In Building Better PL: How to Strengthen Teacher Learning, researchers Heather Hill and John Papay highlight six key design features of effective professional learning, or PL. Those features fall under two general principles for effective PL—it supports teachers’ day-to-day practice, and it involves accountability for change and improvement. Opportunity Culture schools, which provide routine, job-embedded PL through multi-classroom leader teams, notably hit the mark for those two principles and each of the key features.
Opportunity Culture schools create collaborative, small teaching teams led by multi-classroom leaders, or MCLs—teachers selected for their prior high-growth student learning results and adult leadership abilities. While continuing to teach for part of the day, MCLs provide teachers with routine professional learning through coaching, co-teaching, and modeling. Unlike typical “instructional coach” roles, MCLs lead small teams, so they have the time needed to make real impacts on team teacher practice and ensure follow-through on their coaching. While requiring teachers to be more vulnerable than ever before in sharing their practices, the MCL role promotes trusting relationships with team teachers because MCLs do not evaluate them, and because MCLs have “skin in the game” by being held formally accountable for the learning results of all of the team’s students. MCLs and those in other Opportunity Culture roles receive stipends funded by reallocations of the school budget, so this PL also does not come at any added cost.
With ongoing guidance from a proven excellent teacher and routine follow-through and follow-up on the guidance the MCL provides—through coaching cycles that include action steps—and the trust that they are all in it together, MCL teams can make significant progress with students. Third-party research shows that, on average, teachers who joined Opportunity Culture multi-classroom leaders’ teams moved from producing 50th percentile student learning growth to 77th percentile student learning growth.
How do MCL teams support each of the six key design features of effective PL?
Key feature #1: Encourage peer collaboration for improvement. MCL team members collaborate at least weekly, through meetings that provide structured, focused time to analyze student data and instructional needs. One of the five principles that Opportunity Culture schools must adhere to calls for protected time in the schedule for these meetings, to ensure they remain a priority throughout the year. And MCL teams usually are grade- or subject-based, with the team members feeling responsible for all students, making this peer collaboration time even more powerful. “To go from a ‘my kids’ to an ‘our kids’ mentality, I worked on creating a collaborative team culture,” wrote MCL Danielle Bellar in her column, A Win-Win Model for Students and Teachers. “Breaking out of our classrooms meant we had to have difficult conversations about ‘why is he performing for you but not for me?’ but it also meant we could say, ‘I have found this approach works really well for Johnny but it doesn’t for Sue. Does anyone have suggestions for how to help her?’”
Key feature #2: Rely on coaching to get the work done. MCLs provide teaching team members with regular one-to-one and team coaching, which may include co-teaching, modeling instruction, reviewing a recording of a team teacher’s instruction, practicing the delivery of a lesson, and student data analysis. While intensive, this support gets mentioned routinely by team teachers and MCLs as providing the genuine professional learning they want to improve their instructional practices and relationships with students. “As a professional, this has been the most feedback, and constructive criticism, in creating this teacher that I’ve always aspired to be, and now I have the support to do it,” an Opportunity Culture educator said in the video Teacher Support in an Opportunity Culture.
Key feature #3: Add follow-up meetings to address teacher concerns. Opportunity Culture structures excel in providing the follow-up needed to ensure that coaching makes a difference for students. Because Opportunity Culture schools prioritize protected, in-school time for MCLs to carry out their leadership duties, regular coaching follow-up and fine-tuning is embedded into team teachers’ schedules.
Key feature #4: Target subject-specific instructional practices over content knowledge. All MCL coaching responds directly to what team teachers need—not just general “best practices.” In regular team and one-on-one sessions or together in a classroom, MCLs model and co-teach with team members, lead teachers through role-play of lesson delivery, review videos of instructional delivery together to make improvements, and provide in-the-moment feedback to address immediate instructional needs. This MCL support addresses not just subject-specific practices, but also the needs of the teacher’s individual students studying that subject.
“Throughout the week, I pull lesson plans and materials into an online team folder. We refine these during team meetings, thinking through the flow of our 90-minute blocks. Then, my schedule flexibility lets me offer much more—from quick advice in the hall during class changes to more formal co-teaching or coaching, so I provide continual feedback, from classroom procedures and management to biology specifics,” an MCL wrote in More Powerful Than a Department Chair. And “because as MCL I’m held accountable for the team’s results, I now “own” the daily data alongside my teachers… I can create lists of students by teacher, so that we can choose which students need more help. I may then pull out small groups, personalize student review assignments, or create an entirely new lesson with a teacher for a previously taught concept. I never had the time or support to target students so specifically when I was just a PLC lead.”
Key feature #5: Prioritize practice-supportive materials over principles and precepts. MCLs lead their teams not just in analyzing student learning data but by providing the instructional materials and methods necessary to respond to the data. As Hill has previously written, just studying student data—which many teachers report doing—does not increase student learning unless the analysis leads to changes in instructional practice. These materials—from proven excellent teachers—can help any teacher, but are especially valuable for newer teachers, who can then let go of the heavy demands of lesson planning to focus on lesson delivery under MCL guidance.
“We video a lot,” an MCL said in Days in the Life: The Work of a Successful Multi-Classroom Leader. “I as a coach have to record my coaching conversations with my teachers, and when I go in for observations, I record what I see, so that I can watch that footage in order to really pinpoint the action step that needs to be addressed. Also, it’s a way for other teachers to see what’s happening and to name the gap that we’re going to discuss and create an action step around. Sometimes the teachers choose to record themselves, because they, too, see the benefit of watching and analyzing their own work and their own practice in order to get better.”
Key feature #6: Deliver more PL focused on relationships with students. The rigorous selection process that MCL applicants must go through ensures that those who are hired are skilled not only in creating and delivering instruction, but also in building strong relationships with students that affect learning outcomes. They guide their teams on practices that work, from simple whole-class ideas—such as holding morning class meetings or greeting all students as they come to class—to those that address specific student needs.
“It’s about building a collaborative classroom and a community of learners, where everybody has a vested interest in how the classroom functions… they feel comfortable,” an MCL said of the morning meetings he led team teachers to employ as a relationship-building technique, in the video Proactively, Positively Engage with Students (part of the Instructional Leadership and Excellence resources.)
Additionally, because MCL teams shift their perspective from students “belonging” to just one teacher to “they belong to all of us,” students now have multiple adults paying attention to them, from advanced paraprofessionals known as reach associates to team teachers to MCLs. Team members now have more adults with whom to collaborate on building student relationships and keeping any students from falling through the cracks. Finally, the ranks of MCLs in Opportunity Culture schools so far include a larger proportion of people of color than teaching overall, which—along with meaning the MCLs reach more students than traditional teaching roles—may lead to better coaching for teachers about building relationships with students of color. As an Opportunity Culture principal noted in the video Hire Teachers to Match Student Population, “research says that if schools doubled the number of Black teachers, the disparity in discipline would be cut in half, and then, Black boys and poor families having one Black teacher cuts dropout rates by 39 percent.”