As a high school principal who has worked for the past six years through a transition from traditional to competency education, I am often asked how our school district has supported teachers both in the past through the transition process and also currently as we sustain our competency education model. Our teacher support system has many layers, each designed to support teachers at different points along our journey.
Professional Learning Communities
Perhaps the single biggest investment our school district made prior to implementing competency education was to establish the Professional Learning Community (PLC) model in each of our schools. I keep this quote from PLC architect Rick DuFour on my desk to remind me what role PLCs play in our school’s teacher support system: “A team is a group of people working interdependently to achieve a common goal for which members are mutually accountable.” PLC teams, when implemented correctly, focus their work around four essential questions:
What is it we want students to learn?
How will we know when they have learned it?
What will we do if they haven’t learned it?
What will we do if they already know it?
These questions fit perfectly with the process we must follow to establish a competency education system in our school. We start by identifying the competencies and performance indicators for each course or subject area, we then develop assessments and rubrics to measure to what degree students meet the competencies, and we establish systems to help students reach competency through instruction and academic support.
Our school’s PLC team structure replaced an older department structure where teachers met with others who taught the same subject. Now, when possible, our teachers are grouped into teams because they share the same students. For example, our Freshman Learning Community team consists of all teachers who teach grade 9 from Science, Social Studies, Wellness, and Language Arts. The same is true of our Sophomore Learning Community. Our math teachers are still their own content-specific team, but they share students because they all teach grade 9 math during the same period of the day.
The PLC team structure is a natural way for our teachers to support each other and hold each other accountable for their competency education work. We have created the opportunity within our daily bell schedule for our PLC teams to meet twice a week for an hour during the school day. They use this common time to, among other things, plan and integrate their instruction, create common performance assessments, and develop rubrics and calibrate them with student work. Inherently built into our PLC model is an element of peer coaching. Each fall when new teachers join our ranks, the PLC team structure provides them with a layer of support to help them build up the capacity to be successful in our competency education model.
Fostering Teacher Expertise
Like many schools across the country, we recognize the value of the train the trainer model. We invest resources in some of our teachers to become experts in a particular area or skill. Over the past few years some of our teachers have participated in advanced training in competency validation, rubric development, quality performance assessment development, assessment data analysis, and differentiated instruction. Once they have reached an advanced level in one or more of these areas or skills, we make them members of our district’s training team. As a training team member, they have an opportunity to provide both direct and indirect support to other teachers in our school and other schools in our district as we all do this same work. Some offer coaching support for teachers during their planning periods, and some offer full workshop trainings during professional days or the summer. Some even offer online virtual support to their peers. This peer support model allows us to foster teacher expertise in-house. There are always opportunities for our teachers to become experts in an area of competency education and then share their knowledge with others.
As part of our PLC team model, we have allocated resources to support teachers as PLC Team Leaders. At our school, a PLC Team Leader is responsible for facilitating all of their work of their PLC team for the year. This includes keeping the team focused on the four essential questions of the PLC model, developing goals and norms with the team at the beginning of the year, and holding the team accountable for addressing these goals and norms in all of their work throughout the year. Our PLC team leaders are contributing members of the shared decision making process that we use at our school. They are the driving force for continuous improvement.
Inclusion of Coaching and Other Experts
We have been fortunate during our competency education journey to have several experts and organizations that have provided support to our teachers as we have grown into our model. Early in our implementation, experts like competency education specialist Rose Colby provided our teachers with the tools to write and validate school and course competencies, to understand how their instruction needed to change so that they could assess students at higher depths of understanding, to develop rubrics and quality performance assessments, and to use those assessments to both inform instruction and measure competency. Standards-based teaching advocate Rick Wormeli helped our teachers tune their instructional philosophy to one that better supports competency education. Associates from Solution Tree have assisted our teachers in their understanding and implementation of the Professional Learning Community model. Experts at the Center for Collaborative Education in Boston and the Center for Assessment in Dover, NH continue to support our teachers in their work to develop quality performance assessments in each of their courses. We have enlisted the help of many outside content-specific coaches to mentor and support our teachers in their competency education work. Our teachers have benefited greatly from the support they have received from outside coaches and experts.
Competency education only works in our school because of our teachers, and we believe it is our ongoing job to support teachers so they can continue to do the great work that they do for us. In our school district we jokingly say that we have been engaged in a multi year teacher preparation program called Advanced Teachership 2.0. In this “program” many of us have had to re-learn how to be effective teachers all over again. While we may joke about this, the reality is that we have indeed spent many years in a calculated effort to change the way we approach instruction, and we believe this is the ultimate goal of an effective competency education model. Our teachers believe that all students can learn. They believe that their role is to help students reach a level of mastery in each of their courses or grade level competencies. They know they are part of a system of educators working interdependently and holding each other mutually accountable for these beliefs and the work necessary to make competency education a reality. I am privileged to work with some of the most dedicated teachers who have been laser focused on becoming competency education experts since our school district first decided to move in this direction.
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Brian M. Stack is the National Association of Secondary School Principals 2017 New Hampshire Secondary School Principal of the Year. He is Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH, an author for Solution Tree, and also serves as an expert for Understood.org, a division of the National Center for Learning Disabilities in Washington, DC. He lives with his wife Erica and his five children Brady, Cameron, Liam, Owen, and Zoey on the New Hampshire seacoast. You can follow Brian on Twitter @bstackbu or visit his blog.