I grew up on a farm in the high desert of central Oregon. My family mainly grew alfalfa hay, but also crops from bluegrass seed to wheat to peppermint oil, (which I cared for as my FFA project). The success of our crops depended tremendously on our ability to create the best possible conditions for our crops to grow. We monitored the weather and adjusted irrigation schedules to compensate for drought or wind. We monitored the soil for parasites, and would spend long dusty days “picking rock” to ensure the ground was free of stones that would inhibit root growth.
Now, more than 20 years after moving off of the farm, I’m part of growing something different: My role as a teacher and leader puts me in the position to cultivate young learners as well as the accomplished professionals who teach them. In the end, my goal is improved outcomes for kids through improved practice from adults.
Typically when we think about school improvement, we think about data, mandates, and accountability. Often when schools need to improve, we neglect to consider the conditions necessary for this improvement to take root. Instead, what I often see is a loud and urgent demand to improve, without attention to the conditions that need to be in place for our aims to be accomplished. For me, my farm upbringing provides an apt metaphor that might lead us to rethink this sort of emphasis. Obviously, threats of accountability don’t mean much to a field of growing alfalfa. However, attention to the conditions in which the crops grow will bring about the success of a farm.
My district is part of the National Board’s Network to Transform Teaching (NT3) project, whose aim is to work to ensure that every child has access to accomplished teachers. To grow accomplished teachers and accomplished teaching, the environment matters.
In our work to foster system-wide improvement, we’ve adapted concepts from this article about the conditions for collaborative inquiry (from the Canadian Education Association) to help us guide improvement at all levels of our system. For my work with the NT3 grant, these are the conditions I help to create so that accomplished teaching can grow and flourish.
Condition #1: Structural Supports
These supports are the simplest to identify: the time and the physical resources to get the work done. For cultivating accomplished teaching, this means time in the work day for collaboration, reflection, and analysis of practice. It also means access to the National Board “Body of Knowledge,” which is the research-based description of accomplished teaching that is detailed in the NBPTS Five Core Propositions, Architecture of Accomplished Teaching, and Content Area Standards.
Systems often stop once Structural Supports are in place. However, time and resources are rarely enough to ensure sustained growth and improvement. This leads me to the next condition:
Condition #2: Learning and Process Supports
Once we have the time and the materials, how we interact with the work matters. In many cases, we need guidance and facilitation to make the most of our time and materials. Learning and process supports might include coaching, peer facilitation, group protocols, or guided reading scaffolds that can help us as learners refine our practice toward accomplished teaching. I think about how long those new ELA Common Core Standards sat on our desks or were pushed around the table at our PLC meetings. It wasn’t until we had a solid strategy for interacting with those standards that they started to have meaning in our practice.
Condition #3: Social-Emotional Supports
This work of bettering our practice is hard work. And it is personal work. Truthfully examining one’s own practice, particularly through the lens of the Body of Knowledge, involves risk and vulnerability. If a teacher is operating in an environment that doesn’t welcome risk or learn from failure, then taking that big step toward changing one’s practice isn’t likely to happen. Further, if the conditions persist where change to new, improved practices is perceived as an indictment of current practices, then people will be all the more reticent to consider the stretch necessary for growth.
Condition #4: Teacher Ownership and Agency
We know that teaching rarely really sticks if the learner does not feel empowered to use what they’ve learned. The same is true with developing one’s practice toward the standards of accomplished teaching. When the workplace conditions make a teacher feel micro-managed, controlled, and unable to exercise their creative muscles in planning and implementation, we cannot expect to see teaching grow and improve. When teachers feel like they are empowered to learn and make authentic, meaningful choices in their work, then we are providing the conditions for growth.
These four conditions can easily be mapped to the classroom, a grade level or department, a school, right on up to district systems. Through my district’s work and our NT3 project, we’re focusing on how we create the systemic conditions for accomplished teaching to grow. Mandates and accountability measures are the realities of public schools, but these aren’t what foster growth. When we focus on the conditions, our yields are greatest and most enduring.