Seeing the bigger picture

This post is part of an ongoing series that describes strategies program leaders can use to energize stakeholders around improvement work. For an introduction to this series, please visit our blog post here.

Ask any teacher-educator about the class she’s teaching tomorrow, and you’re likely to get a detailed rundown of her lesson. Ask a mentor teacher about the teacher-candidate she has this semester, and you might hear a thorough analysis of the candidate’s strengths and growth areas. What you’re less likely to hear is how that class, or those growth areas, fits into the broader picture of a candidate’s — or a cohort of candidates’ — learning trajectory.

This makes total sense, because teacher-educators are asked to focus on their own piece of the puzzle, and rarely have opportunities to think about the bigger picture. Yet learning science tells us that we learn new ideas by reference to ideas we already know. Any good K-12 educator will agree: A teacher needs to consider students’ prior knowledge and how to build on that knowledge to foster new learning. This applies to the development of teacher-candidates as well. Teacher-educators need to understand a candidate’s macro learning trajectory, and how different courses, assignments, and experiences support development along that trajectory, in order to maximize teacher-candidate learning within their portion of that trajectory. In other words, it’s important to help stakeholders see the bigger picture. Here are some specific strategies a leader can use to help faculty zoom out.

Create an organizing framework.
Leaders often describe their programs by listing courses that teacher-candidates take. But course numbers and titles aren’t actually helpful in communicating the arc of a program, especially to cooperating teachers and principals who may not know what happens in each course. So instead of listing courses, leaders could create an organizing framework that communicates what candidates should be learning at each stage of the program and how each piece contributes to the broader whole. At University of Missouri – St. Louis, for example, leaders describe the program in five phases: Commit, Emerge, Develop, Launch, and Scale Up. Each phase has specific learning objectives and specific courses and experiences that align to those objectives. This helps stakeholders understand the arc of candidate learning, and make it easier to see how individual experiences contribute to the whole.

Look at data together.
Leaders can create opportunities for faculty and other stakeholders to collaboratively investigate evidence on candidate and graduate learning and performance. Faculty may be used to examining whether candidates mastered skills in the courses they teach – but leaders can also create opportunities for them to see evidence of whether candidates are (or are not) using those skills and knowledge in the field. Supervisors and mentor teachers may be used to looking at data on the few candidates with whom they interact – but leaders can also ask them to look at trends in performance across the entire cohort. We know a number of programs that have instituted annual Data Summits to spark these conversations. Other programs, like Lesley University, have reserved monthly time to investigate program data.

To ensure these experiences are meaningful, leaders should be intentional when selecting data. Evidence proximal to the work of teacher-educators, like observations of candidate instructional skill or teacher work samples, tends to be more meaningful. Leaders also must consider how to ensure stakeholders with multiple perspectives can contribute to the conversations. Using protocols to ground conversations in evidence and encourage equitable participation can ensure voices that are often discounted – like those of supervisors and mentor teachers – add to the understanding of whether and how candidates are learning.

Experience a different perspective.
Leaders often get pulled away from the daily work of teaching and learning, so we ask our Impact Academy fellows to observe candidates teaching, hold candidate focus groups, and get feedback directly from principals. These experiences help leaders check assumptions about what is happening (or not) in programs, understand how program decisions are actually experienced by candidates, and appreciate the challenges candidates and teacher-educators face daily. Leaders can also encourage others to experience another perspective. At UNC Charlotte, the leadership team has committed to observing candidates in the field, and has encouraged teaching faculty to coach at least one student-teacher per semester. We heard from faculty that coaching candidates has given them more insight into the challenges their partner schools face, helped them identify areas to reinforce with candidates in courses they teach, and given their teaching more credibility with candidates because they can draw on recent examples from the field.

Asking people to do new things can make them feel vulnerable. One professor told us she was worried because her coaching skills were rusty, and she didn’t want to step on the toes of the cooperating teacher. So leaders using this strategy must think carefully about what relationships, norms, and skills are needed in order to help people feel successful as they try on new perspectives.

Go see other programs (or have someone visit yours).
Leaders can also create opportunities for teacher-educators to see other programs in action. Leaders and faculty who visited other programs have told us the experience helps them view their own programs in a new light; by trying to understand another program, they shift their perspective from a particular component to a broader programmatic view, allowing them to return home with a new lens or different questions. These visits are most helpful when they are thoughtfully structured so that faculty have a particular focus for the visit, have opportunities to observe candidate and faculty teaching, and have time to reflect on what they saw and the implications for their own program. We’ve also seen the reverse be powerful when leaders ask a trusted colleague to visit, bringing a new set of eyes and ears to the program. An external colleague may be able to view the program holistically rather than relying on frames that program faculty may typically fall into. Leaders must be careful to frame these visits as non-evaluative, and those visiting should share observations grounded in evidence without being judgmental.

These four strategies can help leaders looking to lay the foundation for program improvement by helping stakeholders move beyond a myopic view of their own puzzle piece to see the bigger picture.

Valerie Sakimura

Executive Director

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