Shifting From Proving to Improving

Proficient Growth Qualities

John D’Auria


What happens when principals recognize that some of their teachers are not effectively instructing students or meeting the educational standards that are critical to student growth and learning? We recognize that this poses a complex set of challenges for many principals. Building leaders must decide how they should focus their energies when they are working with educators who, for a variety of reasons, have professional status but are not adequately serving the needs of students. The decision a principal faces is whether to focus his or her efforts on removing ineffective educators from the faculty or providing pathways for teachers to build their capacities. While working towards removal might be the simple choice, there is often no guarantee of finding effective replacement teachers and school culture can be adversely affected, particularly if there are more than a handful of sub­par teachers. This paper is designed to help principals make that personnel decision wisely.

The qualities described in the following sections are the important factors needed to propel a person forward from wherever they are to the next stage of competency. These qualities are the engine of growth and learning and they are as important to adult educators as they are to students who want to, and need to, continually improve. These qualities are also essential for leaders in order to develop or strengthen a growth culture. Examining teacher performance through the lenses of these qualities can help a principal decide whether to emphasize supervision over evaluation or investment over removal. The degree to which these qualities are alive and well within an individual raises the probability that capacity building will pay dividends over time. Most importantly, once these qualities become embedded within the school culture, continuous growth and improvement become part of the norms of behavior.


Qualities and behaviors of an educator who demonstrates a strong potential for growth

1.  They are open to feedback from others.

When evaluators, students, colleagues, and parents provide feedback about their work, it is heard & understood. This means there is evidence of curiosity and a desire to understand what others are trying to convey. There is also evidence that the person can restate the feedback in his or her own words and do so with reasonable accuracy. Finally, there is evidence that the person is applying the feedback to their work. Please note, in order for feedback to be understood and applied, there needs to be a two way conversation that often leads to a little give on both sides. It is rare that someone will simply accept 100% of all the feedback they receive and a leader should be modeling how to listen and reflect when hearing comments on the feedback from the recipient. On the other hand, it should be equally rare that a person would reject all the feedback. Feedback that sticks often comes from a two-way conversation where both parties’ understanding of the other’s perspective improves.


2.  They understand and accept their role as a change agent.

Classroom teachers must own the fact that they are the most statistically significant factor in a student receiving a good education.

  • Effective teachers believe that their classroom instruction and the relationships they develop with their students play a vital role in student learning
  • They create lessons and tasks that engage students’ interest.
  •  They provide alternate paths to the skills & concepts to be learned so that all students can reach the success criteria of the course or class.


3.  They are reflective about their work. Being reflective means that an educator looks for and analyzes how their strategies and actions impact the learner.

Specifically, educators demonstrate the ability to non-defensively examine their learning data. This means that the educator is regularly assessing the impact of his or her work with learners. The purpose of these assessments is to uncover who has learned the important skills, concepts, and knowledge, who are almost there, and which students are still quite a distance from the learning goals. This examination is done without blaming learners or blaming anyone. The principle that is alive and well within this educator’s work is “what we do doesn’t matter nearly as much as how learners experience what we do.”


4.  They constantly tinker with lessons, strategies, and approaches.

In the face of setbacks and disappointing results they evaluate and revise (where appropriate) strategies and approaches. They consider factors and approaches such as cultural proficiency, differentiation, and personalization as components of their re­teaching strategies. The gap between what they hoped to achieve and what they do achieve is the fuel that moves them to analyze and revise their approaches regularly.


5.  They reach out to the knowledge base about teaching (and leading) and the expertise of others.

When faced with a lack of knowledge or insight (as a result of disappointing results or not knowing how to resolve a problem) growth oriented teachers turn outward (as well as inward), realize that their knowledge can expand, their practice can improve, and they can develop new skills. Collaboration is a way of both sharing and gaining knowledge. This means the educator is making the most of all existing opportunities to talk about his or her practice with fellow teachers in common planning time meetings, professional development sessions, department meetings and other appropriate times during the school day.


Through our work with many schools and districts, Teachers21 consultants have noticed that these qualities are the building blocks for future growth and learning. Effective leaders work to develop the conditions by which these qualities are made explicit and valued within the school culture. Effective leaders also work with individual educators to strengthen these capacities because, when they are in place, improvement often follows. While these qualities cannot substitute for a weak instructional repertoire or insufficient content knowledge, they will help ensure that efforts to work on either or both of those areas reap the desired results.

