Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Greatest Barrier to Instructional Effectiveness

I am one of the lucky ones. In my 28 years as an elementary teacher, I have been encouraged and challenged by professionals who work hard to improve their instructional skills. At my current school, we share ideas, analyze data, observe one another in action, and collaborate with colleagues in other grade levels to find innovative solutions to instructional challenges. It's like being on the Dream PLC.

Unfortunately, not all teachers experience that kind of collegial support.  Many teachers find themselves left to solve the mysteries of teaching alone, especially in their first few years. The remote location of classrooms, tight schedules, and considerable work loads all contribute to a teacher's isolation at work. Teachers who work independently, often veteran teachers, may settle into a stagnant routine, one that is dangerously comfortable. This not only slows the progress of a teacher's instructional skills, even worse, it limits student learning. When instructional coaches or administrators do try to get these isolated teachers to try new strategies, they are often greeted with resistance.

For me, isolation is the greatest barrier to instructional effectiveness. However, teachers spend at least ninety percent of the school day in class with their students. How can we bridge the gap between classroom instruction and professional collaboration?

Formal Teacher Leadership Roles

In my experience, it is a lack of properly funded and structured Teacher Leadership positions that has contributed to the prevalence of isolated teachers. Teaching is often an overwhelming responsibility. It is difficult for school assigned mentors to find time during the day to work with their colleagues. By creating hybrid positions of leadership, teacher leaders have flexibility to work with even the most resistant teachers during the school day when instruction is in progress. Distributed models of leadership have the power to make connections and build trust with isolated teachers in every school.

Holding All Teachers Accountable for Professional Collaboration

An isolated teacher is not always given specific feedback by administrators within the teacher evaluation process, and this enables the teacher's choice to work alone. As in most states, the Utah Effective Teaching Standards clearly specify the expectations of educator reflection and collaboration in Standard 8: Reflection & Continuous Growth, and Standard 9: Leadership & Collaboration. Administrators must hold teachers accountable for these two standards when giving evaluative feedback. While we know that punitive consequences do not always encourage participation, authentic scoring on evaluations can initiate a reflective conversation with those teachers who resist working with others. Administrators must take the time to actually have this conversation. As in any profession, all teachers should be held to the expectations of collaboration, and the evaluation process can be a useful tool.

Targeted Professional Learning

Effective schools and administrators also use Targeted Professional Learning that is based on a Professional Growth Plan and Evaluation Feedback. This process includes a collaborative grade level or subject team, formally referred to as a PLC - Professional Learning Community - that attempts new strategies by sharing ideas, analyzing data and implementing observational feedback to improve student learning. Targeted Professional Learning engages teachers in problem solving during the school day and allows them the flexibility to visit other classrooms. This kind of embedded professional development breaks the isolated tendency of teaching and can serve as a catalyst for professional engagement.

Collective Effort

Instructional practice improves when teachers are treated professionally and work in a supportive environment...but it takes the efforts of many to make the needed changes:

Administrators cannot rely on the considerate teacher down the hall who takes time to connect with novice teachers and others detached from their colleagues... they must offer time and support for teachers to observe instructional strategies during the school day.

Teachers cannot wait for hybrid Teacher Leadership positions or embedded PLC's... they must take the initiative to get out of their 'caves' and investigate strategies with other colleagues.

Policy makers, professional associations and administrators must work collectively to fund and implement distributed leadership positions and embedded collaboration time for every school.

Our students deserve models within our schools that ensure effective instruction!


  1. The cage-busting teacher! Thanks for these thoughts, Allison!

    1. It's Anna B. Don't know why it doesn't recognize my googly self.

    2. Thanks, Anna! I find this to be an important conversation, one that I wish would be discussed openly more often.