Instructional Excellence & Professional Learning

Nurturing Excellence in Instructional Leadership (NEIL)

Background

Canadian Rockies Public Schools (CRPS) has been focused on Nurturing Instructional Excellence since the conception of its visionary work surrounding Inspiring Hearts and Minds, embarked on in 2007. This has been a multifaceted endeavor, with one aspect focused on direct work with teachers in the classroom using the Teaching Effectiveness Framework (TEF) (Friesen, 2009), while another aspect has been the focus of the district wide administrative team on the Professional Practice Competencies for School Leaders in Alberta  (PPCSLA).  The overarching aim of all professional learning has been to work towards the achievement of the Shared Vision of Instructional Excellence

Research on improving

The most important variable affecting student achievement is the quality of teaching; the second most important variable is the degree to which a principal works with their teachers (Reeves, 2004).  Taking both of these factors into account, the Educational Leadership Team (ELT), which is comprised of CRPS school administrators and district leaders,  asked themselves, “How can the professional practice competencies for school leaders in Alberta improve teaching practices, student engagement and student learning?” If Leading Teacher Learning and Development is the leadership dimension with the biggest impact on student learning (Robinson, 2011), how do principals effectively develop their capacity to sponsor evidence-informed professional conversations as a way of leading and nurturing teacher learning?

 

Applying research to CRPS Action 

To answer these questions, the ELT along with their partners from the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary and the Galileo Educational Network developed the Nurturing Excellence in Instructional Leadership (NEIL) Initiative.  In this model, teachers invite members of the ELT into the sandbox, where the classroom becomes the learning stage for the leadership team, along with teachers and students.  The administrators hone their skills in relation to identifying and supporting effective instructional practices as supported by the TEF.  The new twist on the learning takes place when team members are observed providing feedback to teachers during post observation conferences and then in turn are provided focused feedback on the effectiveness of their post conference feedback.  

Because the TEF fundamentally frames all professional learning at CRPS, it is also the common lens through which all NEIL inquiry processes engage leaders and teachers in their evidence-informed professional conversations. In particular, this inquiry into how the PPCSLA can improve teaching practices, student engagement and student learning embodies Principle #5, Improving Practice in Company of Peers, as leaders commit to improving their own practice and to advance the learning of colleagues.

Process

The NEIL Inquiry rounds involve a series of conversations and observations:

  • an initial conversation between the teacher and administrator during which each identify their own areas of desired growth
  • a pre-observation conversation among the teacher, administrator and observers where all roles and goals are defined. The teacher identifies areas of feedback requested from the principal, including artifacts for evidence of student learning, then the administrator identifies competencies around which they want feedback from the observing team.

  • a classroom observation

  • a post-observation conversation during which the principal provides requested feedback to the teacher. During the conversation, the two observers focus on and gather evidence around leadership practices. Observers then provide feedback to the principal regarding practices they demonstrated during the conversation that helped nurture teacher reflection, deepen understanding of instructional excellence, and identify the leader’s next steps. Teachers also have the opportunity to provide feedback directly to the administrator and the observation team.

  • a teacher debrief conversation where teachers who have been observed meet together with the learning coach to further discuss their NEIL experience. The teachers identify leadership practices they find effective in supporting teacher learning by focusing on improving professional conversations.

  • an ELT debrief conversation, where teams use the NEIL round and the teacher debrief feedback as the basis for deeper discussions about leadership practices that support teacher learning and thinking, for example, deepening understanding of the TEF, framing respectful questions, engaging in evidence-informed conversations and identifying next steps.

Principal Reflections 

The administrators also recognized the positive effect of this approach in their school and across the district.

This process (NEIL cycles) is contributing to the relationships between schools.  This is significant as each school contributes to a reciprocal learning environment.  As teaching and learning improves in one school, other schools are "pushed" to improve their teaching and leadership effectiveness. (Administrator comment, NEIL Inquiry October 2015)

The NEIL process gives me the means for a very clear, purposeful observation with specific directions about what to observe that focuses on student learning. The post-conference conversation stays authentic, non-judgemental and meaningful for the teacher. It can also lead to a purpose for the next steps and next visit. (Administrator comment, NEIL Inquiry January 2016)

Teacher Reflections 

Teachers involved have found the rounds to be challenging and exciting.  Teachers have commented:

...it's so important for leaders to get to all classrooms regularly so that they can support everyone's learning and they know what they are leading (teacher comment, NEIL Inquiry October 2015).  

Great, positive, really helpful because I came away with specific feedback and no fluff. I have a plan for next steps and my leader is coming back to observe what I learned and will try. This has created a more constructive relationship between us.(teacher comment, NEIL Inquiry January 2016).  

Got helpful feedback that really helped me rethink my project. I feel more focused on the essential learner outcomes and I’m also rethinking my evaluation and assessment process. Some great tips too. (teacher comment, NEIL Inquiry January 2016).  

Key to these conversations is that essential relationship of mutual trust, where both parties understand this is reciprocal learning. (teacher comment, NEIL Inquiry January 2016).  

The conversational approach is the most helpful aspect, it’s like holding a mirror up to my practice.(Teacher comment, NEIL Inquiry February 2016)

Inquiry in the context of professional learning: there were questions that were posed from an inquiry stance that made me think, and identify next steps through that inquiry process. (Teacher comment, NEIL Inquiry February 2016)

Conversations were respectful, how great to be asked questions that were non-judgemental, comfortable, and meaningful. Meant to bring everyone’s practice further, it’s a mutual context. Definitely all about “reciprocal learning”.  (Teacher comment, NEIL Inquiry February 2016)

How can we get into each other’s classrooms and integrate these kinds of professional conversation & collaboration woven into our daily practices. How do we open our doors to one another? (Teacher comment, NEIL Inquiry February 2016)

 

The last comment indicates that teachers are finding the process beneficial and want to integrate the process of reflective feedback into their collaborative practice with other teachers.

Conclusion 

In reflecting on the process thus far, as Superintendent I describe the professional learning at CRPS as a convergence of learning to the point where everyone, regardless of role within the district, is on the same learning pathway toward instructional excellence and improvement of student learning. “We are witnessing first hand a culture of  collective efficacy that is en masse throughout the district. It is our belief that what is happening at CRPS can be replicated throughout districts both in and outside Alberta as long as some essential components are maintained - relational trust, consistent and research based messaging, human resources, and all partners brought to the table in a meaningful way.”

As we move forward with the NEIL Initiative, we hope to obtain additional evidence that this focused approach, centered around evidence-informed respectful learning conversations, will further enhance the competencies of our leaders in the area of instructional leadership.  This in turn will nurture teacher learning, leading to improved instructional quality in the classroom and ultimately improved student learning.