Board Members Take Note: Investing in Teacher Development Pays Dividends

Sarah Birkeland

Teachers learn how to teach by doing it, experiencing a steep learning curve during the first five years on the job.

Effective teaching requires knowledge of the content one is teaching, but it also requires practical knowledge—knowledge expressed in doing. Research further demonstrates that what teachers gain in preparation programs only carries them so far. Teachers learn how to teach by doing it, experiencing a steep learning curve during the first five years on the job. The opportunities for professional learning available to them during those first years profoundly affect the kinds of teachers they become. When new teachers receive intensive on-the-job support they improve more rapidly and ultimately become more effective teachers than when they do not.

Since student learning is at the very heart of our schools’ missions, promoting the development of teachers’ practice should be school leaders’ primary concern. Yet many Jewish day schools maintain outdated practices of professional development, behaving as if brand new teachers should be expert from their first day on the job, and treating ongoing teacher learning as an afterthought. One aspect of the problem is the way school communities understand and value teacher learning. Another is the way teacher professional development typically is structured and funded. As leaders in their communities, day school board members are in a powerful position to affect both.

Here are three recommendations for board members who wish to invest in the development of excellent teaching at their schools.

Recommendation #1: Spread the Word

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the most important investments a board can make in the quality of its teachers is a non-economic one—good news in the current economy! Board members can deeply influence the quality of teaching in their day schools, over time, by promoting a school culture that acknowledges the intellectual complexity of teachers’ work and the importance of regarding teachers as learners. While many readers may find those values easy to embrace, they are deeply countercultural, challenging long-held assumptions in society about the profession of teaching and the people who enter it.

In the Mandel Center’s Induction Partnership Project at Brandeis University, we have spent the past three years helping Jewish day schools attend to the ongoing learning of their teachers while simultaneously studying the results. Again and again, we have been struck by the ways in which individual schools’ cultures mediate teachers’ growth. We have come to believe that teachers thrive in schools where all community members understand that teaching is complex work, learning to do it well takes time and guided practice, and faculty members are all responsible for helping one another learn.

We have seen that in such schools teachers are likely to work hard on improving their own instruction and invest in developing the skills of their newly hired colleagues. Administrators are likely to cast themselves in supportive roles, marshalling available resources to help teachers who are struggling. And parents are sometimes willing to see novice teachers’ early missteps as important learning opportunities rather than cause for immediate dismissal. The presence of these shared understandings about teacher learning are powerful not only because they affect how teachers, administrators, and parents behave, but also because when leaders in the school community deeply value teacher learning, the resources necessary to create powerful learning opportunities tend to follow.

When we leave our teachers to sink or swim on their own, ultimately the students suffer.

Board members are in a unique position to foster these shared understandings. Board members are chosen as decision makers because they hold others’ respect; their words and actions help set the tone for a school community. As a board member, you can make a small but critical difference in your school by consistently communicating to other members of the community that teaching is complex work, learning to do it well takes time, and school policies should be designed accordingly. Help the people around you appreciate the fact that excellent teaching requires a vast store of skills and knowledge. Remind them that master teachers are not only deeply familiar with the content they teach, but they understand how to break it down into ideas that are accessible to children. They anticipate common misconceptions and address them before they cause confusion. They develop strategies for conveying concepts in pictures, words, sounds and movement to accommodate different learning styles. They continually assess student learning and adjust instruction accordingly. And that is only the tip of the iceberg: every day, excellent teachers engage in community building, public speaking, conflict resolution, and data analysis. They are ambassadors, detectives, counselors, and traffic cops.

Common sense tells us that a person could not learn and integrate all of those skills overnight or on one’s own. It is a long, sometimes painful learning curve. If your community members remain unconvinced, ask them to consider other complex endeavors like conducting an orchestra or flying a jumbo jet. We wouldn’t put an inexperienced conductor alone in front of a symphony orchestra, just as we would not ask an aerospace engineering major with no flying experience to pilot a plane full of passengers. We would expect them to learn over time, with guidance from experienced colleagues and many, many opportunities to practice. Why should teaching be any different? When we expect novice teachers to perform just like their experienced colleagues, we are usually disappointed. And when we leave our teachers to sink or swim on their own, ultimately the students suffer.

