Feature

The Superintendent as Staff Developer

Leadership of school personnel is the key to sustaining academic improvement by RICHARD P. DuFOUR


What is the fundamental challenge facing those who hope to lead contemporary organizations? Peter Senge, one of the pre-eminent authorities on organizational leadership, argues the development of a structure and culture that encourage learning is the "primary task of leadership [and] perhaps the only way a leader can genuinely influence or inspire others."

It follows then that superintendents who hope to fulfill their responsibilities as leaders must make the development of school personnel a priority. But before superintendents can contribute to quality staff development in their school districts, they must embrace two realities.

First, they must recognize that the most powerful form of professional development is job embedded. Many school districts continue to distinguish between teacher work and teacher learning. The assumption that drives these districts is that teachers work (that is, teach) 176 days each year and they learn (that is, engage in professional development) during the four or five days the district devotes to in-service programs or when teachers leave the campus to attend workshops or college courses.

Yet if learning is always an on-the-job-phenomenon, as Senge contends, the challenge facing school districts is to embed opportunities for learning so deeply in the routine practices of the school that it becomes impossible to tell where the work ends and the learning begins. This can only be accomplished if superintendents help schools create the collaborative cultures that enable teachers to work together, engage in collective inquiry and learn from each other's experience.

The second fundamental reality that superintendents must accept if they are to contribute to quality staff development is simple: The collaborative culture and collective inquiry essential to job-embedded staff development never happen by chance or even by invitation. Teacher isolation is so deeply ingrained in the traditional fabric of most schools that leaders cannot simply invite teachers to create a collaborative culture. They must identify and implement specific, strategic interventions that help teachers work together rather than alone.


Training Suggestions
Here are some specific suggestions schools should consider to foster quality staff development in their districts.

  • Redesign the structure of the school so every teacher is a member of a team.

    Schools have been structured in ways that reinforce teachers' perceptions that their job as teachers is to concern themselves only with their own students. Individual teachers work in their individual classrooms and attempt to determine and achieve their own goals within the limitations of what each knows or does not know.

    Contemporary research, however, consistently concludes that developing a collaborative culture and collective responsibility are essential to an improving school. Superintendents create opportunities for quality staff development when they insist that teams, rather than individuals, serve as the main units for implementing curriculum, instruction and assessment. Teams can be designed by course, by grade level, by shared students or any other configuration that provides members with a common focus.

  • Provide teacher teams with time to collaborate during the school day.

    Organizations demonstrate that an initiative is valued when they devote resources to support it. The most important resource that schools can provide to support quality staff development is time for teachers to work together in collaborative teams engaged in significant collective inquiry. Once again, the artificial distinction between working and learning serves as barrier.

    If superintendents cling to the notion that teachers are only at work when they are standing in front of a classroom of children and that more time for collaboration means less time for working with children, they will be reluctant to provide teachers with time to work together. With some creative thinking, however, the time problem can be solved quickly and effectively.

    When the board of education and teachers' union of Adlai E. Stevenson High School District 125 engaged in negotiations a few years ago, they agreed teachers and students could benefit if teachers had more time to work together. However, some concerns had to be addressed first.

    The community might object if the collaborative time had an impact on their family routines--students arriving to school later or leaving school earlier than usual. Teachers already confronting the ongoing battle of "coverage" were reluctant to trade instructional time for team time. The district's financial situation did not allow for a major infusion of new dollars to support time for teachers to work together. Thus, both the school board and the teachers' union agreed to search for a strategy that would allow for regular, ongoing teacher collaboration that met three specific criteria: It did not require the school to keep students off campus, it did not have a significant impact on instructional time; and it did not increase costs to the district.

    The teachers came up with the solution. They agreed to move the start of their contractual day from 7:45 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. on the first school day of each week. Classes, which normally began at 8:05, would be delayed until 8:30. Buses would continue to pick students up at the same time as usual, and the school would provide students with several options from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. Students could go to the cafeteria for breakfast; use the library, computer labs, testing center or tutorial center; meet with their counselor or dean; participate in open gym or open weight room; or simply enjoy some social time with friends.

    Physical education teachers acknowledged they did not require as much time for collaboration as other departments, and they agreed to have one-fourth of their teachers assist with supervision each week on a rotating basis. Classes would start at 8:30 a.m., and five minutes would be trimmed from each of the five non-lunch periods to accommodate the planning time. Meanwhile, all teachers would meet in their collaborative teams from 7:30 to 8:15 a.m. This time would be held sacrosanct and could not be used for any other purpose.

