collective efficacy that drives student learning. Let's also empower teams to identify and disrupt structural and institutional barriers.

This year, we must revitalize PLCs by ensuring there is an emphasis on the adults' learning.

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The Right Feedback. The feedback we give one another can fuel our self-efficacy and agency. Whether you are an administrator, instructional coach, mentoring teacher, or a colleague, shape your feedback to others using this simple formula: "When you did x, then y occurred." Outcome-oriented statements like these link educators' efforts with their impact:
  • "When you modeled your thinking, your students were able to try the examples and figure out how to solve the problems."
  • "You established routines for collaborative conversations, so you didn't have to devote much time to giving students directions. They knew what to do."
  • "That self-assessment you gave near the end of class made a difference for Jazmin. I overheard her ask a related question of her classmate; the self-assessment highlighted something she realized she didn't understand."
Affirming comments are not false praise, but rather focused on rebuilding agency. Outcome-oriented statements like these can reframe a teacher's view of the results of their efforts—and help reconstitute a culture of success—in ways evaluative statements can't. "I like the way you modeled your thinking" only provides information about your opinion and shifts attention away from the impact on learners.
Highlight Success. Nothing fosters agency like concentrating on successes. Invite teachers, administrators, and classified staff to give voice to the unexpected successes they've experienced in the last year. More important, provide a public forum for sharing these successes. We have led school teams through a formal process of identifying "wins" they've achieved with students and their families, then planning how they will share these positives with their stakeholders.
One way to spotlight positives is to produce a video showcasing the insights educators have gained during this taxing time and share it with the wider school community. Last June, we invited educators at Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego, where both of us work, to reflect on and name their recent learnings. We simply asked, "What have you learned in this last school year?" The video that accompanies this column features faculty and staff sharing their acquired learning. (We encourage you to try this at your school!)

Ready for the "Next Normal"

Educator agency is foundational for the work ahead. But rather than adopt a strictly remedial outlook, let's focus on reorientation while the "next normal" in schooling is still emerging. Rethinking schools will require the collective effort of educators who view themselves as capable of making a positive impact.
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Professional Learning

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Rebuilding Teacher Efficacy

7 months ago
End Notes

1 Zierer, K. (2021). Effects of pandemic-related school closures on pupils' performance and learning in selected countries: A rapid review. Education Sciences11, 252.

2 Office for Civil Rights. (2021). Education in a pandemic: The disparate impacts of COVID-19 on America's students. U.S. Department of Education.

3 Robinson, S. (2012). Constructing teacher agency in response to the constraints of education policy: Adoption and adaptation. The Curriculum Journal23(2), 231–245.

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