I just finished reading “Improving Teacher and School Leader Effectiveness: Designing a Framework for Colorado” published by the Colorado Legacy Foundation. I appreciate the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of the authors and the experts they consulted.
I would like to add my voice to the conversation by talking about some of what I learned about these issues in my 17 years as a working principal of New Vista High School. My goal is to provide some ground level perspective to the statewide conversation.
My unhappy conclusions are as follows:
- There isn’t a big enough pool of high quality candidates for teaching jobs;
- Schools need paid instructional coaches to adequately support either the induction of probationary teachers or the professional growth of non-probationary teachers and there isn’t enough money to provide them; and
- Schools don’t have enough time in the current school year to do the work reformers want us to do and there are no easy or cheap fixes for that.
The result is that most schools in the system just keep on doing what they have always done and will continue to do so. That’s the only thing they know how to do.
The Pool of Teacher Candidates
When New Vista High School (NVHS) hired a new teacher as both a subject area specialist and an advisor to a multi-age, heterogeneous group of students, we had a list of non-negotiable criteria. While the school had specialized needs, I think upon reading this list you might agree that that NVHS’ criteria could and should be the criteria we would want for any school.
- Philosophical congruence with the school
- Keen, flexible, intelligence
- Deeply knowledgeable in the content area
- Rapport with students
- Collaborative skills for work with colleagues
- Cultural competence
Significantly, the possession of actual classroom experience and/or specific teaching skills and strategies was NVHS’ lowest priority. Our view was that if a candidate possessed all the non-negotiable qualifications, we could teach them to run the active learning classrooms that we wanted.
To find candidates with these qualifications, the NVHS hiring process involved elements beyond the standard review of applications, interviews and reference checks. We additionally required the finalists from the interview process to teach a lesson to a group of students representative of the student body and to participate together in an observed collaborative problem solving activity.
The process unfolded over two days, providing substantial experiential evidence for the hiring committee to ponder. The diverse elements gave us a chance to gather information about all of our criteria and make the best decision we could.
It is sobering to report that even our well-regarded school in a highly regarded district found few candidates who matched our non-negotiable criteria. We counted ourselves lucky when one person, even without teaching experience, emerged from the search. There were many times when searches had to be re-opened or interim solutions devised.
There are two possible explanations for the low number of candidates who met our criteria. The first is that most teachers are not interested in a non-traditional school. The second is that the pool of teacher candidates is not very strong.
Either explanation is cause for substantial concern. With so many across the state and nation calling for the transformation of conventional schooling (and especially the transformation of high school) the absence of candidate interest in a school that has successfully implemented most of the recommendations for high school reform would be a big problem.
And of course, the absence of a large number of candidates with the qualities described above would be an even bigger concern. Solving both of these issues, but especially the second, is perhaps the greatest challenges in public schooling.
New teachers at New Vista got the following forms of support:
- The Boulder Valley School District induction program
- A desk in the common teachers’ room
- A mentor from within the same department
- An administrator responsible for evaluation.
Veteran teachers had
- Each other
- Periodic evaluation by an administrator
- Whole staff development
The situation for both new and veteran teachers improved significantly in 2008-09 when, for the first time, the building hired a part time instructional coach using district, building and grant money.
The coach was asked to support all new teachers in the building including student teachers. Her assignment also included working with veteran teachers as a follow-up to whole staff training in sheltering strategies for linguistically diverse students.
The response from teachers to the support of the coach was overwhelmingly positive. Finally, someone really had time to spend one-on-one to help them improve their teaching. Now there was someone to plan with, someone available to observe the attempt to implement the plan or to model the new strategy, and someone who could help troubleshoot problems and support the next iteration of effort. And the result was that people started to make real changes in their classroom practice.
We know from the research that teachers need personalized support in their own classrooms in order to translate ideas, suggestions or newly learned skills into their classroom practice. Change doesn’t happen when teachers have heard or learned something new from whatever source – a colleague, an online forum, a resource bank, a workshop.