    The most powerful staff development I have ever seen occurs in these weekly meetings. For example, the social studies department decided to explore ideas and strategies for teaching character. Each week, a member of the department presents his or her ideas, strategies, materials, Web sites and so forth to colleagues for consideration. Teachers probe, react, advocate and, most importantly, use and build upon one another's thinking. A good idea developed by one teacher can benefit the entire department.

    I have worked with dozens of faculties across North America and asked them to brainstorm how they might create strategies for staff development in their schools that would allow students to remain on campus, would not increase costs and would not have a significant impact on instructional time. In every instance, the faculty has been able to identify at least eight strategies within 30 minutes. Superintendents who claim they do not know how to provide teachers with time for collaboration are being disingenuous. Time is not a question of know-how, it is a question of willingness.
  • Schools have been structured in ways that reinforce teachers' perceptions that their job as teachers is to concern themselves only with their own students. Individual teachers work in their individual classrooms and attempt to determine and achieve their own goals within the limitations of what each knows or does not know.Contemporary research, however, consistently concludes that developing a collaborative culture and collective responsibility are essential to an improving school. Superintendents create opportunities for quality staff development when they insist that teams, rather than individuals, serve as the main units for implementing curriculum, instruction and assessment. Teams can be designed by course, by grade level, by shared students or any other configuration that provides members with a common focus.Organizations demonstrate that an initiative is valued when they devote resources to support it. The most important resource that schools can provide to support quality staff development is time for teachers to work together in collaborative teams engaged in significant collective inquiry. Once again, the artificial distinction between working and learning serves as barrier.If superintendents cling to the notion that teachers are only at work when they are standing in front of a classroom of children and that more time for collaboration means less time for working with children, they will be reluctant to provide teachers with time to work together. With some creative thinking, however, the time problem can be solved quickly and effectively.When the board of education and teachers' union of Adlai E. Stevenson High School District 125 engaged in negotiations a few years ago, they agreed teachers and students could benefit if teachers had more time to work together. However, some concerns had to be addressed first.The community might object if the collaborative time had an impact on their family routines--students arriving to school later or leaving school earlier than usual. Teachers already confronting the ongoing battle of "coverage" were reluctant to trade instructional time for team time. The district's financial situation did not allow for a major infusion of new dollars to support time for teachers to work together. Thus, both the school board and the teachers' union agreed to search for a strategy that would allow for regular, ongoing teacher collaboration that met three specific criteria: It did not require the school to keep students off campus, it did not have a significant impact on instructional time; and it did not increase costs to the district.The teachers came up with the solution. They agreed to move the start of their contractual day from 7:45 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. on the first school day of each week. Classes, which normally began at 8:05, would be delayed until 8:30. Buses would continue to pick students up at the same time as usual, and the school would provide students with several options from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. Students could go to the cafeteria for breakfast; use the library, computer labs, testing center or tutorial center; meet with their counselor or dean; participate in open gym or open weight room; or simply enjoy some social time with friends.Physical education teachers acknowledged they did not require as much time for collaboration as other departments, and they agreed to have one-fourth of their teachers assist with supervision each week on a rotating basis. Classes would start at 8:30 a.m., and five minutes would be trimmed from each of the five non-lunch periods to accommodate the planning time. Meanwhile, all teachers would meet in their collaborative teams from 7:30 to 8:15 a.m. This time would be held sacrosanct and could not be used for any other purpose.The most powerful staff development I have ever seen occurs in these weekly meetings. For example, the social studies department decided to explore ideas and strategies for teaching character. Each week, a member of the department presents his or her ideas, strategies, materials, Web sites and so forth to colleagues for consideration. Teachers probe, react, advocate and, most importantly, use and build upon one another's thinking. A good idea developed by one teacher can benefit the entire department.I have worked with dozens of faculties across North America and asked them to brainstorm how they might create strategies for staff development in their schools that would allow students to remain on campus, would not increase costs and would not have a significant impact on instructional time. In every instance, the faculty has been able to identify at least eight strategies within 30 minutes. Superintendents who claim they do not know how to provide teachers with time for collaboration are being disingenuous. Time is not a question of know-how, it is a question of willingness.

    Clarifying Priorities
  • Insist that teacher collaboration generates products that focus on the critical questions of teaching and learning.

    Schools must do more than provide time for teachers to collaborate and then hope for the best. Initially, teachers will gravitate toward mundane, managerial topics that have little impact on what happens in the classroom--how many points will we take off for late work, how many weeks will we spend on the DNA unit, will we read To Kill a Mockingbird or Fahrenheit 451?

