Credit: Alison Yin / EdSource
Kindergarteners do an art project at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, June 4, 2014.

At a time when teacher shortages are making headlines across the country, finding ways to ensure teachers stay in the field is more critical than ever. And because we know most teachers leave the field early in their careers, many states are rethinking how they support both new and veteran teachers. Several studies have recently highlighted the fact that a lack of support is one of the key issues that drive teachers out of the classroom.

Michael Moody

California requires every new teacher to participate in two years of mentoring and coaching support — a process referred to as “induction” — before they earn their full or “clear” teaching credential. But after those two years, teachers are on their own — and they are at far greater risk of leaving the profession. How can school and district administrators ensure that teachers get the professional support they need after the induction period ends?

It often falls to the principal of each school to organize professional development initiatives for teachers, in addition to giving them individual feedback based on teacher observations. This is a lot to expect of principals, considering the multitude of responsibilities their job already entails. Relying on any one individual for this level of support can be problematic, regardless of whether that individual is a principal, other administrator, or instructional coach.

In order to properly support their teachers, principals need to engage a wide range of individuals in this work, forming an “ecosystem of support” for the teachers they serve. Recent studies have shown that instructional coaching holds the most promise for professional growth, but only when it’s individualized, intensive, sustained, context-specific, and focused. This is only possible when support efforts are well-designed, well-coordinated, and involve multiple “support providers,” which may include administrators, instructional coaches, or colleagues. In many cases, school leaders need support not only in how to provide feedback, but also how to set up these support systems.

Elements of an Ecosystem of Support

Instructional coaches can be a valuable part of this ecosystem, but a coach is still just one person, and they don’t solve everything. To provide regular, consistent and ongoing support to each teacher, most averaged-sized schools or districts would need several coaches.  However, budget and other resource constraints often get in the way of deploying multiple coaches in a manner that is sustainable across several years.

But, there is good news. The impact lies in the coaching interactions between teachers and those around them, not necessarily in finding additional staffers to be coaches. Fellow teachers can act as effective coaches, even in an informal setting. Through coaching, these teachers not only help to improve the practice of their colleagues, but also improve their own teaching practice. Good teachers have an avenue for professional growth by serving as coaches, thus feeding their need and desire to get better. And the district does not have to hire additional staff to serve as coaches; thus, mitigating the budget constraint that often accompanies coaching initiatives.

However, setting up these support systems within schools and districts requires having the right structures and tools in place. Peer feedback among teachers can be a financially efficient (and time-efficient) way for principals to create opportunities for frequent instructional feedback but means that teachers need to watch each other teach, which often requires hiring a substitute and creates more work for the observing teacher. (If you’ve ever been a teacher, you know what I’m talking about. Creating lesson plans for subs to ignore, resulting in a lost instructional day, is often more hassle than it’s worth — and it’s not good for kids.) Having a tool for video capture, sharing, and analysis in place can alleviate this challenge, and allow teachers to record their lesson and share with their peers for feedback anytime, anywhere.

Moreover, video creates a piece of objective evidence, so the observer and the teacher can have a discussion about authentic instruction rather than one person’s subjective memory of what happened. By leveraging technology, administrators can connect teachers with each other, creating a system of peer support while eliminating the need for subs, creative scheduling, and additional money. However, a tool like this won’t be nearly as effective if it’s used alone. It needs to be used in a coaching context.

Inspiring Self-Reflection

Video also provides an opportunity for self-reflection. For example, if you’re not a big football fan, you’re not going to be able to tell a play was good or bad unless someone explains it. Once teachers know what to look for, they can learn from watching own instruction as well as their peers, without the need for administrator involvement. Self-reflection can be a powerful tool to allow teachers to coach themselves, but this is almost impossible to implement without a supportive school leader and the processes and tools to facilitate this work.

The purpose of these supports is to guide teachers through their improvement. The goal of coaching is to help people continue practices they’re most effective at, and to shore up where they need improvement in a targeted, content-specific way. When teachers feel affirmed by a network of supporters, from their peers to the administration, they are more likely to want to continue their career in that school or district.

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Michael Moody is the Founder and CEO of Insight ADVANCE, a company that offers a suite of products designed to assist teachers’ growth and development.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, we encourage you to review our guidelines and contact us.

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