On cultures of professional growth
and why developing one is a worthy goal
For someone of my vintage, I consider myself a ‘very online person.’ People often ask me where I get the time or energy and the answer is that this ‘very online time’ has led to some very offline experiences. I count the number of people I have met in the hundreds. My online time has led to speaking at conferences, travelling to see some incredible schools, and writing for various publications. Through these very online connections, I recently wrote this piece about university-school partnerships, but as often happens, there was far more to this story.
I recently interviewed someone I have admired from afar, Dr Simon Breakspear, who has partnered with Assoc. Prof. Tony Loughland to develop a way to measure professional growth. He’s a busy man with many pots on the boil, but what impressed me was the way that every aspect of his work was united by one simple question: how can the typical, busy teacher be supported to improve their practice? I spoke to Simon from the Google Street View to the Bird’s Eye about what it takes to build a culture of incremental improvement.
I asked Simon about the challenges faced by teachers. He says, the goal is to improve the expertise of teachers in a short period, even when they’re not working in a supportive or highly resourced culture. “Your average public school teacher doesn’t often get the chance to engage with research – they never get the chance to go off to an expensive conference for two days with their classes covered,” he says. “But they still deserve an opportunity to keep getting better at their craft.”
He says that the idea of having instructional coaches allocated to the State’s 2,200 public schools isn’t feasible when the industry is struggling just to secure qualified classroom teachers. He created and has been running Teaching Sprints for free, online for about six years. He describes himself as “highly pragmatic,” seeking out simple solutions that are accessible to the average teacher – solutions which are “good enough” to get their practice moving forward. He promotes “incremental evidence-informed steps” like the highly accessible and effective strategies outlined in Tom Sherrington’s WalkThrus as the key to sustainability.
Another of his projects is a measure of professional growth cultures. Simon theorises that a healthy culture is required for schools to launch and sustain professional growth initiatives that are meaningful to teachers and result in genuine improvements in practice. Tony Loughland at UNSW takes care of ensuring that the design, measures and constructs have methodological rigour, while Simon works on identifying what these indicators of organisational health actually look like in schools. What’s interesting to me is Simon’s explanation that “an organisational health index doesn't just talk about what the outcomes are at the moment, but they can tell leaders a lot about a school’s potential to keep sustaining high-quality outcomes over time.”
In an environment that achieves strong academic outcomes, the results on paper might be fine, but psychological safety might be low, leading to stagnation of professional growth, staff conflict, and even retention issues. Simon says that it takes a long time to develop safety but that “my hunch is that it can drop more quickly than it builds up.”
Research engagement is a domain of professional growth and organisational health that he is particularly interested in (he was also a key partner in the GEMS research project).
Looking at a school’s engagement with research – not only the frequency but the processes that enable teachers – isn’t a learning outcome. But I think that if you’ve got a school that is deeply and regularly engaged with research and having robust dialogue about what it means, that’s probably highly predictive of a school that can keep getting better over time, independent of what the focus of that research engagement is.
He says that “great practitioners open up about what they do,” and that with a strong professional growth culture, schools can not only enhance research use, but move teacher practice forward. He hopes that the crossing of this threshold will turn up in his professional growth index, after which, schools can move to the next level in their professional development plans. But there are some prerequisites to this next-level engagement. Simon outlines the obstacles to developing a professional growth culture in schools. They’re listed hierarchically.
The importance of professional learning, development and growth must be articulated by the legitimate, hierarchical leader with clarity and meaning. These values should be framed in relation to the school’s strategy – passionately and often. Sometimes this is outsourced to staff lower down the hierarchy, but this is a risk. He says that leaders need to be heard saying to their staff that “professional learning is at the core of what we do.” They need to actively support it and co-engage in it.
Clear structures and processes are essential to ensuring that professional growth is a regular part of teacher work, rather than being solely dependent on the motivation of individual teachers. Determining what the evidence-informed inputs will be, and establishing regular processes and cadences, ensures that teachers can engage in professional learning “just by turning up to work.” Schools need to be what Robert Keagan has called a “deliberately developmental organisation.”
Middle and instructional leaders can be our greatest champions for unlocking a culture of professional growth. It may not be a case of simply choosing titled leaders, but rather they should be seen by others as legitimate influencers. Activating the energy of these individuals can provide the momentum needed to drive projects forward and develop ‘social proof points’ of what is possible in our context.
Finally, schools need to commit to a new approach for the medium to long term to fully incorporate it into their rhythm and routine. The risk is that teachers become fatigued by every “new thing coming down the pipes,” and over time become reluctant to committing what Simon calls “discretionary energy.” A multi-year commitment says, “they’re not going to go and change this on me” in a year’s time, so it makes sense to lean in and develop a new team habit of improvement.
I think what I enjoyed most about talking to Simon was that he is relentlessly solutions-focused without talking about improvement as the kind of deficit model we see in education. Sometimes great gets in the way of good, especially when it comes to evidence-based practice. The constant talk – and I’m guilty of this too – of fidelity and lethal mutations, often with the backdrop of a lack of systemic and organisational support, is enough to make a good teacher throw their hands up in the air. Instead, Simon’s question is, “What is the one thing we can do right now to make meaningful progress?” Add up all of those ‘one things’ and we will see the kind of incremental sustainable change that turns into something quite radical over time.