    Questions such as these will do little to help teachers act like a learning community. Superintendents convey what is important and valued in a school or district by the questions they ask. They can help clarify priorities and foster quality staff development in their school if they see to it that teachers focus on the following 10 questions:

  • Schools must do more than provide time for teachers to collaborate and then hope for the best. Initially, teachers will gravitate toward mundane, managerial topics that have little impact on what happens in the classroom--how many points will we take off for late work, how many weeks will we spend on the DNA unit, will we read or ?Questions such as these will do little to help teachers act like a learning community. Superintendents convey what is important and valued in a school or district by the questions they ask. They can help clarify priorities and foster quality staff development in their school if they see to it that teachers focus on the following 10 questions:
  • What is it we want all students to know and be able to do as a result of this course, grade level or unit of instruction?

  • What prerequisite knowledge and skills are necessary to master the intended outcomes of the course, grade level or unit? How can we assess the current level of proficiency of each student?

  • By what criteria will we judge the quality of student work?

  • How will we assess student learning? What evidence can we present that each student is acquiring the intended knowledge and skills?

  • What are our strategies for responding to those students who do not demonstrate mastery of the intended outcomes? How are we providing them with additional time and support?

  • What steps have we taken to provide parents with the information they need to be effective partners in the learning process for their children?

  • What protocols or operational guidelines has your team adopted to guide how you will work together?

  • What specific, measurable goals is your team attempting to achieve?

  • Based on your analysis of data and information on student achievement, how can we get better results?

  • What is your assessment of how you are working together as a team and the progress you are making toward your goals?

    Note that each of these questions can and should require teachers to produce something as a result of their working together. Superintendents sometimes resort to demanding written agendas and minutes to "keep tabs" on teacher teams. The better way to assess the productiveness of teams is to monitor the products that they generate.

  • Improving Capacity
  • Monitor both individual and organizational professional growth.

    An adage in education advises, "What gets monitored gets done." If superintendents want to promote quality staff development, they will implement procedures to monitor the professional growth of both individual staff members and the organization in general.

    Every staff member should be expected to develop an individualized professional development plan that establishes specific goals, demonstrates how those goals are related to his or her responsibilities and/or the goals of the school or district, identifies the strategies and resources that will be used to achieve the goals, clarifies the timeline for the completion of the plan and specifies the criteria that will be used in assessing the individual's success in achieving the intended goals of the plan.

    While teachers should have the major voice in determining their own plans, district goals and initiatives also should be reflected in the individual plans of every staff member. For example, when our district’s teachers' union asked the board to commit millions of dollars to technology for classroom teachers, the board asked teachers to commit to learn how to make effective use of that technology.

    It was agreed that certain fundamental skills would be identified and an on-site trainer would be available to help each teacher acquire the skills. It also was agreed that the development of these skills was mandatory and that teachers who could not demonstrate mastery within three years would have their salaries frozen indefinitely until they could pass the skill-based proficiency assessment. There was no question in the district that this particular professional development was a priority for everyone in the organization.

    While development of individuals is essential to improving an organization, individual development does not ensure organizational development. Because professional development is intended to improve the capacity of school personnel to achieve the goals of the district and school, evaluating the effectiveness of professional development must go beyond the traditional "happiness quotient," which simply calls upon teachers to express their initial satisfaction with the experience. Educators contribute to quality professional development when they gather evidence to help answer the following questions:

  • An adage in education advises, "What gets monitored gets done." If superintendents want to promote quality staff development, they will implement procedures to monitor the professional growth of both individual staff members and the organization in general.Every staff member should be expected to develop an individualized professional development plan that establishes specific goals, demonstrates how those goals are related to his or her responsibilities and/or the goals of the school or district, identifies the strategies and resources that will be used to achieve the goals, clarifies the timeline for the completion of the plan and specifies the criteria that will be used in assessing the individual's success in achieving the intended goals of the plan.While teachers should have the major voice in determining their own plans, district goals and initiatives also should be reflected in the individual plans of every staff member. For example, when our district’s teachers' union asked the board to commit millions of dollars to technology for classroom teachers, the board asked teachers to commit to learn how to make effective use of that technology.It was agreed that certain fundamental skills would be identified and an on-site trainer would be available to help each teacher acquire the skills. It also was agreed that the development of these skills was mandatory and that teachers who could not demonstrate mastery within three years would have their salaries frozen indefinitely until they could pass the skill-based proficiency assessment. There was no question in the district that this particular professional development was a priority for everyone in the organization.While development of individuals is essential to improving an organization, individual development does not ensure organizational development. Because professional development is intended to improve the capacity of school personnel to achieve the goals of the district and school, evaluating the effectiveness of professional development must go beyond the traditional "happiness quotient," which simply calls upon teachers to express their initial satisfaction with the experience. Educators contribute to quality professional development when they gather evidence to help answer the following questions:
  • Did participants acquire new knowledge or skills?

