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Professional Development in Mathematics Is NOT Just for Teachers

You’re on the right track toward improving student learning outcomes now that you’ve listened to your teachers and have provided them with targeted professional development opportunities that follow best practices in adult learning. Keep up the great work as a highly-effective administrator by taking the next step: embarking on the professional learning journey with your teachers!

While teachers typically do the instructional heavy lifting and are held most directly responsible for student learning outcomes, they need the support of dedicated administrators in order to do their jobs well. This support includes putting in place logistical pieces like scheduled time to plan with colleagues, expert instructional coaches to provide insight and feedback, and high-quality curricular resources to use. But the necessary support goes beyond logistics if administrators are to help instructors become highly effective for their students.

Administrators must engage in the same professional learning topics that teachers do.

Creating the space to shift teacher mindset and practices while administrators maintain old ideas about effective instruction sends teachers mixed messages and undermines teacher growth. This is especially true in the face of major changes in instructional goals and expectations like those that the CCSS Standards for Mathematical Practices bring.

Let’s say, thanks to a needs assessment conducted by a collaborative team inclusive of district administrators, building principals, instructional coaches, teachers and even students, you’ve designed a professional learning program focusing on helping students Model with Mathematics (SMP 4). Dedicated to implementing the strategically designed professional learning plan, building administrators allowed the use of a precious institute day for a PD session launching the program, created time in the schedule for teachers to plan with colleagues, found money in the budget to bring in expert instructional math coaches, and coordinated other potentially effective professional learning opportunities for teachers. Teachers have been role-playing new instructional methods in trainings, revising lesson plans that incorporate the methods in team meetings, and are willing to attempt to make these challenging shifts in their classrooms.

That is, teachers are willing to attempt new instructional methods IF they think the culture of the building will support some risk-taking.

Enter a building principal who knows that teachers are working towards getting students to model with mathematics, but who doesn’t know that instead of directly teaching students how to use a diagram (as has been a common teaching method in more traditional math classes), a teacher is facilitating a discussion about student-generated mathematical representations that will lead students to see the connections between the representations and, ultimately, to develop a useful model or diagram for themselves. A formal or informal observation by an untrained eye could become a teacher’s worst nightmare: attempting new teaching strategies that their primary evaluator does not recognize as effective and, consequently, receiving a lower-than-desired rating!

In order to keep from undermining the well-planned professional learning program meant to improve instructional practices, administrators should know more than just which Mathematical Practices teachers are helping students master. Administrators need to know what mastery of those Practices looks like, what challenges teachers face in implementing correlating instructional strategies, and how to provide insightful feedback when attempts at these strategies fall short. It is only through their own professional learning that administrators can truly become the effective instructional leaders that teachers need and deserve.

Including and announcing administrator learning in the professional learning plan makes reaching the goals for students much more likely.

Professional development for administrative staff can be separate from, but parallel to that of the teaching staff. Regardless of the configuration, teachers need to know that their administrators are hearing and learning about the same information and instructional methods that they are. This will allow teachers to have the confidence to try new, possibly uncomfortable, strategies with their students without the worry of being misunderstood by their evaluators.

Indeed, it’s imperative that instructional leaders work strategically to create a culture of learning and support for the adults in their schools. Adopting a whole new mindset about the teaching and learning of mathematics - which is what the Mathematical Practices represent to some educators - takes a great deal of vulnerability, trust, and willingness to fail and try again. It is only in a relentlessly supportive environment where administrators are engaging in similar new learning as teachers that teachers will consider risking apparent failure on their difficult journey to successful new instructional models.

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