While principals still have to face challenging staffing decisions in order to serve the needs of their students, we believe that, by looking for these qualities in future hires and by nurturing and developing these qualities within their current faculty, principals will move their schools forward and better serve the needs of all children. Children will not only benefit from the improved expertise of their teachers but they will also be working with adults who believe, and demonstrate, that one can improve as a result of effective strategies and effort, the hallmarks of a growth mindset.

On the other hand, if school leaders have developed their skills in observing and analyzing instruction and have created the conditions for adult learning and growth but faculty members are consistently deficient in these qualities and show little or no progress in strengthening them, we advise principals that growth and improvement are highly unlikely and that pursuing other courses of action, such as putting a teacher on a “last step” improvement plan or moving towards removal, would be in the best interest of student learning.    

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Teachers21 supports Teach To Lead

Teachers21 recently signed a letter addressed to Congressional leaders in support of Teach To Lead, an initiative providing opportunities for teachers to use their expertise to improve instruction and exercise leadership without having to leave the classroom. Teachers21 strongly endorses the idea that teacher leadership is an underutilized resource within many learning communities. 

Endorsed by 30 organizations, the letter was shared with the House Appropriations Committee during Teacher Appreciation Week. Last week an identical letter was also sent to Senate appropriators. You can read a copy of the letter here.  

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Growth mindset in my 7th grade classroom

I am fairly new in the field as I am in my third year of teaching. I so much enjoyed your presentation, and felt that it really spoke to me, that I had to just send you an e-mail to thank you for it.

Let me explain why I felt so touched by your workshop. In my small time in the classroom, I have been doing a lot of what you were talking about. Making kids believe that they could, and that their "smarts" are not stagnant. I have had some unbelievable success with boys who other teachers got nowhere with. I try to help each child succeed, with whatever their capabilities are - and to give the "handicapped" ones, the extra help to get there. I have always [since my first day in the classroom] allowed boys to retake any test which they failed, and I count that retest as their grade. [I just tell them I may change the questions on the test to make sure they really know the material and don't memorize the answers of the old test - I have only done that on rare occasions, but the threat alone accomplishes that they really study the material I want them to know.] And my students know that there is no such thing as they can not. I encourage them to call me on my cell phone if they get stuck while doing their homework and I explain it to them. I even set up a voicemail box where the boys can call in and listen again to the material being taught if they need extra review and practice. I want to give them all the tools they need to be successful. It really works! 

Because I have been doing this - but have not understood exactly the research and logic behind it, or why exactly my methods have been working, hearing your presentation gave me renewed energy and a more keen understanding of why things have been working, so I can now focus on doing and implement more of your methods which can further assist my students in feeling that with their effort and diligence they will succeed.

I will just leave you with one small anecdote which happened yesterday, but really encapsulates what I try to make my students believe. I told a boy [who is having his first successful year in a couple of years - his father told me he is a different child than before] to do a certain assignment. He said to me "I can't!" I gave him a stern look and wagged my finger at him and he said "you are right, I don't want to do it" - I smiled and said to him "that is the truth. Because you know if you wanted to do it, than you could". He agreed. 


So thank you for reinforcing my commitment to your tremendous ideals, and helping me understand better and hopefully better implement this type of teaching!

Posted by seventh grade teacher who attended a recent workshop on how teachers and leaders can foster a Growth Mindset in their schools.

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What can school systems learn from Singapore?

Our Deputy Director, David Harris, visited Singapore in October 2015 with a diverse group of education leaders from Massachusetts. They visited schools and met with system leaders involved in teacher and leader preparation among others. Here are his observations and thoughts.

