Focus Closely on Fewer Goals

To create sustained school improvement through professional development, don’t attempt to fix everything at once.

Topics: Professional Development, School Management

Here’s an unpopular opinion: There are too many goals or initiatives in districts, and not enough time being spent to take a deep dive into each goal. Why is this opinion unpopular? Because our passion for student success means that we want to fix everything now.

We quickly forget the tailspin that the COVID-19 pandemic brought. We see the impact of lost instructional time with students during remote learning, and we mourn the fact that the pandemic halted the progress we were making.

The district in which I was working at the start of the pandemic canceled all planned professional development (PD) for teachers and shifted to providing support and professional learning to help them with remote instruction. By the end of that school year, one of my principal colleagues said, “Well, we weren’t able to have any professional development this year, so we’d better get going fast next year.”

I looked at him in disbelief. No professional development? I had never seen teachers learn so much so quickly. They surprised themselves with the things they were able to do. And it was because we were giving teachers real-time, intensive, individualized, and meaningful learning opportunities they would implement right away. Our PD efforts were focused on a single goal: to continue instruction and learning in a remote setting.

Collaboration Over Buy-In

Leaders often focus on getting “buy-in” from teachers—a surface-level acceptance of the new program or initiative. But teachers get frustrated with initiatives that come and go like the wind. And leaders get frustrated when their teachers just eventually decide that they aren’t going along with the changes or new direction.

Teachers know that when the leadership changes or something more pressing comes along, the district or school will likely shift in a new direction, and what seems so important now will become a distant memory. As we think back to what we learned about PD and teacher support during the shift to remote learning, we can see that a rigorous focus on a few goals can have a sustained impact.

It doesn’t have to be this way; we can do better for teachers and students. Rather than focusing on buy-in, let’s invite teachers to the decision-making table to help align student achievement with instruction and curriculum and identify any gaps. If teachers and leaders collaborate on the “why” behind a new initiative or goal and have a hand in determining the plan to address the problem, districts have a chance to create grassroots, sustainable change that benefits students.

In the book Achieving Equity and Excellence, Douglas Reeves shares seven recommended practices from his 90/90/90 research on highly effective high-poverty schools. These practices center on creating an effective professional learning community culture focused on real-time student achievement using high-leverage practices such as collaborative scoring, nonfiction writing, and frequent formative assessments.

This aligns with John Hattie’s research on the impact of collective teacher efficacy on student achievement. Too often, teacher collaboration becomes more of a meeting about logistics or student behavior instead of being leveraged to focus on student learning and instruction.

Narrow the Focus

If you run out of fingers counting your school’s or district’s goals, there are too many to be effective. Leaders and teachers alike might get overwhelmed; they might—understandably—throw up their hands and close their doors just to avoid it all.

Understanding the reasons behind any change is an important part of creating a shared catalyst for doing things differently. Once the catalyst for change is created, focusing professional learning on these few goals helps educators take a deeper dive into a shared understanding of what success looks like. Teachers need to know:

  • What the success criteria are;
  • The school’s current position in relation to those criteria; and
  • What the next steps are.

This can happen only when you focus on just a few goals. But in a multitasking, fast-paced world, it’s tempting to try to do it all right now. Taking a step back, inviting teachers to the table, and collaborating on a few goals with research-proven practices can help us all work smarter, not harder. And when we succeed, students win.

Allyson Apsey is an award-winning educational leader and author who helps leaders and teachers collaborate and create systems to support student success.