Change happens when a teacher gets support throughout the challenging process of trying something new, having it fail and either adapting the idea or getting support while practicing the skills to implement it more adequately. The best established wisdom in the world of professional development still comes from Joyce and Showers and tells us that consistent classroom based follow-up is the only way to change and improve teaching practices. This is both labor intensive and time consuming.
Based on my experience as a principal and as a colleague to a whole district of principals, my conclusion is that a designated instructional coach in every school is the only viable mechanism to adequately induct new teachers and to support the growth of veterans.
Coaching needs to be the whole or a clearly defined part of someone’s job. Teachers with full-time teaching assignments do not have time to provide meaningful help to their colleagues nor do many of them have the teaching or coaching skills to do so.
Releasing talented, full-time classroom teachers for occasional days of coaching only penalizes their students and adds to their workload when they have to prepare for substitutes. And most teachers are unwilling to leave their classrooms frequently enough to provide the consistent support needed by those depending on them.
Administrators do not have the time to truly support new or veteran teachers. All the talk of instructional leadership as the primary role of administrators comes from people who do not understand how utterly consuming are the day to day operations of school. And the fact that administrators statutorily have evaluative responsibilities significantly constrains the limited help they can provide.
Whether with cause or without, most teachers distrust administrator claims that they “just want to help”. It’s like the well worn cartoon, “I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help you.” Teachers just don’t believe it.
Instructional coaches are the best answer to the question, “how do we support meaningful improvements in teacher quality?” A good coaching system would provide high quality support in every building as well as a system of support to help the coaches themselves improve their craft. But such a system is expensive. Even if the coaches are paid on the standard teacher salary schedule, with no premium for the mastery of their craft they should have, they are a non-trivial added expense to already strained district budgets.
There Isn’t Enough Time
Most reports on how to improve schooling call for teachers and administrators to align their teaching with desired system outcomes, learn new skills, change existing practices and attitudes, collaborate with colleagues, participate in new networks, assess student learning in more meaningful ways and manage student performance data.
If you want system change, these recommendations are right on target. The problem is that from the point of view of the practicing teacher and administrator there is not enough time in the school day, week or year to do this work.
An important reality to remember for those who don’t “do” school on a day-to-day basis is that child care is our bottom-line business. Teachers and administrators must be on duty when kids are in school because making sure they are safe while in our care is our legal responsibility. We run the risk of losing our jobs or winding up in jail if students are in school and qualified staff members aren’t with them. Being present with kids, whenever they are present in school, is the defining feature of our professional life.
And kids are present pretty continuously once the school year starts. Parents count on schools to take care of their children Monday through Friday from the start of the school day to its end, except for holidays. For most families, a break in this pattern causes genuine hardship and/or puts children at risk in unsupervised or under-supervised care. School districts do have professional development days and/or late starts/ early releases throughout the school year, but these are squeezed to the absolute minimum in order not to unleash a community backlash that eliminates such professional planning time altogether.
Planning periods do exist, but creating common times for teachers to work together, providing the needed leadership to keep these groups focused and productive and gaining the buy-in of all staff in a building are challenges that only a small percentage of schools have surmounted.
The cycle of the school year is experienced by school staff as a nine-month sprint. From the first days organizing the opening of the school and the re-establishment of school and classroom cultures to the last days celebrating accomplishments and turning in grades, there is little time available for reflecting on ways of doing business differently.
Throw in a crisis or two– a death in the community, particularly egregious discipline issues, an illness or two among core staff – and you have a community that is working pretty damn hard just to stay in place — to do what it has always done, the way it has always done it.
One of my teachers was grateful for winter break so she could go out and buy new underwear and new lipstick. Another staff member scheduled her annual physical on Veteran’s Day because it was the only school holiday that everyone else didn’t shut down as well, and she never felt she could justify taking time off any other day for something that wasn’t an emergency. This is the reality of schooling for dedicated educators.
