Global Perspectives: Teachers as Leaders of Professional Learning: New Roles and Responsibilities

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by Nathan Driskell

CIEB just released two seminal studies by Ben Jensen and Minxuan Zhang on professional learning environments in top-performing systems. These studies show how systems including Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and British Columbia have transformed schools into environments that facilitate the continuous improvement and retention of a highly professional teaching force. As this month’s Tucker’s Lens also shows, in jurisdictions like Singapore and Shanghai, a carefully articulated teacher career ladder is central to their professional work environments. But even in jurisdictions like Hong Kong and British Columbia that have not developed similarly elaborate ladders, teachers have the opportunity to take on new roles and responsibilities. In particular, teachers with the necessary skills and expertise can take on professional learning leadership roles in their schools.

This month’s Global Perspectives will explore how Singapore, Hong Kong and British Columbia define the role of professional learning leader for their expert teachers. The specifics of teacher leaders’ job descriptions change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For that matter, each jurisdiction refers to the position by a different title. But in all four jurisdictions, experienced and highly regarded teachers are expected to play key roles in facilitating the learning of their peers. What follows are brief descriptions of how each jurisdiction has defined the responsibilities of professional learning leaders.

Singapore: School Staff Developers

SingaporeTeacherSingapore has the most complex and articulated teacher career ladder system in the world, with three tracks available to teachers based on their skills and desired career progression. The “Teaching Track” aims to keep teachers in the classroom for the duration of their careers, but at the same time to give them increasingly more responsibility and leverage their skills across the whole school as they gain greater experience. To that end, the School Staff Developer position is available to teachers when they reach the Senior (second) level of the Teaching Track. Their teaching load is reduced by 30 percent in order to accommodate their additional responsibilities.

Although the school principal is responsible for setting the overall vision and objectives for the school, School Staff Developers are responsible for developing the strategic plan that will achieve these objectives. As part of this planning process, they direct department heads to come up with specific and individualized development goals for every teacher based on those teachers’ performance reviews. They then determine the kind of professional development that will be required to meet the objectives. The professional development that the School Staff Developers plan and deliver may take many forms: induction programs for new teachers, whole-school professional development and/or learning opportunities for groups of teachers. In some cases they may outsource professional learning to groups with particular expertise.

School staff developers are not considered to be experts in the role of professional learning leader purely by virtue of being selected for it. They receive five months of induction and training in their role of 13 sessions run at the Academy of Singapore Teachers, the nation’s teacher professional development hub. Finally, they are part of a collaborative professional learning community that connects digitally and face-to-face to share tools, resources, and advice.

Hong Kong: Curriculum Leaders

HKPrimaryTeacherIn Hong Kong, the central Education Bureau provides a curriculum framework that outlines what students should know and be able to do, the topics they should study to get there, and when and how they should be assessed to determine mastery. However, planning for curriculum itself – what students will study, when, and how – is left to individual schools. This loose regulation of curriculum means every school needs a Curriculum Leader on staff. Curriculum Leaders are responsible for partnering with the principal to set curriculum and assessment policies and, most importantly, develop training and support programs that will enable teachers to implement the curriculum effectively. Although Curriculum Leaders are considered to have the authority of an assistant principal, they are in fact senior teachers who still teach half time. By doing so, they remain connected to the needs of their peers and their students and can experience first hand the curricula they develop.

As in the other jurisdictions we have examined, Curriculum Leaders are well trained. They receive 100 hours of training from their districts, often in partnership with their principals. The goal of training curriculum leaders and principals simultaneously in professional learning leadership is to ensure that they are aligned in their understanding of professional learning and their vision for how to use it to meet the goals of the school. Curriculum leaders are also given plenty of time to accomplish their goals: their teaching load is reduced by 50 percent in order to accommodate their additional responsibilities.

British Columbia: Coordinators of Inquiry

Teacher'sArmBritish Columbia’s teacher leadership structure is less centralized and defined than that in Singapore and Hong Kong. While there is no one job description for professional learning leaders across the jurisdiction, the role of “Coordinator of Inquiry” in the Delta School District is representative of the kind of responsibilities teacher leaders take on. This role’s primary responsibility is to facilitate teachers’ inquiry, a process by which they meet in groups and discuss problems and issues related to student learning and collaboratively develop new questions, strategies and solutions to the problems at hand. Coordinators meet with individual teachers to discuss their students’ learning, bring teachers together in groups to facilitate collaborative inquiry based on common issues, provide additional resources and support to teachers across the school, and document stories of teachers’ learning and growth to disseminate across the province.

Aspiring Coordinators of Inquiry must apply for the position with their school principal, and are required to complete a formal job interview. They also receive initial training in professional learning, as teacher leaders in Singapore and Hong Kong do, but most of their training comes in the form of ongoing learning. They participate in professional learning networks that meet every six weeks to set goals, plan out their professional learning strategies, and share their learning with one another. Coordinators of Inquiry have their teaching load is reduced by 10-20 percent in order to accommodate their additional responsibilities, and they receive one half-day per week of scheduled time in order to devote to their leadership role.

Conclusion: Different roles, similar expertise

The graphic below summarizes the job descriptions we have briefly highlighted for several professional learning leaders. As this graphic makes clear, the roles vary based on how schools and teaching teams are organized and how each system builds professional learning into the day-to-day life of its teachers.

PDinfographicv2Policymakers should not read this piece as an endorsement of any one model of professional learning leaders. Those seeking to learn from these systems may wish to borrow elements of each of the job descriptions we have discussed and adapt them for their own context. Whatever the exact role of the professional learning leader, what is important is that their role helps to drive the following objectives:

  • Improve senior teachers sense of efficacy and job satisfaction by giving them greater responsibility and an impact on student learning outside of their own classrooms, thereby increasing the likelihood of retention for the most senior and most skilled teachers
  • Increase the likelihood that less senior teachers will change their practices, because they are learning new practices from a colleague who is well-respected within the school
  • Promote a climate of learning spread across the entire school, rather than siloed within a single leader
  • Ensure that professional development is planned and facilitated by actual teachers and therefore responsive to teachers’ needs

These objectives cut across conceptions of leadership for professional learning in all top-performing jurisdictions. They demonstrate that from Asia to North America, whether professional development is conducted according to grade level or department, whether the curriculum is highly articulated or less specific, and whether the learning leader is considered part of a school’s administration or a fulltime member of the teaching staff, the highest performing systems have agreed on the importance of getting well-qualified, experienced educators from within the school to facilitate the collaborative, ongoing learning of their peers.