Mural on the wall of the National Institute of EducationSingapore is wildly successful having grown from poverty to the 3rd highest per capita GDP in the world in its short 50-year history. In no small part this success is due to its education system: international test scores are consistently at the top, dropout rates are low and there are jobs for all graduates with a national unemployment rate that hovers around 1%. Building on three earlier phases that focused on “Survival”, “Efficiency” and “Ability-driven” education, the fourth phase of the Singapore education strategy is focused on “Student-Centered, Values-Based” education, and 21st Century skills are a large part of the rhetoric. Indeed there is plenty to learn from how Singapore approaches education, much of which they learned from the US and other school systems:

  • Teachers as nation-builders: teachers are expected to be creators of knowledge, facilitators of learning, architects of learning environments, shapers of character and leaders of educational change.
  • Mastery focus with pathways for growth: there are clear rubrics against which teachers are being measured (the Current Estimate of Potential or CEP) and educators are given feedback three times a year on their progress. Students too are assessed in formative and summative ways so students and parents know precisely where they stand and what they need to work on.
  • Networked learning communities by subject, role and professional interest: Peers observe each other’s classroom, share teaching resources and collaborate to improve their practice
  • Focus on values and Social Emotional Learning: designed to put the community and the nation first in Singapore, communicating and modeling consistent values and norms, while respecting and embracing the four distinct cultures that make up the country, reduces tension and promotes collaborative learning among students and teachers. Contributing to the teaching profession through mentoring, collaborating and modeling, is not only valued but is essential for promotion.
  • Mother Tongue education: while English is the primary language in the country and in all content classes, it is required that each student learns his or her mother tongue in school as well (and there are three of them) which fosters respect for cultural differences.
  • Principals are the key: They are carefully selected and groomed and are deeply trusted to tailor implementation of the Singapore values to their school’s context. In their final six months of pullout training (right before assuming a principalship) new leaders learn to be values-based, purposeful, innovative and forward-looking in their roles of people leadership, strategic management and working in a complex environment. They also develop a global perspective fostered by continuous exposure to, and inquiry into educational and economic systems around the world. The fact that principals can be assigned anywhere, and are moved every 5-7 years, actually gives them the incentive to build school cultures that are not principal-dependent and embody a consistent set of values and beliefs.
  • Rethinking resources regarding class size: John Hattie, in the book Visible Learning, pointed out that class size is not a key factor in student growth, it is what happens in the class that drives growth. Singapore has chosen to allow class sizes to be large but invests heavily in technology, training and support staff within each school so that the teaching practice maximizes student learning.
  • Experimentation and assessment leading to broader adoption: Innovation is encouraged but broad-scale changes are only introduced after being researched and assessed in the context of the system goals. When new initiatives, such as PLCs are implemented on a broad scale, they communicate the what, the why, the when and the who and consequently adoption is swift and highly impactful
  • Continuous improvement: every educator and leader speaks of continuous improvement – in their preparation, in their practice, in their partnerships, in their processes and in the outcomes they produce.
  • Coherence: at the end of the day it is the tight alignment of the vision, goals and strategies throughout the system that ensures deep impact. When all crew-members row in the same direction, a boat flies along.

As background, Singapore is a small city-state – 5.5 million people, 475,000 students (prior to their university, junior college and polytechnic institutes of higher education), 365 schools, 33,000 educators and 34 students in an average class. They spent about $8.7 billion US in 2013 (including teacher training and all branches of the ministry of education) or $18,300 per student.

From the inception of the country, education has been recognized as one of, if not the most important strategy in building the Institute of Technical Education lobbynation, and to Singapore education is a non-negotiable investment not an expense. The teaching profession is lauded and getting a spot in the only teacher preparation program (run by the National Institute of Education, a state agency) is highly competitive and requires high achievement, interviews and demonstrations of the desired characteristics and values. Once selected, tuition is free, a job is guaranteed (although the Ministry of Education determines your placement) and salaries are commensurate with engineers with the opportunity for bonuses exceeding 25% of base salary for top performers. Once on the job, teachers get 100 hours of Professional Development per year, a reduced workload in their first year (to 80%), extensive mentoring from a senior teacher and the ability to advance either as a lead teacher focused on pedagogy, a specialist in curriculum or other areas, or through the school leadership track.

What makes the system work, very much like the best US charter networks, is the coherence within the system: everyone is committed to a single vision for student success (often written on the walls of the institution), the systems for developing and supporting teachers and school leaders are completely aligned, research proven programs such as DuFours’ PLC work are implemented with a high degree of fidelity, administration is handled by business managers so the leadership can focus is on instruction, there is autonomy within each school to tailor the curriculum and instruction to the student population, and the values they instill in the students are as important as their academic achievement. Also, much like successful charter networks, teachers can expect to work 11 hours per day, must become expert in two subjects and take on many extra duties beyond student loads of up to 200. It is perhaps no wonder that in this environment students outperform most other educational systems.

