Time Out Puts Learning In
Given the amount of student learning that must happen during a school year, you might think that every minute of a teacher’s time is best spent tending to the immediate needs of students and that every minute of an administrator’s time is best spent tending to the immediate needs of teachers, parents, students and boards.
In a crisis time such as this, this is certainly the case. Under normal school circumstances, however, not so. Our experience at Jewish New Teacher Project (JNTP), supporting new teachers and early-career administrators in over 170 Jewish day schools across North America, has found that both teacher and administrator time away from immediate, daily demands to focus on teacher growth yields long-lasting and far-reaching results for teachers, students and schools as a whole. Such results include reduced burnout, increased teacher retention, fostering of creativity and collaboration, heightened sense of professionalism, improved quality of education, improved student learning, and consistency across grades and curriculum. Based on both quantitative research and anecdotal observations, there is clear evidence that time dedicated to professional learning and growth is time well spent strengthening schools.
Defining Teacher Professional Learning
Many types of professional learning support the growth of teachers: structured professional development workshops, where experts (internal or external) teach staff about the latest research in education or how to use a specific technique or ed tech, followed by implementation coaching; formal peer mentoring; instructional coaching; and classroom observations and feedback. Staff and departmental meetings can be used for professional learning and growth. For example, at SAR High School in New York City, each year a different topic, such as assessment or student workload and stress, is chosen, and learning around that topic is incorporated into all meetings. At Schechter Manhattan, weekly all-faculty, afterschool meetings are designed for teachers to pursue inquiry and growth related to schoolwide educational priorities. Teachers choose to participate with a cohort of peers in one of three professional development areas; each group sets goals and an agenda for itself and meets throughout the year.
One of the most impactful, ongoing sources of teacher growth is feedback from administrators following classroom observations. Consistent formative feedback communicates administrators’ belief that teachers want to grow, that an administrator supports that growth and wants teachers to succeed, and that it is a fundamental value of the school that professionals continue to grow throughout their careers. Feedback based on data collected during classroom observations helps teachers “see” their teaching from an objective, evidence-based perspective.
Quantitative Evidence of Impact
Major research on the impact of teacher professional learning on students, teachers and schools comes from the public school realm; as far as we know, no large-scale formal studies have been conducted across Jewish day schools. We believe that the public school research findings are relevant and applicable to the Jewish day school world.
One of the seminal studies on the positive impact of professional development was conducted by the US Department of Education (Reviewing the Evidence on How Teacher Professional Development Affects Student Achievement, 2007). This report reviewed nine studies on the topic and found that teachers who received quality professional development of at least 49 hours per year (approx 1.3 hrs / week) positively impacted student achievement by 21 percentile points. Interestingly, this report also found that a small amount of professional development (5-14 hours total) showed no statistically significant effects on student achievement.
More recently, an article in the Journal of Professional Capital and Community reviewed 30 studies on the relationship between years of teaching experience and teachers’ impact on student learning (Does Teaching Experience Increase Teacher Effectiveness? A Review of U.S. Research, October 21, 2019). The findings suggest that “investments in building an experienced, highly-collaborative teacher workforce focused on continual learning are most likely to result in greater student learning, while, at the same time, reducing teacher attrition.”
This past fall, New Teacher Center (NTC), JNTP’s parent organization, released a study (Counting the Cost: A Commitment to Educational Equity that Yields Results, October 2019) on the return on investment of spending resources on NTC’s intensive new teacher mentoring program. Findings include:
Increased student learning: Students in grades 4-8 who had NTC-supported teachers showed up to five months of additional learning in math and English than those who did not have NTC-supported teachers.
Increased teacher retention: Teacher retention was 11 percentage points higher in the group supported by NTC than those in a control group (78% vs. 67%).
Districts cost savings: NTC’s professional learning program for new teachers yielded a 22% financial return to a district because of increased teacher retention. Based on a five-year investment, this is equivalent to a district saving nearly $1M.
These research findings point to a clear learning, as well as financial, return on investment in teacher professional development.
On a smaller scale, JNTP’s own yearly participant survey results similarly point to significant improvements in classroom teaching and student learning. JNTP’s latest data show that 98% of participating new teachers believe having a JNTP mentor improves their teaching practice; 100% of administrators and 98% of new teachers report that a new teacher’s work with their JNTP mentor improves student learning.
Anecdotal Evidence of Impact
In working with many schools that provide significant opportunities for professional learning and growth to their staff, we have observed the following positive results.
Professional development allows adults to model valuable habits for their students.
When the adults in a school building are obviously engaged in their own learning, and especially collaborative learning, those behaviors and values trickle down to students. The modeling of lifelong learning and collaboration is a valuable contributor to student success, both while they are in school and in years following.
Administrators who regularly visit classrooms provide leadership and are better informed.
There are numerous benefits when administrators make the time to regularly visit classrooms and provide feedback to teachers. Certainly, observation and direct feedback helps improve teachers’ classroom practice; additionally, they provide an opportunity for administrators to reinforce school values and educational priorities. Being in classrooms regularly yields data that can help inform what type of professional development the staff needs and can help an administrator identify potential staffing problems as well as gaps that need to be filled. Knowledge gained from data collected during observations can also be very useful in conversations with parents about their children. And classroom observation provides opportunities for administrators to spend more time on leadership activities such as aligning people and curriculum across classrooms, motivating and inspiring, which is what leads to dramatic and useful change in a school.
