As a middle school principal serving on the Kentucky Task Force for Professional Learning, a Learning Forward initiative to develop a statewide, comprehensive professional learning system to support Kentucky's implementation of Common Core State Standards, I quickly saw the need for revising professional learning in our schools, beginning with a change in our vocabulary — replacing professional development with professional learning. When combined with the introduction and deconstruction of the Common Core, the term professional learning suggests the learning culture is continuous through collaborative learning teams or study teams that focus on teacher knowledge, skills, and instruction, thus improving academic achievement. When I consider what this shift means for me as the school leader, I see that professional learning redefines the role of the principal in three key areas:
Use data-driven decision making
To determine the skills needed to improve academic achievement in my building, I needed to concentrate on the data resources available to determine the skills lacking in my building in order to improve academic achievement. It is essential to develop a culture that is receptive to change. A principal must be able to establish a collaborative team to analyze data. Our data team determined our highest priority need, which was teacher instruction. The team met with each department chairperson to share and analyze the data. I used professional learning time to discuss and formulate teacher priorities for learning. Teachers worked individually and collaboratively, in grade-level teams and departments, creating a new vision for our school.
As a staff, we began developing the skills and strategies necessary to support our vision. All stakeholders agreed that instructional skills such as assessment, standards-based grading, higher-ordered questioning skills, and curriculum alignment of the Common Core standards should be addressed. I led two book studies, Classroom Assessment for Student Learning and Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning during our Monday professional learning and Tuesday team meetings. Our district conducted two instructional rounds to determine the level of rigor and student engagement in the classrooms. My assistant principal, instructional coach, and I frequently visited classrooms providing feedback to improve instruction. Teachers observed instruction at elementary and high school levels, and grade-level teams observed other grade-level teachers in our building.
Build a continuous learning culture
Change is inevitable. It is my responsibility to manage that change and devote time to develop confidence and growth in each staff member. Change was definitely a measure of our culture this school year; we had 18 new teachers, nine of whom just concluded their student teaching. It was important to provide the support they needed to be successful. Each teacher had a mentor, college resource teacher, and me to cry, laugh, or holler with during the year. Relationships developed between the principal and the teaching staff have become a dynamic part of the puzzle when analyzing instruction, knowledge, or pedagogy. The trust between teachers and instructional leaders provided a positive foundation for goal setting, constructive feedback, and self-evaluation, ensuring student achievement.
All teachers met with me individually to discuss professional growth plans for the new school year; we used data from observations, district rounds, and self-reflection to develop one individual improvement goal and the strategies needed to meet the goal. Teachers then created another goal using the data that reflected team, department, or school initiatives. Teachers will continually monitor their progress toward individual goals as well as school goals, making adjustments when needed throughout the year.
Overall, through this experience with the task force, I have learned that professional learning must be a growth process that is data-based, student-focused, and continuous. It should provide teachers the opportunities to observe exemplary teaching, collaborate with other teachers, provide resources for growth, provide time to analyze data and plan instructional strategies, and opportunities to attend outside professional learning as well as embedded learning. In order for principals to achieve the tasks required for today's demands, such as Common Core implementation, the mindset shift must be consistent with the work required if all students are expected to achieve college- and career-ready standards.
Principal, Tichenor Middle School
Erlanger-Ellsmere School District, KY