This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of HaYidion, Prizmah’s magazine, on the theme of Excellence. Reprinted by permission.
Cultivating pedagogic excellence in teachers clearly impacts students, schools and the field of Jewish day school education. While no two Jewish day schools share the exact same goals and approaches for educational content outcomes, all schools do share the same goals of reaching and teaching all of their students. Helping teachers grow from good to great to excellent can be achieved when a number of conditions are in place to support teacher growth. At the core is a school culture of learning, innovation and collaboration, along with school leaders who invest in and support teacher growth. Standards-based peer coaching or mentoring is an essential component as well.
At the Jewish New Teacher Project (JNTP), we have spent over a decade helping beginning teachers in Jewish day schools increase their effectiveness, confidence and commitment to teaching through intensive standards-based mentoring. Our New Teacher Induction program is based on the proven, validated work of our parent organization, New Teacher Center (NTC), an award-winning national organization leading the field in new teacher and new principal support in public schools across the country.
We define excellence in teaching not as an endpoint, but rather as a process. Beginning teachers strive to master techniques such as classroom management, effective lesson planning, and differentiation. Veteran teachers, even after mastering these basic elements of teaching, continue to learn and grow, to innovate, and always strive to be better. In a recent blog entitled “Highly Effective Teachers are Never Done Learning,” Liam Goldrick, director of policy at New Teacher Center, writes, “The truth is that great teachers aren’t born and are never completely ‘made’—but continuously develop over the course of their careers. There is no such thing as a finished product when it comes to highly effective teachers. Talented, experienced teachers are reflective, curious and persistent. Like their students, they are learners, too.”
Excellence in teaching doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We have learned in our work partnering with more than 100 Jewish day schools across the country over the past decade, and through research in the field, that the following elements foster the cultivation of excellent teachers—teachers who are committed, innovative and constantly growing.
Supportive School Leadership
Teachers thrive in an environment where the message from the school’s leadership is, “We want you to succeed, and we will do everything we can to help support your success.” Principals can contribute to a teacher’s success in many ways, from establishing and consistently implementing a vision, to setting policies, providing resources, developing curriculum, etc. Paramount to communicating this message is the creation of a positive culture of support, with formative as well as summative assessment and opportunities for professional development. That includes being present in teachers’ classrooms via formal and informal observations, providing feedback, and setting aside time for teachers to create goals and reflect on practice. As Paul Bambrick-Santoyo writes (“Teacher Evaluation: What’s Fair? What’s Effective?”), “The key driver of teacher development isn’t accurate measurement of teachers’ performance. It’s guidance on exactly how to improve.”
Culture, Climate and Working Conditions
Positive school culture, climate and working conditions are fundamental to fostering the achievement of excellence. All members of a school community respond to an environment which is supportive, optimistic, productive, and in which there are positive presuppositions about student and staff potential to learn and grow. A culture in which there is open communication, positive relationships and high expectations creates an ongoing learning community. The following are some aspects of a positive culture.
In Talk About Teaching, Charlotte Danielson writes, “The first, and some would argue the most important, characteristic of a school making progress toward improved student learning is that the leader has established an atmosphere of trust: trust among teachers and between teachers and administrators.” Trust, indicated by the willingness of teachers to be vulnerable and open, is a foundation for growth. In an NTC survey on working conditions in the nation’s schools entitled Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning (TELL), data indicate that one of the highest predictors of student achievement is the level of trust and mutual respect at a school.
Collaboration and collegiality are also at the core of a learning and growth environment. Teachers don’t function best in isolation. Few professionals do. Collaborating around best practices, student work, student interactions and more creates a community of learners and an environment of sharing, expanding vision and perspective. De-privatizing teacher practice is empowering and validating, encourages risk-taking and results in growth. Teachers need permission and a safe framework in which to experiment with ideas, receive feedback, and examine their practice in deep and open ways.