Classroom visits don’t need to be time-intensive. In JNTP’s Administrator Support Program, early-career administrators learn the skill of frequent, unannounced “quick visits.” Administrators can build into their schedules consistent 10-minute classroom visits to ensure ongoing observation and feedback of their staff. One school implemented this method, tasking each administrator to visit six classrooms every week. The result has been a marked increase in communication between teachers and administrators.
Schools are seen as desirable places of employment.
When schools support teachers and provide opportunities for growth, word gets out. The best educators want to work at such a school. One school reports a rise in the caliber of teachers applying for jobs there because it has become known as a school that supports teachers. When schools are experienced as supportive working environments, teachers join and want to stay.
School culture is improved.
Ongoing teacher learning opportunities positively impact school culture. When a school becomes a place where new ideas are elicited and value is placed on reflection and formative assessment (as opposed to only evaluation), the school culture shifts toward creative thinking and collaboration, which in turn breeds communication, relationships and trust throughout the school community. As one administrator recently told us, being part of a collaborative culture means teachers don’t feel isolated. In addition, when teachers are asked to lead professional development meetings or provide peer observation and feedback, there are opportunities for the administration to acknowledge success, convey deserved status and increase morale. A school culture that embodies the qualities of ongoing growth and collaboration becomes an exciting place for teaching and learning.
So, How Can Schools Make Time?
It’s clear from research and anecdotal evidence that investing precious time in teacher professional learning and growth can elevate teaching, learning and school culture. But, practically, how can schools make the time in their schedules and in their budgets?
Make it a value and set expectations.
It all starts with school values. If professional growth is a value, then resource allocation should reflect that. Finding time in the schedule and money in the budget needs to be a priority, whether it’s for intensive mentoring, consistent observations and feedback, in-service workshops, staff meetings or any other type of professional learning.
Once time is allocated, administrators must share the expectation for professional learning with their staff. A shared calendar for meetings, training days, observation and feedback, mentoring and all other learning opportunities helps everyone be on the same page. It’s also important to have a conversation about expectations around professional growth with new hires as part of their interview and onboarding process. Scheck Hillel Community School in Miami, for example, makes it clear that attendance at weekly afterschool professional development meetings is mandatory as part of a full-time contract. The schedule of learning for those meetings is built in advance during the summer.
Thinking out-of-the-box can elicit many creative ideas for finding time for professional learning and growth. For example: Make use of national holidays like Veterans Day or Election Day for full-day learning. Offer free babysitting for staff’s younger children run by older students (they can use chesed hours or be paid minimally), like they do at Fuchs Mizrachi School in Cleveland. Serve dinner once a month (or, save money and have teachers bring their own dinner) and have a full-staff meeting with a focus on professional learning. Choose five times a year when students are let out early for teacher professional development. Have teachers use one planning period every other week to observe another teacher’s classroom.
At one school, teachers participate in instructional rounds, where they visit classrooms of colleagues in an organized and coordinated effort to better understand teaching and learning. This is made possible by the fact that every class has two teachers; when one teacher leaves on rounds, the other one leads instruction.
Distribute leadership in order to find time.
Just as administrators look for sources of money for their financial budget, they need to look for sources of time for their time budget. Administrators can consider who on their staff can take over particular time-intensive tasks—for example, running professional development or planning and leading staff meetings. Administrators can empower their department chairs, grade leaders or curriculum coordinators to observe classrooms and collect data in their place. Besides freeing up some of the administrator’s time in order to support their teachers’ professional growth, distributing leadership provides fantastic opportunities to tap veteran teachers to take on informal or non-administrative leadership roles. This has the added benefit of boosting morale and providing necessary stimulation to keep the best teachers engaged and committed.
Hire full-time teachers. A number of schools have made the conscious decision to hire teachers on a full-time basis in order to build in time for regular professional development. When schools hire only part-time teachers, those teachers often run out as soon as their teaching ends. Even if they want to grow professionally, many part-time teachers aren’t given the time to devote to professional growth.
Teachers’ professional growth needs to be a top priority. Research and experience show that when teachers participate in ongoing, regular, meaningful professional learning and development, teaching is more effective, students learn better, working conditions improve, teacher retention is higher, school culture becomes one of reflection, collaboration and creativity, and administrators have data to make important decisions.
Of course, what ultimately allows schools to make time for teachers’ professional growth is financial resources. Administrators and lay leaders must make a strong case to their boards and other stakeholders that financial investment in a school’s professional development budget will have direct, valuable and enduring impact.
Nothing within a school has more impact upon students in terms of skills development, self-confidence, or classroom behavior than the personal and professional growth of their teachers. When teachers individually and collectively examine, question, reflect on their ideals, and develop new practices that lead toward those ideals, the school and its inhabitants are alive. When teachers stop growing, so do their students. (Roland Barth, Run School Run)