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September 1, 2020
Vol. 78
No. 1

Leading Together / Time to Power-Up Teaching Practice

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The pandemic gives us an opportunity to zero in on what's essential.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the world's attention to long-standing inequities and created conditions that have led to a demand for action. While many people are struggling with where to start, educators have the words of Nelson Mandela to guide them: "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." Teachers have stepped up with a renewed commitment to meeting each and every student's needs, by any means necessary. They are teaching as though lives depend upon it—because, in fact, they do.
Yet the pandemic imposes new constraints on budgets, time, and physical proximity that require making tough choices about what is essential and what must be left behind. Change puts things into perspective and pushes us to ask: What is the essence of powerful teaching? And what systems changes could be made to increase the likelihood that children experience powerful teaching daily?
One validated articulation of powerful teaching is the Five Core Propositions of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). First published in 1989, these statements describe what all teachers should know and be able to do. Research shows that when teaching is anchored by these five propositions, students learn more.
Many preservice teachers committed to careers of excellence have studied these Core Propositions in their training, many states have "crosswalked" their local teaching standards so that teachers can leverage this body of knowledge in preparing for licensure and evaluation, and many practicing teachers have completed the year-long portfolio process in pursuit of National Board Certification. To reach each and every student, however, commitment to teaching excellence must go beyond individual initiative. Schools must be reorganized to support powerful teaching by design.

A Systems Approach to Powerful Teaching

The changes educators are making today in service of their students are reshaping the education landscape. It behooves us all to ensure this new landscape will be not just different, but better. By looking through the lens of the NBPTS Five Core Propositions, school leaders can leverage shifts already underway to create contextual conditions that ensure teachers have what they need to teach well so that the bar is raised for all.
Teachers are committed to students and their learning. Many schools are not organized for teachers to deepen and fully act on this first core proposition. That is, while any individual teacher can find ways to learn about each student's distinctive assets, compile student learning profiles that inform their teaching, and connect with students beyond the curriculum, support and accountability for these important student-centered practices are not regularly hardwired at the school level.
During the pandemic, however, teacher leaders and principals have collaborated in many locales to develop and implement such routines. For example, new expectations to support social-emotional learning, remotely, have helped teachers develop insights about their students' strengths and challenges. Mandates to check in with families have deepened relationships and opened educators' eyes to essential new systems for ongoing, interactive communication. And the gap left by the absence of teachers' hallway check-ins has resulted in the use of novel systems to touch base with and personalize learning for students online. There is no reason for these routines to end as we return to school; they are examples of what one would expect where the culture of commitment to students is schoolwide.
Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students. Powerful teaching requires that teachers have ways to continually engage with the ever-growing knowledge base on content and pedagogy. The sense of urgency spurred by the pandemic has motivated many to seek content-rich learning on their own. But, if such knowledge is pursued only by those individuals who have the time and funds to pursue it, some students will lose out—most likely those who are already the most underserved. In the same way that we support students as agents in their own learning, a parallel shift is needed that supports teachers as agents in their own learning.
Principals who are committed to high-quality teaching should provide resources and time (for both individual and collaborative work) to make this happen. In addition, they might support teachers to engage with subject-area networks or professional associations, to access or conduct research, and to pursue university collaborations. In schools designed for powerful teaching, every teacher has a direct line to the latest professional knowledge on the subjects they teach.
Teachers are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning. It is inefficient and ineffective for each teacher to work solo to create the systems needed to manage and monitor student learning well. The sudden shift to remote learning last spring brought many teachers together to establish shared work expectations and weekly schedules for students, to decide together which new classroom platforms and instructional tools to use, and to develop new ways to monitor competency development in an online environment.
In many cases, these collaborations resulted in higher-quality systems and a more coherent experience for students. As we head back into school buildings, there's no reason to abandon this approach. Indeed, principals and teacher leaders would do well to extend these practices.
Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience. Given the unprecedented need for experimentation during the pandemic, this is just what teachers have been set up to do. Few educators in history can claim to have experienced more change in teaching and learning conditions than we have this year, and the best teachers are those who have become the best learners. Teachers have sought out new tools, become critical consumers, solicited feedback, and analyzed the impact on students. The challenge to school leaders will be to create conditions for this inquiry-focused habit of mind to become contagious, so that it will accelerate into a schoolwide culture of reflection well into the year.
Teachers are members of learning communities. The first four core propositions identify commitments that teachers must take on. The fifth core proposition reminds us that they cannot take these on alone. All teachers must be members of learning communities, since gaining the knowledge and skills needed to support today's students requires collective capacity, not simply individual effort. When teachers share their diverse perspectives, pool their expertise, and problem solve together as colleagues, they build professional capital that ensures all students can benefit from the assets held across the faculty.
Teachers hoping to be the best educators they can be for their students are looking anew at their own practices: questioning what they're doing, discovering new things to learn, and reconsidering traditional ways of discerning impact. Today, they not only want to be sure they are making a real difference for students, they want to change the world. Principals and teacher leaders can collaborate to seize this moment and leverage changes already underway to raise the bar. It's a good time to look together at the NBPTS Five Core Propositions and retool schools to meet them.
End Notes

1 National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. (2016). What teachers should know and be able to do.

2 National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. (2016). What teachers should know and be able to do.

Jill Harrison Berg is a leadership coach, school improvement consultant, researcher, and writer committed to supporting education leaders to recognize and maximize the critical role of teacher leadership in ensuring instructional equity.

Berg is an educator of leaders at all levels. She began her career in the classroom, teaching students to be leaders who take ownership of their own learning and are a positive influence on others, then moved into supporting teachers and other education leaders to do the same. Berg earned her doctorate at Harvard’s GSE while working as a researcher with the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. She was one of the first teachers in Massachusetts to become a National Board Certified Teacher.

 

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