There are of course teachers who are simply recycling lessons and administrators who are doing the minimum in their sphere. But the slack in the system that exists because these people don’t take their jobs seriously isn’t going to be used by these same people to engage in the school improvement activities recommended by reformers.
Reformers consistently ask teachers and administrators to fix the bicycle while we are riding downhill at full speed. Start-up schools do this for the first couple of years, drawing on the enthusiasm of a new project and the absolute necessity of figuring things out. They simply have to. But when these same start-up staffs are expected to keep up that flat out pace over the long run, they either burn out, quit, or consider unionizing to provide protection from such punishing demands.
New time must found if the work is to be done. But time, as the old saying goes, is money. Additional time for teachers to do school improvement must be paid for. And the system wide improvements that reformers seek can only occur when the vast majority of teachers participate in the renewal work.
But, as we know all too well, extending the paid work time of all teachers in the state has always been and continues to be deemed an unaffordable proposition.
There will always be exceptional schools which defy the patterns I have described. Many small start-ups, like NVHS, maintain a culture of continuous improvement, albeit at a more moderate pace. But the percentage of students served in such schools is tiny compared to those enrolled in conventional neighborhood schools.
We also know that among conventional schools there are those that develop similar cultures of continuous improvement. Reformers typically hold up both of types of exemplars as proof that all schools could do the same. But when we dig a little deeper we usually find that there are specific reasons that the transforming conventional schools do what they do.
Unusual histories, extraordinary leadership of administrators and/or teachers, or other unique factors are usually what make it possible for the exemplary schools to do what they do. That it can be done by some is not the existence proof that some assert. Dramatic change can only reach all schools when they are given the resource-intense conditions needed for change. Otherwise, most schools will simply reproduce the status quo.
To change all the “business as usual” schools will require more time, money and skilled practitioners than we have at our disposal. Perhaps this is why many are talking about intervening only in the relatively small number of schools which are egregiously bad, such as the so called “dropout factories”. But a focus on these schools still faces the considerable challenge of finding high quality teachers, administrators and coaches, as well as the funding to pay for the time that renewal or “turnaround” takes.
Absent a strategy for replacing the entire existing teaching force, changing schools has to be about transforming the teachers we already have as well as those in the teacher pipeline.
Reformers seem to forget that just as the deep cognitive and behavioral transformation that they want for every child only occurs when individual students are carefully nurtured by good teachers, so too, real cognitive and behavioral transformation of teachers requires individual nurturing by those I have been calling coaches. And just as we have a shortage of good teachers for kids, we probably have a shortage of good coaches (as well as an absence of coaching conditions) for teachers.
These are not particularly happy thoughts. But knowing what I do about the day-to-day work life of teachers and administrators, there are no cheap, effective and efficient strategies to get the schools we say we want. Pulling policy levers won’t do the trick when we are trying to change complex, habitual behaviors. Neither will exhortation, shaming or punishment.
I wish I had different news to bring from the frontlines. I’m sure you do too.
 New Vista is a small, innovative high school of choice within Boulder Valley School District. It is not a charter school. The school opened in 1993 to provide a non-traditional option for secondary students. It serves a heterogeneous population and is not designed for at-risk students.
 Joyce, B. & Showers, B. (1995). Student achievement through staff development (2nd ed.) New York: Longman.
 A back of the envelope calculation suggests that if a half time coach was the right size for New Vista’s 25 probationary, non-probationary and student teachers (including those on less than full time contracts), then BVSD would need the equivalent of 38 coaches for its almost 1900 full and part time teachers. Using only the average cost of a teacher, which is probably low for the actual salary and benefit costs of the people who should be hired as coaches, providing enough coaches for the system, and support for the coaches themselves, would cost over $2.5 million That is an expense that neither BVSD, nor any other district in Colorado can (proportionately) afford.
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