Differentiating instruction to meet individual students’ needs is one of the biggest challenges for any teacher. In the same way, differentiating professional development to meet the needs of individual teachers is one of the biggest challenges for any school district.
I’ve seen this firsthand throughout my 20-year career in education. In my early days of teaching elementary mathematics, I needed support to help students like Trenton sit still. Once I mastered classroom management, I realized I needed to do more to reach students like Yuan, who didn’t speak enough English to follow along with her classmates. And I continually found myself searching for resources on lesson plans that would push my high-flyers while also meeting the needs of students like Charmaine, who struggled with multiplication.
Now, as the assistant superintendent for professional support and development in the Houston ISD—the seventh largest district in the nation—I’m always looking for ways that my department can support teachers at dramatically different stages of their careers. When it comes to helping students graduate ready for college and a career, nothing at school matters more than the quality of our teachers.
In 2009, with the launch of the Effective Teachers Initiative, HISD began refocusing every aspect of our district around teaching and learning. Central to this work was creating a new Teacher Appraisal and Development System focused on providing teachers with regular feedback and individualized development opportunities.
A few years ago, you could ask five people in HISD to describe great instruction, and you might get five different answers. That changed when we brought teachers and school leaders together to develop a collective vision for high-quality teaching. The result was HISD’s Instructional Practice Rubric, which lays out our district’s vision for quality teaching.
HISD’s new Teacher Appraisal and Development System was designed to give all teachers the individualized support they deserve. In the fall, all teachers craft a unique development plan that gives teachers and school leaders a clear roadmap for professional development. Teachers have the opportunity to meet with school leaders three times a year to reflect on progress toward development goals, identify additional development needs, and receive comprehensive feedback on their performance.
To help teachers reach their full potential, we restructured our Professional Support and Development department to provide teachers with subject-specific, job-embedded development opportunities. Without adding costs to our overall budget, we transformed the department to a small design team focused on designing professional development opportunities that aligned with high-priority, districtwide development needs.
The resulting budget savings enabled us to hire a cohort of 130 full-time teacher development specialists (TDS). TDSs are master teachers dedicated full-time to observing teachers within their area of content expertise, providing regular feedback to teachers, and supporting their professional growth. TDSs receive extensive training in a responsive coaching model that is aligned to HISD’s instructional practice rubric and our district curriculum.
Identifying areas for improvement
When we asked teachers how we could better support them, they said, “Show us what effective teaching looks like—especially in HISD schools.” Our design team worked with top HISD teachers to create an online library of videos featuring HISD elementary and secondary teachers modeling effective instructional practices. The resulting videos are available on our district website with downloadable resources on teaching techniques, strategies and classroom routines.
Moving beyond “one size fits all” professional development is a major undertaking for any school district, but it’s also an essential step. Only when all of our teachers have access to relevant, job-embedded professional development opportunities will we succeed in building a district where all of our teachers—and our students—can become the best they can be. DA
Lance Menster is Houston ISD’s assistant superintendent of professional support and development.