  • Were participants provided sufficient support as they attempted to implement their new knowledge and skills?

  • Are participants using the new knowledge and skills in carrying out their responsibilities?

  • Did the experience affect student achievement or the ability of the school or district to achieve another significant goal?

  • Sustaining Change
  • Provide the context for change and persist in pursuing it.

    Contemporary educators are buffeted by countless (and often conflicting) ideas, images and alternatives for improving schools. The list of examples is endless. Schools must demand more of students--higher standards, longer school days, longer school years, more homework and increased graduation requirements. Schools must remove content from the curriculum because "less is more."

    Schools exist to instill and develop essential core values in students. Schools must focus on teaching basic competencies and leave the task of teaching values to parents. School curricula must transmit the traditional academic content that comprises the cultural literacy of an educated person. Schools must move away from content-driven curriculum and focus on developing the process skills that help students learn how to learn. Teachers must be empowered if schools are to become more effective.

    The key leadership function that a superintendent can fulfill is to help educators sift through this cacophony of mixed signals and reach consensus on the fundamental purpose of schools. They also must create consensus regarding the schools that must be created to fulfill that purpose, the collective commitments necessary to create such schools and the goals that will serve as benchmarks along the way. In other words, leaders must help provide the context through which various proposals can be assessed to determine if they are consistent with the mission, vision, values and goals of the district.

    Finally, superintendents must help schools sustain their change initiatives until the new strategies are so deeply embedded in the school's culture that they are considered simply as "the way we do things around here."

    While change may be inevitable, it is morally neutral. Superintendents who embrace change for change's sake do no service to their district. When they routinely transfer principals and teachers just to shake things up or enthusiastically jump upon every new educational bandwagon to demonstrate their commitment to change, they actually discourage a serious commitment to school improvement.

    Initiating change is easy, but sustaining the initiative through the inevitable tough times demands unfailing persistence. Schools need people at the helm who will have a clear sense of the intended destination, who will resist the temptation to drift and, above all, will stay the course when buffeted by occasional ill winds.

    The best leaders develop and strengthen those with whom they work. They build competence, capacity and confidence in others. In short, superintendents who hope to function as leaders must embrace their role as staff developers. It is the only strategy for leaving a legacy that can survive their own departure.

    Rick DuFour is superintendent of Adlai E. Stevenson High School District 125, 2 Stevenson Drive, Lincolnshire, IL. 60069. E-mail: rdufour@district125.k12.il.us. He is the author of Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement.
  • Contemporary educators are buffeted by countless (and often conflicting) ideas, images and alternatives for improving schools. The list of examples is endless. Schools must demand more of students--higher standards, longer school days, longer school years, more homework and increased graduation requirements. Schools must remove content from the curriculum because "less is more."Schools exist to instill and develop essential core values in students. Schools must focus on teaching basic competencies and leave the task of teaching values to parents. School curricula must transmit the traditional academic content that comprises the cultural literacy of an educated person. Schools must move away from content-driven curriculum and focus on developing the process skills that help students learn how to learn. Teachers must be empowered if schools are to become more effective.The key leadership function that a superintendent can fulfill is to help educators sift through this cacophony of mixed signals and reach consensus on the fundamental purpose of schools. They also must create consensus regarding the schools that must be created to fulfill that purpose, the collective commitments necessary to create such schools and the goals that will serve as benchmarks along the way. In other words, leaders must help provide the context through which various proposals can be assessed to determine if they are consistent with the mission, vision, values and goals of the district.Finally, superintendents must help schools sustain their change initiatives until the new strategies are so deeply embedded in the school's culture that they are considered simply as "the way we do things around here."While change may be inevitable, it is morally neutral. Superintendents who embrace change for change's sake do no service to their district. When they routinely transfer principals and teachers just to shake things up or enthusiastically jump upon every new educational bandwagon to demonstrate their commitment to change, they actually discourage a serious commitment to school improvement.Initiating change is easy, but sustaining the initiative through the inevitable tough times demands unfailing persistence. Schools need people at the helm who will have a clear sense of the intended destination, who will resist the temptation to drift and, above all, will stay the course when buffeted by occasional ill winds.The best leaders develop and strengthen those with whom they work. They build competence, capacity and confidence in others. In short, superintendents who hope to function as leaders must embrace their role as staff developers. It is the only strategy for leaving a legacy that can survive their own departure.