The Center’s CA Insights – 2017-18:
Professional Learning

In the Professional Learning domain, we focus on professional learning opportunities — both formal and informal — that advance educators’ understanding and application of the California State Standards. Here, district leaders, principals, and teacher leaders describe the kinds of professional learning they receive and provide, and how those experiences vary in approach, frequency, and adequacy. In addition, we highlight the key role that teacher leaders play.

Finding 1: 

Most of the district leaders we spoke with report drawing on internal expertise, such as embedding teacher leaders in schools, to improve teachers’ instructional practices around the California State Standards.

Learning From Peers

  • In this open-ended question, we asked districts to describe their approaches to professional learning for teachers. The majority of responses described strategies to place instructional coaches and other teacher leaders in schools, and/or group teachers together in classroom settings to participate in peer observation, feedback, and collaborative co-teaching activities.
  • Three-quarters of the principals we spoke with in our focus groups reported offering opportunities for teachers to learn alongside and from peers during the school day.

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Examples of Site-Based Approaches to Professional Learning

Every other month, we do peer observations, and we do it throughout the grade level so it’s three days every other month. [However, finding] subs is always a challenge.”

- Principal

“Teachers have a shortened [day] to work in collaborative groups. Schools use site funds to release teachers to work in collaborative groups.”

- District Leader

“[The ideal approach is to] do peer-to-peer, or your instructional coach comes in and you create a lesson, peer review [the] lesson, and an instructional coach teaches it. Especially [for] new teachers, [you can say,] ‘Watch me do this,’ and then you have an opportunity to debrief it afterwards.”

- Teacher leader

Finding 2:

Districts provide, on average, 1.6 hours of professional release time per week for teachers to collaborate, including through professional learning communities (PLCs). We talked to teacher leaders about how it’s being used.

In Their Own Words: How Teacher Leaders and Teachers Are Using Professional Release Time to Collaborate

They have their PLC binders, and they keep notes on the binder. Within their binder we have expectations: ‘Where are you in the cycle? What evidence do you have and what have you?’ Then we go instead of sitting on everyone they turn them in and we just take notes and ask questions and they provide feedback…

Teachers are currently getting approximately two meeting sessions a week, potentially three. They fluctuate anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes. Weekly, probably a total of about anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours.

- Teacher Leader

“We’ve started having the tough decisions of making changes because some of those PLCs are really stuck in their way of teaching… and weren’t ready to make that shift. We moved five teachers around the grade level.”

- Teacher Leader

“We have an extra 54 hours in the teacher’s contracts [set aside for professional release time]. We meet every Monday at our site. [At] the PLCs, they are looking at data, formative assessments, et cetera. Then we have about eight faculty meetings that we have figured into the hours.”

- Teacher Leader

“Ours is very informal… We have late start Wednesdays also, but we use ours for other things. We always end up doing something else… We are just coming up with stuff on our own, little sub departments. Me and the other biology teacher, I’ll say, “I was working on this. What do you think of that?” Then we look at it, what if we add this. We collaborate, create an assignment.

- Teacher Leader

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Finding 3:

Districts have consistently told us that teacher leaders are the backbone of implementation strategies. A majority (68%) of teacher leaders we spoke with feel prepared to support teachers with the California State Standards.

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We Asked Teacher Leaders About the Support for Transitioning From Classroom Teacher to Teacher Leader – Their Responses Revealed a Diversity of Teacher Leader Training Approaches:

“The county has been training us, like two training days, working with mentors, different topics each time and stuff.”

- Teacher Leader

“I even have a mentor coach, so our [approach] is to provide a coach that does several cycles with me as well to improve my practice.”

- Teacher Leader

I have probably been out of the classroom more than I’ve been in. I’ve worked for a couple of years for the [outside organization] and ran around the Valley doing professional development [and] I’ve been through any number of trainings. I’ve been to train-the-trainer [programs too]. I’m a practitioner.”

- Teacher Leader

“I didn’t have any formal training because we were a small site and [I] had the initiative.”

- Teacher Leader

In Their Own Words: California Teachers and Leaders on Lessons Learned Related to Professional Learning for Standards Implementation

Develop a Focus and Clarity of Objective

“We really need to focus people and focus our professional development on a few really key pieces and really build the expertise of making sure that people, that our principals and our TOSAs, really have a lot of confidence in their own abilities too, and really have a clear understanding of what those pieces are so that they can better roll them out at their sites.”

- District Leader

Measurement and Feedback Can Facilitate Learning

“We do actual feedback where we do 15 or 20 minute class visitations [to capture observations]. We don’t capture the whole lesson, but we capture enough as it relates to the gift of framework. Then we schedule a follow up face to face meeting with the teachers. I’ve got to tell you that, for me as an instructional leader, that has proven to be the most effective way to improve instruction.”

- Principal

Teacher Leadership is about Hands-On Engagement

“We do, every other week, grade-level collaborations to facilitate [professional learning]. What I do is coach the coaches. I ride around the weekly meetings where we norm ourselves and do some professional development and shared learning on strategies that the coaches can use in better facilitating meetings [with their teachers].”

- Teacher Leader

Teacher Leaders in California: Who Are They?

The term teacher leader refers to educators who have experience teaching in classroom settings and expertise in instruction and leading peers. The primary job of a teacher leader is to coach, mentor, and improve other teachers – usually their peers within the same school – on various aspects of instructional practice, from pedagogy to unit planning to understanding student data. Due to the variation in teacher leaders’ roles and responsibilities, job titles and job descriptions can differ substantially; on paper, teacher leaders may be called instructional coaches, literacy specialists, teachers on special assignment (TOSAs), or data coaches, among other titles. Across the Center’s 35 focus group participants in our 2017 research cycle, teacher leader was the most frequently listed job title for these individuals. Read on for more facts about our 2017 sample.

Teacher leaders work with all grade levels and in all school types.

  • 17 of our teacher leaders come from elementary schools, 12 from middle or junior high schools, and 10 from high schools (4 are double counted due to their work with multiple grade levels)
  • Together, they have an average 8 years of experience in their current roles as teacher leaders

Teacher leaders often coach teachers to work with specific student populations.

  • 16 coach teachers to work with English learners
  • 10 focus on students with disabilities
  • 6 focus on gifted and talented students

Teacher leaders frequently work with teachers across different subjects and content areas.

  • 22 out of 35 teacher leaders work with teachers in multiple content areas
  • 26 stated they focus on ELA/ELD, 23 on math, 22 on science, 12 on history, and 9 on technology

Want to learn more about teacher leaders in California? Read this 2018 CenterView publication from the Center for the Future of Teaching & Learning: Teacher Leadership Works – It Builds, Energizes, Sustains

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