Our guest authors today are Stefanie Reinhorn, Susan Moore Johnson, and Nicole Simon. Reinhorn is an independent consultant working with school systems on Instructional Rounds and school improvement. Johnson is the Jerome T Murphy Research Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Simon is a director in the Office of K-16 Initiatives at the City University of New York. The authors are researchers at The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers at Harvard Graduate School of Education. This piece is adapted from the authors’ chapter in Teaching in Context: The Social Side of Education Reform edited by Esther Quintero (Harvard Education Press, 2017).
Carol Dweck’s theories about motivation and development have become mainstream in schools since her book, Mindset, was published in 2006. It is common to hear administrators, teachers, parents, and even students talk about helping young learners adopt a “growth mindset” --expecting and embracing the idea of developing knowledge and skills over time, rather than assuming individuals are born with fixed abilities. Yet, school leaders and teachers scarcely talk about how to adopt a growth mindset for themselves—one that assumes that educators, not only the students they teach, can improve with support and practice. Many teachers find it hard to imagine working in a school with a professional culture designed to cultivate their development, rather than one in which their effectiveness is judged and addressed with rewards and sanctions. However, these schools do exist.
In our research (see here and here*), we selected and studied six high-performing, high-poverty urban schools so that we could understand how these schools were beating the odds. Specifically, we wondered what they did to attract and develop teachers, and how teachers experienced working there. These schools, all located in one Massachusetts city, included: one traditional district school; two district turnaround schools; two state charter schools; and one charter-sponsored restart school. Based on interviews with 142 teachers and administrators, we concluded that all six schools fostered and supported a “growth mindset” for their educators.
Although these schools differed notably in what and how they taught students, they were remarkably similar in how they organized the workplace for teachers. They all believed that a key piece of supporting students’ learning was systematically attending to teachers’ learning. As one school leader explained:
Our whole mission is to be a human capital organization. We are here to develop our kids. We are here to develop our teachers. We are here to develop our administrators. This is what we do and what we’re all about.
In addition, our analysis confirmed that the teachers recognized and appreciated their schools’ persistent focus on individual and collective improvement.
How did these schools foster a “growth mindset” for teachers?
We found that three approaches to managing teachers’ work — hiring, teacher teams, and teacher evaluation – were prominent and interdependent. Together they promoted a professional culture focused on continuous improvement for teachers, individually and collectively, all in service of student learning.
During the schools’ two-way, information-rich hiring process, school leaders highlighted their expectations about development by telling candidates that, if they joined the school, they would have to, as one said, “be willing to constantly reassess, reinvent and really be creative.” They showed what this meant by requiring candidates to teach a demonstration lesson and then respond to feedback. If a candidate made excuses or rejected the feedback, her was judged not to have the right mindset. As one current teacher said, this experience was “a great preview of what it would be like to work [there].”
Another explained that the feedback session during the interview process convinced her that she wanted to work at this school because of its explicit focus on supporting teachers.
An additional element of the hiring process was the opportunity to interview with current teachers, which enabled the candidate to know her potential future peers and their expectations. In some cases, applicants were invited to join in a teacher team meeting with what would be their future team, in order to understand and participate in their collaborative efforts. This allowed both the candidate and current teachers to assess to whether the candidate and existing faculty would be a good match.
Teachers in the schools we studied, like those in many schools, were expected to collaborate with their colleagues so that their efforts to improve the school would be coherent. Five of the six schools relied on teacher teams as a key strategy for improving their school, and they dedicated substantial blocks of time each week for teachers to meet. Most teachers we interviewed endorsed teams as a valuable mechanism for developing and maintaining an effective instructional program and monitoring students’ experiences and progress.
They said that their experience on a team reduced their isolation, supported them in developing curriculum and lessons, ensured that students received close attention, and contributed to a more successful school. When we asked a teacher leader with 6 years of experience whom she would go to for support, she quickly responded, “My team members.” When asked further what kinds of support she might seek, she answered, “Everything.” When we probed further about when this might occur, she said, “Every day, many times.”
A teacher from another school described how his team spends its time:
Some of it is sharing best practices and ideas that we have; some of it’s showing student work. We’ve done things like show videos of tutoring sessions or classes to talk about students’ understanding. We brought in research to talk about together and also common planning. It’s kind of a mixture of professional development [that feeds] into planning.
Across the schools, participants viewed teacher teams as a significant source of support for their development.
Supervision and Evaluation
Administrators and teachers in all six schools said the primary purpose of evaluation was to develop teachers, not to assess, reward, or dismiss them. One charter administrator explained, “We believe that teachers, or just people in general, grow with immediate feedback and real-time instruction on how they are performing.” In this sample, most teachers described participating in an intense, year-long cycle of observations, followed soon after by written or oral critique and recommendations. Approximately, 40 percent of the 97 teachers we interviewed said they were observed and received feedback at least twice per month. Another 20 percent estimated that they were observed and given feedback between five and 10 times per year. The final 40 percent reported that they were observed one to four times per year, consistent with state and district requirements. Virtually all teachers we interviewed endorsed the observations and feedback they received as a positive part of their professional experience. One teacher in her seventh year of teaching appreciated the feedback and said, “I constantly feel like I’m getting better.”
How did these three professional systems interact?
These processes for selecting, supporting and developing teachers were mutually reinforcing. Ambitious hiring procedures ensured that teachers were well matched with their schools and expected to engage in a community organized for continuous growth. Because administrators observed teachers’ instruction often and discussed written feedback in face-to-face meetings, most teachers had ready access to critique and advice. This close attention to individuals’ development was complemented by teachers’ experiences on teams, where they coordinated their planning and instruction, reflected on students’ performance, and devised new approaches for improving the performance of their grade level or department.
These six schools serve as examples of how a school might foster a growth mindset for both educators and students. While we can’t say definitively that this approach was responsible for their schools’ attaining the highest rating in the state’s accountability system, it likely contributed to it. Of course, the policy context in which each school operated directly and indirectly affected its practices. Our research suggests that several factors were essential: having sufficient autonomy to select teachers and redesign the schedule; having ample resources to provide time for teachers and administrators to participate in these activities; and having principals who were, themselves, skilled instructors, efficient managers and leaders who could promote a growth mindset in others.