Good principals must help teachers find their strengths

You know, it may sound odd, but ever since the DoEECD has begun talking about standards for teachers, I have been somewhat distracted by the notion.

It is hard to argue with the idea of setting standards for a profession as important as teaching. Even teachers themselves, or should I say, especially teachers, see the inherent logic. Having said this, I do have some reservations. Certainly, having standards implemented by this particular government, (see: attacks on collective bargaining, implications of patronage appointments, etc) leaves a rather sour taste.

The bigger issue for me, however, revolves around the implementation process. The Minister herself has stated that the standards will be connected to the performance evaluation of teachers. One wonders how these standards will be applied, and what expectations will exist for administrators to ensure the standard is upheld.

Well, with those thoughts swirling around in my summer muddled brain I recently had the lucky circumstance of spending a few days focussing rather closely on the question of what makes a “quality teacher,” and how good administrators can help those of us in the classroom get better at the job.

On August 11th and 12th, I was one of about 100 school principals, vice principals and department heads who gathered in Dartmouth to attend a seminar offered up by educator turned educational consultant Mike Rutherford. The session was part of a program offered through a partnership between The Nova Scotia Educational Leadership Consortium (NSELC) and the Nova Scotia Instructional Leadership Academy (NSILA). The three-year program is heavily based on Rutherford’s work, and is, essentially, designed to help administrators get better at supporting teachers.

Rutherford’s seminal work “The Artisan Teacher”  is based on tens of thousands of observations done by Rutherford and his associates of good teaching practice. His methodology was relatively simple. He sent folks out into schools and asked principals to identify two or three effective teachers within their buildings. Those teachers were closely observed in their everyday teaching practice and Rutherford was able to identify 23 recurring things, or themes, that good teachers do to be effective.

The themes are divided broadly into three categories; the Technical Work of teaching, the Scientific Aspect of teaching and, finally, the Artistic Nature of teaching, and within these 23 themes, there is something for everyone.

For example, teachers who like to have clear learning targets on their white boards and develop step by step lessons would recognize many of their classroom practices under the Technical Work category. For those who have a knack of connecting the lesson to the lives of their students and have a relaxed but engaging classroom, the Scientific Aspect category identifies several such practices. Finally, the Artistic Nature category gives just as much credibility to such things as “Stage Craft” and “Personal Presence” as it does to well designed lesson plans.

Now, the interesting thing about much of this work is that the model is not meant to be part of a formal evaluation. Rather than being evaluative and punitive, the 23 themes are meant to be guiding and supportive. They are designed, essentially, to provide a framework within which school administrators can help teachers identify their individual strengths, and to help them improve in their craft.

Now, this is rather a departure, at least in my experience, from traditional notions of classroom observation, and after the session was done, I had a chance to sit down with Dr. Rutherford and ask him his about his take on current teacher evaluation processes. Rutherford explained that although many teaching evaluation tools are supposedly designed to encourage teacher growth, they often fall short of that mark. In modern education vernacular, teacher evaluation processes tend to be more summative than formative.

Dr. Rutherford went on to draw an analogy between teaching and sports. He explained that accountability of players for their individual performance is certainly important, but there is only so good a player can be if the playbook is lousy. There is also the variable of how  players are positioned. A natural goalie is probably going to be a pretty horrible left winger. In Rutherford’s mind, although principals have little control over things like the curriculum (the playbook) and teacher qualifications (where they are positioned), it is, ultimately, their job to try to help teachers get as good as they can within the confines of that system, much like the coach of a sports team.

This idea of working within as opposed to fighting against the system is a key element of Rutherford’s work. During the two-day conference, Rutherford spent a great deal of time on what he calls “The Logic Model” as an approach to surviving as an administrator. In essence, The Logic Model goes something like this:

Life is busy. Thus,  administrators should learn to spend their energy on what matters most. Since what matters most in education is quality teaching, administrators should focus on developing staff.

Now, if I had spent two beautiful days of my August to get that somewhat obvious message, I would have wanted my money back. But those are only the first three elements in Rutherford’s plan. What comes next, Rutherford admits, is less soundly based in research, but is really the crux of his work on improving teaching quality.

After an administrator accepts these first three truths, the next step is to help teachers identify their talents, and build on their strengths. The way to increase teacher capacity is through coaching to those strengths using a variety of positive feedback methods. As teachers get more comfortable in their area of strength, they develop a growth mindset which will soon create a “growth culture” within schools.

So instead of having administrators going into classrooms looking for what is wrong with a teacher’s practice, the administrator goes in looking for what is right, and helps the teacher get better at the good stuff, rather than focussing on the bad.

Now, that is not to say that deficiencies are not addressed, but they are addressed with an eye to improving. And, in the absence of good teaching practice there is still a role for holding teachers accountable. However, Rutherford refers to his 23 themes and asks administrators to accept that no teacher, in any building, is going to be excellent in them all. He also asks them to accept that, in any building, every teacher will have certain themes in which they excel, and certain themes in which they have no natural talent. Focussing on themes of deficiency in staff instead of capitalizing on their strengths is, according to Rutherford, counter productive.

And, as the name suggests, there is logic in that train of thought. To run the risk of over analogizing, it does not make a great deal of sense for a hockey coach to focus on the fact that his goalie can’t take a slap shot.

I must admit to being quite smitten with Rutherford’s work. One of my great hang ups about education is, of course, how often teachers are asked to do things to satisfy someone else’s idea of “the right way”. From report cards to lesson planning, there is often a great deal of pressure brought to bear on the classroom teacher to conform. And, to some extent, I see the sense in that. Afterall, the employer signs my paycheque; if the Minister of Education wants me to write my report cards in crayon, I should probably dust off my Crayolas. However, as I listened to Dr. Rutherford speak and then chatted with him afterwards, I was struck by the blinding simplicity of his approach.

Much like good teachers try to focus as best they can on the individual strengths of students in their classroom, so, too, should administrators try to focus on the individual strengths of teachers within their schools. Success breeds success. Get a kid feeling good about their learning and you can move them forward.

The same, of course, can be said for teachers.

As we wrapped up our chat, I asked Dr. Rutherford for one final word of advice for administrators for the coming school year. He replied “Always be getting better at the things that matter the most. In education, that is developing staff. Help teachers get better at the craft of teaching by helping them find their individual strengths.”

Here’s hoping that the new standards of teaching excellence allow school administrators to do just that.



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Filed under Education Policy, Educational Change, Educational commentary, Public education, Quality education, Standards, Teacher certification, Teacher Training

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