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School-Wide Cultural Conditions that Promote Teacher Growth

The structural elements of comprehensive induction -- like summer orientation, access to complete curricula and one-on-one mentoring -- are a set of interdependent supports. They are things that people do or artifacts that you can see. But these elements cannot stand alone. Putting the structures in place will not guarantee their effectiveness. School leaders must also invest in less tangible rewards, developing a learning-oriented professional culture to surround and animate the program of supports.

The professional culture of a school powerfully mediates teachers’ experiences. For example, if norms of frequent collaboration among colleagues and open discussion of teaching practice are absent, structures like mentoring can fall flat. In a school where open discussion of teaching practice is tacitly discouraged, teachers may meet every week, but spend their time complaining about the students instead of discussing ways to help students learn. In a school where teachers work in isolation, a new hire may learn a lot about school policies during orientation but still feel uncomfortable asking for help planning lessons in September. Therefore induction supports work best in schools where there is a shared sense of responsibility for the quality of teaching and learning and an expectation of ongoing collaboration.

So how do you create a learning-oriented professional culture? We believe that a school’s professional culture rests on how community members understand the nature of teaching and learning to teach. Ultimately, these shared understandings drive the behavior of teachers, administrators, parents and board members and determine whether a school environment is one in which teachers will thrive.

New teachers thrive in schools where…
…there is a shared understanding of the Jewish mission of the school. Each Jewish Day School has a unique approach to incorporating Jewish values and content into the life of the school. When everyone in the community is well acquainted with the Jewish mission, everyone can support it, through curricular choices, pedagogical choices, and scheduling. When the Jewish mission is not clear, school community members may unconsciously undermine it, or send students mixed signals.

…there is a shared understanding of what good teaching looks like at this school and a common language for discussing instruction. A shared, explicit understanding of what good teaching looks like – of the ideal that all teachers in your school are striving for – provides an essential guide for new teacher learning. A powerful vision of good teaching is more than a set of principles, such as “We value hands-on learning,” or “Our school is child-centered.” It describes the behaviors and dispositions of effective teachers: the ways in which they plan lessons, manage classrooms, present material, and relate to children, parents and colleagues. With a clear, shared understanding of what effective teachers know and are able to do, you can create supports and learning experiences that foster the development of those skills and knowledge. Without that vision of good teaching, hiring, mentoring, professional development and teacher supervision may be disconnected from one another, sending teachers mixe messages and ultimately impeding growth.

…there is a shared understanding that teaching is complex work and learning to teach well takes time, collaboration, and on-going professional development. Effective teaching relies on a vast array of skills and knowledge, from planning to pedagogy, from time management to child development, from clear and concise public speaking to the ability to represent ideas visually. Teachers are intellectuals, they are artisans, and they are traffic cops. Serious investment in teacher learning requires first an acknowledgment that there is much to be learned. The fundamental skills of teaching develop over several years, through trial and error, coaching, application of theory, and reflection. Effective teaching is not learned in isolation, but with help from colleagues and experts who can model skills, build background knowledge, and prompt reflection.

…there is a shared understanding that all members of the faculty have collective responsibility for growth and development of colleagues and students. When teachers plan and teach in isolation, new hires are left to sink or swim. Cultures that stress mutual responsibility and collaboration are cultures in which new teachers can ask questions and seek support. When all teachers feel responsibility for all students’ learning, and for the excellence of the school, they are accountable for supporting each other and for sharing what they know.

…there is a shared understanding that schools must provide for the serious learning of teachers just as they provide for the serious learning of children. Good schools are learning environments, where growth and inquiry are valued and encouraged. In true learning environments, it is okay to ask questions, to challenge assumptions, and to admit one’s own ignorance. Risk taking is encouraged as a natural part of the growth process, and mistakes are regarded as learning opportunities. When teachers feel they are part of such a community, they invite their students to join them in the serious pursuit of knowledge.