Creating a Culture of Teacher Learning
Teachers and administrators at San Francisco Friends School (SFFS) liked each other and often worked together. They partnered on various school initiatives, and teachers had lots of opportunities for professional development. But happy teachers who enjoy working together are not indicative of a learning culture. I’m familiar with this notion—I spent 10 years teaching and five years as an administrator. Now, as an education researcher, I leverage my background and interest in the relational aspects of learning to discover how schools can create cultures where teachers and administrators learn from and challenge each other.
When administrators at SFFS read my Educational Leadership article “Instructional Capacity: How to Build it Right,” they were introduced to a school where teachers regularly asked one another questions about their teaching, examined student work for evidence of learning, and provided each other with constructive feedback. SFFS administrators were inspired.
To cultivate teacher learning at SFFS, administrators and teachers studied more examples of teacher collaboration at other schools and worked together over the course of the 2018–2019 school year to make some changes of their own. After implementing a new model for professional development, leaders observed that teachers now seem to feel, behave, and relate to each other differently than before. Everyone’s leaning in, listening, and asking questions.
Setting the Standards
In a November 2018 workshop that I led during a professional development day at SFFS, teachers read about and discussed professional collaboration at two middle schools (the names have been changed to protect their privacy) that I studied and wrote about. At Cedar Bridge Middle School, teachers routinely met in the library by subject and grade-level teams to review student work for evidence of learning and to inform decisions about instruction. At Liberty Middle School, teachers also met by subject and grade-level teams, but they did so in classrooms, without administrator involvement or looking at student work.
The descriptions of the two different learning cultures provided external standards for comparison from which SFFS could assess the quality of its own learning culture. SFFS used a conceptual map that shows the features inherent in schools where practitioners continuously improve their teaching. When asked which school resembled their own, most SFFS teachers and administrators selected Liberty, the school with the weaker learning culture.
Building a Learning Culture
Teachers and administrators agreed that they wanted to strengthen the teacher learning culture at SFFS. As a starting point, they decided to look more closely at the context (why, what, who, how) of their biweekly teacher meetings and considered how they’d restructure that time. Knowing why they met would inform what they’d do, with whom, and in what way.
They wanted the purpose of regular meetings to be to look at student work together and learn from one another. Teachers would be grouped according to grade level and subject matter. Groups would range from three to seven people. Teachers would use a protocol to notice specific ways in which instructional choices were related to student learning. The protocol would ask participants to make claims about the level of student understanding and to support these claims with specific evidence from student work. Participants would also consider the instructional implications of their analysis of student understanding.
After the November workshop, with a shared vision in mind, teachers and administrators established the collaborative meeting structure they envisioned. In addition to regular staff meetings, teacher groups now look at student work together three different times in close succession during the year. Each teacher meeting features:
- All group members bring samples of student work (e.g., work samples, audio and video recordings, or transcribed student conversations).
- Groups meet in a common space, so everyone can see that every group is engaged in the same activities.
- SFFS administrators fan out among the groups and participate in the discussions as group members, not as leaders or facilitators.
Student Work as Evidence
In one conversation among kindergarten teachers about a student’s understanding of capital letter usage, a colleague noticed a pattern the presenting teacher had missed. Although capitals and lowercase letters were used in different places, a capital letter was used at the start of each word, which seemed to suggest a beginning understanding. This observation, along with others, slowed this teacher down to look more closely at what the student was doing, which informed the teacher’s next conversation with this student.
Teachers return to subsequent meetings, about a week a part, with new samples of student work to show their instructional adjustments and consider how student performance was affected. These meetings, with their embedded routines, support different kinds of conversations among SFFS educators. Now, they talk in more concrete ways about instructional decisions, the effects of those decisions on student learning, and what counts as genuine evidence of student understanding. They look closely at their own and each other’s assignments and assessments to consider the learning opportunity each task offers. They think about how accessible their tasks are to each learner. They examine the cognitive demands of assignments and discuss how often students are able, or expected, to bring their ideas and methods of inquiry to their work.
Assessing the Outcomes
I recently asked SFFS administrators and other school leaders what advice they had for schools considering their teaching cultures. They said to:
Administrators at SFFS said the changed location and structure of their meetings—having all teacher groups meet in one common space, sit at round tables, and use a common protocol to guide conversation—made a big difference.
- be honest about a school’s existing state;
- be prepared for small structural adjustments to result in big cultural changes—ones that may be necessary to achieve a desired state; and
- be willing to ask questions: How often do teachers and administrators spend time looking at what students make and do together? What have you and your colleagues noticed about how particular students learn or when they don’t? Have those insights influenced instructional practice?
Because the administrators dispersed themselves among the groups and had a participant role by design, they could join in the learning. They observed firsthand some of the activity design challenges, such as the music and physical education teachers’ struggles to figure out how to bring samples of student work to the meetings. Through ongoing conversation, administrators suggested that some teachers use audio and video recordings of student work, such as samples of student conversations and performances.
Administrators want all teachers to experience the meetings as precious opportunities for their learning. In these ways, SFFS has reoriented and recommitted educators to work toward excellent teaching and to see doing so as a collaborative undertaking.