Recommendation #2: Invest in an Array of Supports for New Teachers

Because the first few years on the job represent a vulnerable period for teachers, as a time when they are both teaching and learning how to teach, it is critical to provide them with intensive support. New teachers need help navigating their new environments, learning to use the school’s curricula or preferred instructional approaches, designing coherent lessons, and delivering those lessons effectively. Therefore, a thoughtful investment in new teachers’ development may require budgeting for a thorough orientation to school policies and practices; targeted professional development in the school’s curricula or teaching philosophy; access to curricula and materials for every course they teach; and mentoring from experienced colleagues.

Mentoring is often implemented as a support for novice teachers, and it can be a very powerful mechanism for their learning. However, like so many other things, mentoring is not worth doing if not done well. Simply assigning an experienced, effective teacher to each novice is not enough. Mentors need training in how to observe someone else’s practice and give feedback about instruction. They need ongoing support in navigating the challenges of shepherding another person’s practice, for example, in the form of a mentor study group.

Teaching is traditionally an isolated endeavor, and if we want mentors and mentees to work together on improving classroom instruction, then they must have frequent, regularly scheduled opportunities to see one another teach and discuss what they see. Schools are busy places and teachers’ work days are often hectic; if school leaders do not protect space for those observations and discussions they simply will not happen. Creating regular release time for teacher collaboration can be accomplished, to a point, with creative scheduling. However, ultimately it often requires hiring additional personnel, at a cost.

These supports for new teachers, from a well-planned orientation to an effectively structured mentoring program, are a natural expression of the beliefs that teaching is complex work, learning to do it well takes time, and faculty members are all responsible for helping one another learn. Putting such supports in place can also help develop those understandings in a school community by signaling the value that leaders place on the ongoing development of teacher practice. Therefore, rather than waiting for schoolwide beliefs about teacher learning to take hold and then creating induction supports, it makes sense to invest in both simultaneously: spread the word and invest in induction. The results will reinforce one another, increasing the yield on your investment.

Recommendation #3: Invest in ongoing, job-embedded learning for all teachers

While research shows that teachers’ learning curves typically rise steeply for five years and then flatten out, there is nothing to indicate that such has to be the case. Anyone with classroom experience can tell you that excellence in teaching is a life-long pursuit; even well-seasoned teachers can refine their practice, incorporate new strategies, and enrich their understanding of the content they teach. The fact that teachers do not tend to improve much after the first five years very likely says more about the kinds of learning experiences they encounter than about their potential for professional growth.

Professional development that honors the complexity of teaching, promotes ongoing learning, and encourages teachers to take responsibility for developing one another’s practice looks different than professional development we typically see in schools. It is not the usual fare of one-off workshops on trendy topics. Rather, powerful professional development for teachers consists of frequent, regularly scheduled opportunities for novices and veterans to observe and discuss teacher practice and student learning. It empowers them as joint-problem solvers, peer educators, and stewards of excellent instruction in the school.

A thoughtfully structured mentoring program marks an elegant contribution to the ongoing professional learning of seasoned as well as novice teachers. Mentors in our Induction Partnership Schools comment again and again about how much their own teaching has improved since they began collaborating with novice colleagues and fellow mentors. They bring renewed energy to their practice and new life to their schools. Why not allow all teachers—not just the mentors and novices—such an experience, drawing all faculty into carefully facilitated collaborative activities such as examining student work or structured observations of teaching practice? The result will only reinforce the kind of culture in which teachers thrive.


Though one of the recommendations above involves only leadership through words and actions, the other two come with price tags. Structuring a school’s professional development in order to provide for teachers’ serious learning is expensive. It means creating a good deal of additional time for teachers to interact, while investing in the kinds of training that will allow them to use that time effectively to improve instruction. It means continuing to send teachers to workshops on relevant curricula or teaching approaches, when relevant. It means paying for a new teacher orientation, for curricular resources, and for mentor supports such as study groups. But the payoff, in terms of teachers’ improved practice, school-wide energy, and faculty stability, can be enormous. ♦

Sarah Birkeland is a senior research associate at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. You can reach her at [email protected].
Return to the issue home page:
HaYidion Teacher Retention & Development Winter 2008
Teacher Retention & Development
Winter 2008