Leading for Professional Learning:
What successful principals do to support teaching practice
By Anneke Markholt, Joanna Michelson, and Stephen Fink
This is a great book about learning from practice (see blog post on Learning by Doing). The authors, all associated with the University of Washington, Center for Educational Leadership, have captured the nuance and essence of instructional leadership. As they say at the outset, “Our work in the field is the heart of what we do.”
As indicated by the title, they show that instructional leaders do more than set the stage. They Lead for Professional Learning. They do so by: creating a learning-focused culture, aligning resources, supporting professional learning, and improving practice. They plan, set goals, engage participants, measure results, and keep following up.
This book, more than others, shows how instructional leadership work is done. Each section is illustrated by a case study. The case study is based on middle school math and supporting teachers in developing student discourse. The essence of the book is that you learn by doing and shared practice. Becoming more expert in anything, they say, is about the doing.
- Focusing on Teacher Learning
Instructional leaders know their teachers as learners, just as teachers know their students. Instructional leaders ask, “What can teachers do and what are they ready to learn next?” They use classroom observations to discover what parts of the PD teachers are implementing and where they may need more support. That learning is used in planning with coaches and teacher leaders what to do next. And the learning is supported by showing teachers, in studio classrooms and in-classroom coaching, what student discourse looks like and how it can be developed. The chapter includes several tools for noticing and wondering about teacher practice, as well as tools for supporting student learning and discovering what teachers can do and what they need to learn next.
- Focused Professional Learning
All of the above and more is used by the principal and planning team to reflect on, “Now what? And why?” for the next PD session. They use student learning data and observation data to sharpen their focus. They identify the need, articulate clear student outcomes, and share nuanced expectations for implementation. E.g., “all teachers will post, and students will independently access charts…with key mathematical language…that change and build on each other across the year.” Finally, they intentionally think about what support teachers might need: PLC time, coaching, inquiry cycles, analyzing student work together, etc. This chapter provides tools for implementing intentional PD.
- Sponsored Professional Development
Improving instruction cannot be delegated. Instructional leaders take the lead in sponsoring the work. They articulate the goal and why it is important. They share a commitment to the culture of learning and improvement. They may not lead the session but, as outlined above, they have participated in the development of the PD session. During the session, they listen in to learn what issues, questions, concerns are voiced by teachers and what support might speak to resolving those issues. They set the tone for “an ongoing, collective problem-solving orientation for continuous learning.” At the close of the session, the instructional leader reinforces the importance of the work and the expectations for implementation. He or she ends the session by asking teachers what they will try out and what support they need.
- Following Up
Follow-up is used to keep the focus on learning and doing between PD sessions. The planning team (principal, AP, coach, department lead) works together to plan intentionally for: feedback, coaching, and teaming between sessions. Targeted feedback is agreed to by teacher and coach to provide help specifically where needed. Coaching cycles have specific results in mind that can be shared with others in the department. And team time in PLCs is devoted to following up on the PD expectations. This chapter provides tools for planning different types of coaching conversations.
- Supporting Principals
Growing strong instructional leaders requires similar skills from the principal supervisor. The Principal Support Framework that the authors provide focuses on: growing the principal vision for instructional leadership; support for developing principal skills; and partnering with principals. Ultimately, districts need to provide the same kind of instructional leadership to principals that principals provide to their faculty and staff. Examples include: setting up Principal Leadership Teams, changing HR practices to hire for quality instruction, and central office inquiry that focuses on improved systems in support of improved learning.
In the authors’ words: “We must create the conditions for adult learning that will enable teachers to make significant shifts in their practice. [This] requires a culture of continuous improvement…deliberate practice…learning how to get better together. Cultivating a culture of continuous learning and improvement means taking the long view, getting better by nourishing and sustaining the conditions for adult learning, keeping our eyes on the prize for each of our students.”
Reviewed by: Larry Nyland