Category Archives: professional culture

Breaking Down Classroom Doors: The Role Leaders Play

Peer observation has long been seen as a pivot point for the improvement of teaching and learning, but seldom has the role of building leaders to get that started been examined.

Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers (1990) coined the term “public teaching” 35 years ago. It refers to teachers teaching in the presence of peers and having productive conversations afterward. Richard Elmore (2008) wrote some years ago that “it is virtually impossible for teachers to improve their practice if they can’t watch each other teach.” There are many echoes of that sentiment back over the decades. For example, Heibert, Gallimore and Stigler (Ed Week, Nov 6, 2003) wrote, “The process starts by learning to analyze the details of ordinary classroom instruction, with all its warts and foibles, and then learning to see more effective ways of teaching. But to do this, to even begin down this path, teachers must be willing to open their doors. They must be willing to allow others to use their lessons as data that can be examined and discussed . . . a professional activity open to collective observations, study, and improvement.”

There is evidence that when peer observation is frequent, student achievement rises beyond expectations (see the decades-long track record of Elmont Jr.-Sr. High school in Nassau County, N.Y. featured on The Education Trust website).

In order to support frequent peer observation, teachers must believe they can be vulnerable in front of their colleagues without being judged or disdained. Some lessons will not go as planned; that is inevitable. Mistakes are opportunities for learning, and surprises are routine! So, to create the conditions of basic trust for peer observation to be effective, leaders need to model vulnerability themselves.

Safety to be vulnerable is the liberator. To be sure, if my leader does not have basic competence to keep the wheels turning (student entry and dismissal, cafeteria behavior) then I won’t have trust, to say nothing of respect. The same goes for having my back with parent complaints. But if that leader also builds trust that it will be safe to be vulnerable in front of peers, then the pathway is open. Such trust building begins when the leader is willing to model it herself.

The take-off point for the improvement of teaching in a building is the willingness to be vulnerable in front of one another so that we can go deeply into problem-solving and the inventive thinking and sharing among staff that goes with it. In addition, the parallel job of leaders is to acknowledge the complexity of teaching and the huge range of knowledge and skills that are continually learned over one’s career. Learning is never done.

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The Mirage Report

The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development, a new report from The New Teacher Project (TNTP), should be much discussed. It is a study of teacher professional development that surfaces stark data about the failure of an $18 billion dollar investment to have much influence, according to school administrators, on improving most teachers’ practice.

Learning Forward (formerly the National Staff Development Council) responds by accepting TNTP’s recommendations and adds that they are “not surprised that someone would call effective professional learning a mirage at this point…while we have thought for  years that we know what it takes to help people improve, the evidence doesn’t support it”. While it is true that there isn’t much empirical evidence to support our effectiveness in helping people improve, it doesn’t mean we don’t know how! The Mirage report reinforces that we do know what it takes:

  • All staff share a “vividly clear vision of instructional excellence that can be observed and measured” (p.35).
  • The bar set by this vision of excellent instruction is high, “an ambitious standard”…higher than what is tolerated in most schools in the United States (p. 35).
  • Teachers get weekly feedback about where they stand in relation to that high bar from trusted leaders, and debriefing from his or her coach for 30-45 minutes (p. 32).
  • The feedback is honest, rigorous and viewed as credible by the teachers (implications for training and certification of coaches and evaluators!). There are clear assessments without blame about their strengths and weakness for all teachers, as opposed to being “told in innumerable ways that their level of performance is good enough” which is what happens in most American districts (p. 36).
  • A culture of continuous learning about a complex knowledge and skill base where everyone is expected to improve no matter how experienced or high performing they already are. 80% of the teachers acknowledged they still had room to improve (p. 32).
  • Teachers spend two to three hours a week with other teachers reflecting on instructional practices (p. 32).
  • “Everyone in their school community is constantly working toward better instruction and pushing each other to do their best work…there is always going to be somebody to push you. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stagnate here” (p. 31).
  • There is “a culture and organizational structure centered on teacher development and its impact on student learning” (p. 33).

These are school settings that “make a more fundamental shift in mindset and define ‘helping teachers improve’…[as] providing them with information, conditions, and a culture [ital. not in original] that facilitate growth and normalize continuous improvement” (p. 35). Strong Adult Professional Culture (see my blog post of June 22, 2015) is the surround-sound that empowers professional learning. It’s not a mystery; and not something we haven’t known for a long time. It appears that we have to keep reminding ourselves what we know works. An important question is: what prevents us from doing it? How do we close the “Knowing-Doing Gap”?

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The Interpersonal Skills Leaders Use to Build Trust

“Trust” is the foundation that successful leaders build on to create strong Adult Professional Cultures. The following list of skills that successful leaders use to build trust. They are derived primarily from the book  Trust in Schools by Tony Bryk and Barbara Schneider.

Group Of Business People Are Focused On The Job

A leader who strengthens Adult Professional Culture builds trust  by:

  • Being competent;
  • Always keeping his/her word;
  • Being considerate and polite;
  • Being visible frequently in halls and classrooms;
  • Listening actively and having productive conversations with teachers;
  • Respecting different points of view;
  • Being transparent and forthcoming with information about what is going on, how processes work, and how decisions are made;
  • Revealing his or her own vulnerability to make it safe for others to make mistakes;
  • Participating actively as a learner in professional development;
  • Demonstrating sincerity, reliability, and integrity;
  • Standing up consistently for important values and commitments;
  • Protecting staff from the destructive behavior of others.

In sum, great leaders show vulnerability and strength at the same time. They show vulnerability by acknowledging their mistakes, what they don’t know and need help with; and strength in consistently standing up for and pushing for core values and commitments that are most important for student success.

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How Do Leaders Build the Norms of Strong Adult Professional Culture?

A district or school leader’s ability to build and maintain the norms of strong Adult Professional Culture is critical to the successful functioning of the organization. It requires that leaders do several things consistently as illustrated below:




Leaders need to articulate what the important norms are, model them, and make sure that the conditions are in place to facilitate them for everyone. Staff need reinforcement to change their behavior. Change is not easy; it needs time and sustained support to take hold. Once it does, the organization can expect to reap the benefits of collaboration, mutual respect, and collective effectiveness.

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12 Observable Features of a Strong Adult Professional Culture

Adult Students In Class With Teacher Helping (Selective Focus)The strength of Adult Professional Culture is a direct predictor of how well a school will meet the educational needs of its students. So, how do you know if you have a strong adult professional culture in your school building or district?

Based on a synthesis of research over the last 30 years, I have identified the following twelve observable characteristics that are present when a strong adult professional culture is firmly in place. You can use this as a checklist to evaluate or survey your own professional culture to identify your areas of strength and weakness.

  1. It is safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of your colleagues?
  2. We engage in non-defensive self-examination of our teaching practice in relation to student results.
  3. We consistently use data to re-focus teaching.
  4. Other teachers and administrators frequently observe our teaching.
  5. We are continuously learning about High-Expertise Teaching.
  6. We engage in deep collaboration and deliberate design to facilitate  interdependent work, and we take joint responsibility for student results.
  7. We are committed to implementing the “Smart is something you can get” mindset in classroom practice, class structures, and school policies and procedures.
  8. We have both urgency and press to better support academically our less advantaged students.
  9. We are able to have honest, open communication and difficult conversations.
  10. We feel appreciated and recognized as professionals.
  11. Our standards for teaching expertise are high and demanding for all teachers.
  12. Decision-making is clear and has legitimacy.


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