Supporting Leaders to Create a Culture of Learning

When I became a classroom teacher, one of the first books I received was The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher by Henry and Rosemary T. Wong to help me set up my learning environment and classroom management system. I continued to adopt and adapt many of the ideas as I welcomed new students year after year in my classroom and eventually a whole school as a principal. The first days of school are important to setting the tone of the school year and key to creating the the learning culture where all (yes, ALL) students feel like they belong to the classroom community.

In my role as a Professional Learning Director, I support many district and school leaders with transitioning into instructional leadership roles, so they may better support mathematics instruction in their schools. Leadership support is crucial for teachers as well as their students, not only for promoting student-centered learning, but also in addressing and incorporating new standards and practices. Preparing, organizing, and implementing new practices can be overwhelming. I help math educators plan lessons with a balance of mathematical concepts and procedural fluency, adopt new strategies to increase all of their students’ mathematical thinking, and most importantly, establish a productive learning culture in their mathematics classes. In the last few years of doing this work, I have found certain actions to be essential in the development of successful instructional leaders at the start of the school year.

Making all students a priority

One of my favorite memories of elementary/middle school was that my principal greeted me and all of the other students every morning when we walked into the door. He also knew everyone in my immediate family by name. (Note: I went to a small parochial school for K-8.) Nevertheless, my principal’s daily practice made me feel seen every day. I work with district and building leaders with developing a learning culture at their schools to build a community of learners. One of the first things in our work is to review the culture of the school and the classrooms and to discuss how it reflects the cultures and backgrounds of the all of students in the building, how students are seen and heard, and the learning mindset of teachers to support students’ learning.

Identify priorities to transform instruction

Just as my diet does not work without a plan, transforming instruction does not work without establishing 2-3 priorities that are needed to increase student achievement. To help identify priorities, I observe mathematics instruction with district and school leaders to gather data about what’s going on in classrooms. It’s important to prioritize time in the classroom and see math instruction in action, just as we schedule assemblies and school emergency drills. If this classroom time isn’t on a principal’s calendar, it most likely won’t happen because of all of the other daily activities at school. After collecting observation data, I sit down with school leaders and discuss trends we are seeing across the school and in specific grade levels. Questions I ask include: “What did you notice about the discourse? Who was doing the math during the observation? What was evidence of all students learning during instruction?” After we discuss the trends in the observation data, we establish 2-3 priorities for mathematics instruction and focus on identifying specific goals that will accomplish the priorities.

Engage in professional learning

When instructional leaders have identified their district/school goals and priorities, I help them identify what to look for in an effective mathematics classroom. Since experience is the best teacher, I encourage instructional leaders to engage in mathematics professional learning so that they can be in the role of a learner and identify the conditions needed to make sense of math. As they participate in professional learning, instructional leaders engage in mathematical experiences and reveal that they can make sense of the mathematics using multiple learning experiences, social interaction, and hands-on learning. Instructional leaders use their professional learning experiences to identify these conditions, support teachers’ instructional practice, and implement these conditions in their classrooms.

Follow-up with instructional support

Instructional leaders can nurture instructional practice by supporting their teachers with research-based best practices such as number talks, 3-act problems, and math menus or workshop. It is critical that instructional leaders visit classrooms often to see how teachers are implementing instructional practices they learned from professional learning or PLCs. As a principal, I put classroom visits on my weekly calendar to ensure that I could see how students were engaging in discourse and rigorous tasks. I would then schedule informal follow-up conversations to reflect with the teachers about the lessons and how the instructional practice supported their students’ mathematical thinking and reasoning. These instructional conversations supported the teachers’ capacity and helped me build relationships with them and their students.

Identifying instructional priorities, engaging in professional learning, and instructional support are essential actions to creating an effective culture of learning.

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