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Influencing Teacher Learning: 5 Strategies to Teach the Teacher

The evidence is clear: When teachers learn, they are more successful in helping students learn.

Every school leader wants to support teacher learning, whether through formal professional development, collaborative learning teams, or informal nudges in conversation. This task is so important that I have developed a term for it: Learnership–leadership for learning.

Despite their best efforts, school leaders sometimes feel ineffective in the task of learnership. They envision teachers eagerly engaging with professional development facilitators, collaborating effectively with colleagues, and always being open to suggestions from a caring administrator.

What they get, though, can be more akin to a sales situation, in which the school leader needs to cajole teachers into participating; or a battle, in which school leaders, against their better judgment, demand compliance.

I have designed a model of teacher professional learning along with tactics for school leaders to use to support that learning. Here are five keys to ensuring strong learnership:

1. Create disequilibrium. When we experience disequilibrium, we’re thrown off track by something new or unexpected. In an attempt to reconcile the new with the known, we often end up learning. School leaders can create disequilibrium by:

  1. Asking a provocative question, like “What do you need to ask your students to move them ahead?”
  2. Creating opportunities for teachers to collaborate across grade levels, departments, or subject areas. For instance, what would happen if the art and math departments worked together to plan for English learners?
  3. Exposing teachers to others who are doing the exact opposite, using video, school site visits, book studies, or conference attendance.

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2. Avoid too much disequilibrium. Although we learn when challenged by the unfamiliar, we shut down when there is too much that is different. School leaders should limit the number of new initiatives and ensure that enough time is given for teachers to thoroughly consider and implement new programs, curricula, or practices.

3. Help teachers disagree. When professional learning opportunities are ineffective, it is sometimes because teachers disagree with their collaborators and communication breaks down. School leaders can help teachers to disagree effectively by:

  1. Remaining centered and open when others disagree with them.
  2. Preparing teacher leaders to facilitate protocols for productive disagreement.
  3. Asking teachers: What do we want to do when we disagree?

4. Help teachers examine tensions between their experience and research. Research is based on conclusions drawn from a few or many situations; much research generalizes. Teachers’ experiences are based on their specific situations. This tension between generalities and teachers’ own work can lead teachers to resist new ideas, with claims like, “That isn’t the case with my students.” School leaders can help teachers learn from both their own experiences and the work of researchers. For instance, when working with a teacher who has been unsuccessful in implementing writers’ workshop, a leader might ask, “How can you use both your own experience and the research on writing to come up with a more effective approach to writers’ workshop?”

5. Honor the learning that has occurred. When school leaders push for more growth, they can overlook the learning that has already taken place. Sometimes they even dismiss certain teachers as failing to learn at all. The work of thinkers in the field of complex living systems informs us that every living thing grows, and for humans that growth often can be described as learning. Administrators who engage in learnership are on the lookout for evidence of teacher growth, not only when teachers participate in formal learning opportunities, but in any capacity. For instance, an administrator focused on ensuring science standards are met could overlook the fact that a science teacher has learned to collaborate with special educators in meeting the needs of students with IEPs.

Teachers grow and learn all the time. The leader who wants to influence that growth can do so by engaging in learnership–thoughtful support for teacher (and student) learning.

What do you think about the concept of learnership? How do you support teacher learning in your school or district? Tell us in the comments.

Cathy TollCathy Toll
Cathy Toll supports teacher learning by guiding educational coaches, professional learning teams, and administrative leaders. She has been a consultant, keynote speaker, and workshop leader throughout the United States, Australia, and Canada. Cathy has served as a teacher at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, a reading specialist, a curriculum coordinator, a school principal, director of literacy research and development, grant director, state department of education consultant, and educational coach.

Cathy has published widely for teacher leaders, including six books for literacy coaches and a book on Learnership for principals and teacher leaders. Her most recent book is Educational Coaching: A Partnership for Problem Solving (ASCD 2018). Cathy lives in Menasha, Wisconsin, with her husband David and their two cats.