Besides tremendous workloads for teachers (that lead about 4% to leave each year, often when they start families) there are some other drawbacks to the Singapore system and some aspects we might question. Singapore considers itself a meritocracy and uses high stakes and therefore high stress tests, culminating in the Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE) taken at the end of 6th grade, to track students into different secondary schools. These secondary schools have different expectations, foci and supports which allow the students’ experience to be better tailored to their needs and learning capacity, although once again these paths culminate in high stakes British GCE exams (N, O or A levels depending on the pathway). Many parents and students rightly perceive that their opportunities are immediately limited at the age of 12. In all fairness the system does allow late bloomers to transfer to faster tracks, much like our community colleges provide a pathway for some to enter 4-year universities, although those transfers tend to be the exceptions not the rule. A side effect of the PSLE test has been the development of a tutoring industry that by some accounts makes up 3% of the country’s GDP. If nothing else this alone drives up the academic achievement of all students.

While the system does seem to teach even struggling students, because the lowest performers on the international PISA tests score higher than 70% of US student, the ability to meet the needs of all learners is questionable. The approach is to have every student “achieve their full potential” (as opposed to “No Child Left Behind”) and, with classes of 40 students and a style of instruction that emphasizes accuracy of content, few are trained to support struggling learners or students with special needs. Moreover there is little time (1 hour per week) built in for any specialized instruction. There are actually a few special schools for those with extreme disabilities or those with consistently low academic performance, an approach the US has chosen to eschew publicly although the services are available privately, and one question that remains is the degree to which the pedagogy that is being developed to serve those students will be applied more broadly in the future.

Perhaps the most common criticism of the system is the lack of focus on creativity and entrepreneurialism but those are not the characteristics that have driven Singapore’s success. Singapore has grown so dramatically because they look at where the global economy is going and identify how they can fit in and drive the growth throughout Asia. They invest heavily in sending educators out to both learn about and support the growth of other countries so when those countries are looking for a partner to fuel their growth Singapore is the obvious candidate. What Singapore does value is ensuring that every citizen has a meaningful job (migrants from Malaysia tend to fill in the really low level jobs) so education is geared to finding a suitable role for everyone. While perhaps limiting opportunity for some, this approach has reduced or even eliminated poverty and crime and has allowed people from those four distinct cultures to coexist and thrive together while the US poverty gap continues to increase and racial tensions persist.

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Ten Steps To Managing Change in Schools

Guest blog by Jeffrey Benson.

As the decades that I have worked in schools begin to pile up, I have come to call myself an educational elder—someone trying to synthesize and dispense whatever wisdom I have gleaned through the years; it’s what elders have done in traditional communities all over the world. Most of my work is focused on making schools exquisitely respectful organizations, where our ideals of democratic inclusion and robust education for every child move an inch or two closer to reality, even for the most challenging students. 

Along the way I’ve been hired to help school systems hold more effective IEP meetings, and to help staff work better as a team, and to problem-solve for marginalized students, and to increase the use of authentic assessments, and to shape the study of literature for developing social skills—it’s all the same pie, the same Teachers21 notion of building reflective learning cultures that improve steadily through effort and teamwork. Wherever I gain entry, the fractal of exquisite respect and learning theory has a chance to crystalize. 

Unfortunately, even when teachers and administrators give me high marks for my efforts, I find that improvements I may have helped to bring about are rarely full-bodied and lasting. Although my workshops, presentations, and coaching provide schools with a common language, inspiration, and skills, these are too often adopted piecemeal and at random –there’s not a reliable approach to implementing change. Everyone knows you have to do more than bring aboard an educational elder—but most schools don’t consistently know what else to do. I wrote Ten Steps To Managing Change in Schools (ASCD 2015) to provide a predictable template for improving a school. It’s a model that can be adapted to almost all program initiatives, so school leadership doesn’t have to exert time and energy to reinvent the wheel with every new improvement campaign.

One of the lessons all elders bring with us is that reality is never as predictable as we might think. A mentor of mine warned me: “Be nimble in your leadership.” I like this new book and I know it needs to be adapted, to be used as a touchstone, not as a millstone. Change is a process, not an event; it’s never completely “done.” I am hoping that the tools and concepts in the book allow all of us who strive to make schools better find our efforts connected to a larger understanding of school improvement.

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