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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