About that Mirage, Part II

| Field Notes | Doug Lemov

In teacher development, the adult culture is likely to be the signal that overwhelms the noise.

Doug Lemov

Yesterday, I blogged about the important ‘Mirage’ report, in which TNTP, having done some of the best research on public schools (here and here, for example) studied teacher development and found, to its consternation, that massive investments yielded not only unconvincing results—significant improvement by just 3 out of 10 teachers across three large districts—but inscrutable ones. Nothing the districts they studied did reliably correlated to success.  Even in an outlier organization where 7 out of 10 teachers improved, the correlation to specific actions was all noise and no signal.

Deep in the report came what I think was the lede: the primary factor driving improvement within this successful organization was its culture of humility, openness to feedback, and its relentlessness about getting better. The organization was successful because it was constantly doing teacher development even when it wasn’t calling it that. PD was really just a name for the larger system in the schools where everything was designed to help teachers succeed. As it turns out, most PD happens when we don’t realize it’s PD.

Conveniently enough, this brings me to a video I’d like to share, which reveals a moment in the life of a school that embodies this kind of culture. The video features Juliana Worrell, the principal of North Star Alexander Street Elementary in Newark, NJ, a turnaround which recently became an Uncommon School, working with Ashley Roberts, a young and successful kindergarten teacher. Juliana is helping to develop Ashley with the same balance of warmth, support, caring, and tenacity about getting better that she runs the school with.

In this remarkable clip, Ashley leads a reading group of kindergarteners, teaching them to decode, with a particular emphasis on suffixes. Soon after, they read a story together and discuss the idea of character perspective. She brings energy, positivity, and skill, and these are visible in her interactions with students. Juliana is sitting in on the lesson, not hiding in the back with a dour countenance taking notes; she sits  alongside the students, smiling and exuding positivity. She participates and gives Ashley feedback openly and warmly. Juliana’s methods of giving feedback are fascinating. At one point, she subtly points to a student who is not answering questions to suggest Ashley circle back to him; later, she whispers a suggestion for Ashley to try a Turn and Talk to build engagement and Ratio (see technique 43 in Teach Like a Champion 2.0). But for the most part, she offers suggestions by raising her hand at moments when Ashley’s momentum starts to ebb.  Her use of non-verbals grants Ashley some control—it’s up to her to signal back to Juliana that she’s ready for some feedback. And to the kids, it looks like Ms. Worrell is just joining in the lesson. In the same vein, Ashley is not at all defensive: She too is smiling. Ashley knows she’s doing well, but that doesn’t keep her from wanting to do even better. She takes Juliana’s suggestions, tries them, and smiles back. At the end, Juliana whispers to Ashley that she’s done a nice job and that they’ll chat soon about the lesson. (Note: talking about what went well in a lesson is, in my mind, one of the fastest ways to help teachers replicate their successes.)

The techniques we see in this clip are really good, but it’s the tone and the culture that’s especially striking. I could imagine a principal doing what appears to be the exact same thing—sitting in on a young teacher’s lesson and giving her real-time feedback, and having it be both non-productive and corrosive to the relationship.  But in the hands of a skilled leader like Juliana, we see a coaching session characterized by teamwork, warmth and openness. It is striking, and it demonstrates, I would argue, why it’s hard to see the bread crumbs tracing specific teacher development activities back to growth… because what’s important is the culture- both the part that’s evident here but also the culture within the school of “we’re out to get better” and “my feedback is designed to help you, but you know that without my telling you” and “I’ll watch you every week, and we’ll meet after to chat about your teaching” and “because you are good, we will strive together to get even better.”  The culture even has a language—a shared vocabulary of terms for what happens in the classroom, including but not limited to one like that in Teach Like a Champion—that is powerful in large part because it facilitates productive and efficient conversations about decisions in the classroom.

In my post yesterday, I tried to describe this way what’s powerful about this video: “Workshops don’t develop people, cultures do.” And what I think we are seeing here is just such a culture. Juliana could use a totally different approach and still be successful: she could for example have a teacher who is a little more reticent to get real-time feedback; she might opt to do weekly video sessions instead where they watch game tape from a lesson and discuss; or they might review lesson plans before the teacher taught, refining and practicing them beforehand to ensure they went well. In such a case, it would be difficult to tie the success back to a specific action. A variety of development approaches work when the culture among the adults is right; the same methods probably don’t when it isn’t.

What we’re seeing in this video, I would argue, is what an organization that’s a positive outlier in teacher development looks like. In teacher development, the adult culture, is likely to be the signal that overwhelms the noise.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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