Ongoing Professional Development and Reflective Practice
Teachers cannot advance in their pursuit of excellence unless they are stimulated and challenged by new learning. In Improving Schools from Within, Roland Barth writes, “Nothing within a school has more impact upon students in terms of skills development, self‐confidence, or classroom behavior than the personal and professional growth of their teachers. When teachers examine, question, reflect on their ideas and develop new practices that lead towards their ideas, students are alive. When teachers stop growing, so do their students.” Professional development that is job-embedded, consistent, ongoing and relevant empowers teachers to own their own learning and direct their own growth. As a result, teachers gain self-confidence and perceive themselves as professional educators. Not only do students feel the impact, but the dialogue among faculty is transformed.
Standards and Goals
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
A set of professional teaching standards (such as Danielson, Marzano, or a school’s own set) provides both a roadmap and a destination for teachers. Teaching standards are a clear, objective articulation of what excellence in teaching looks like and sounds like in its highest form. Pedagogic standards also provide teachers and supervisors with a shared language and understanding of expectations as well as the basis for performance evaluation.
Professional teaching standards, along with a process for setting professional goals, can help advance teacher practice, which in turn advances student learning. Teachers benefit from knowing what to strive for in order to reach mastery and excellence. Teachers can self-assess on the standards, identify areas of strength and growth, and set goals. Based on the standards, teachers can target areas they would like to develop and strengthen. They can measure their own growth against their own goals. These goals can serve as a frame for supervisors as well as for colleagues to use during observations to collect data and offer feedback or evaluation. Attainment of early goals contributes to a feeling of success and empowers teachers to set new goals for further growth.
Intensive Mentoring and Peer Coaching
Colleagues’ support of each other’s practice is a key component of cultivating excellence in teachers. Peer mentors or coaches can develop and nurture reflective, problem-solving, collaborative habits of practice. A mentor or coach can help teachers—and especially beginning teachers, as we’ve seen in our work—strive toward excellence by guiding them through the transition from being a reactive instructor to a reflective instructor.
To work optimally, peer mentoring/coaching pairs need dedicated time and space for self-assessing professional practice on a continuum of professional teaching standards, goal-setting, discussing classroom observations, collecting and analyzing observation data, sharing feedback, reflecting, and looking at student work. This, of course, aligns with the need for a positive, growth-oriented school culture and having a set of teaching standards and goals toward which to strive.
These elements of fostering teacher growth apply to teachers at all stages of their careers, from beginning to veteran teachers. In practice, utilizing a standards-based peer mentoring program can play out differently among teachers with different levels of experience.
Beginning teachers, even those with formal teaching degrees, do not yet have the experience necessary to cultivate excellence in their classrooms. Regardless of the preparation and support that many teachers receive before they begin their first job, nothing compares to the actual on-the-job learning that takes place in the first few years of teaching. It is during these critical first years that teachers develop habits of practice that endure throughout their careers. As we have seen in our work, a set of teaching standards against which to self-assess and set goals for growth, coupled with an intensive mentoring program based on weekly classroom observations and data collection, can accelerate a beginning teacher’s practice exponentially. Beginning teachers are hungry for support and crave feedback. Providing beginning teachers with a safe space to reflect on their practice accelerates their learning, improves their teaching practice, and gives them a sense of belonging, resulting in higher levels of motivation to stay in their jobs and strive for excellence.
More seasoned teachers often have already set their habits of practice, yet many recognize that there is always room for improvement and growth. Especially with new educational trends such as the use of technology in the classroom and Common Core, even the most seasoned teachers have learning opportunities and growth edges. With experienced teachers, it is especially important to communicate a message of positive support for learning without criticizing current or past practices. Mentoring may take the form of Instructional Coaching, which is less time-intensive and tied to new content acquisition or the shifting of established pedagogic practices.
Pedagogic excellence in teaching is a process, not endpoint. Both novice and seasoned teachers alike can strive for and achieve excellence by engaging in iterative learning cycles of goal-setting and reflection. Supportive school leadership, an environment that cultivates and rewards inquiry and learning, and standards-based peer mentoring are essential ingredients for fostering teacher growth. When these elements are in place, not only do our teachers benefit, but, most importantly, so do our students.
Amy Golubtchik Ament is associate director, Yael Adler Bailey is communications director, Nina Bruder is director, and Fayge Safran is senior program director at JNTP, the Jewish New Teacher Project of the New Teacher Center. email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Suggested Resources: Teaching and Learning