How Instructional Leaders Can Empower Teachers to Boost Student Engagement

Each year in June, I see 5,000 educators celebrating the work we do every day at the annual Model Schools Conference. Attendees sit down with educational leaders to brainstorm and strategize how to build collective teacher efficacy and boost student achievement. It’s about creating, dreaming, and lifting the box open for ideas to maximize resources for all our students.

This year, I met with school leaders who are working to increase their own professional capacity. One administrator in particular admitted that her knowledge of secondary content beyond English/Language Arts was minimal. She felt her lack of content knowledge placed her in a deficit as an instructional leader. It’s quite the contrary! 

In a robust dialogue, we refined our definition of what instructional leadership means. It’s not about knowing all the content-area specifics but rather knowing how to position best-practice strategies that engage students in deeper conversation about the content they are experiencing. Instructional change agents who walk into a physics classroom can effectively coach the physics teacher in increasing academic discussion if they know great strategies and have a relationship with the teacher. It’s as easy as 1-2-3!

Below are three steps that any school leader can use to increase student engagement and ensure that learning is rigorous and relevant. 

First: Have a Plan

After spending time in classrooms, determine your top priority when it comes to increasing student engagement with the content and the other people in the room. Use your walkthrough data, observations, and teacher feedback to decide on a specific focus.

For example, your data may provide evidence that students are not discussing the content with each other. In fact, very little conversation happens in the classroom. Using the Rigor/Relevance Framework created by Dr. Bill Daggett, you immediately pull out the ICLE Rigor Rubric and hone in on the section about academic discussion. This goal becomes your priority for the next several weeks. 

Second: Lead the Learning

In order to maximize the use of the Academic Discussion section of the Rigor Rubric, you need to invest in your own professional learning. I encourage leaders to go to the developed area and look at the language in that level of the rubric. Then, ask yourself these three questions:

  • What does a classroom that engages in this level of academic discussion look like?
  • What are the prerequisite skills needed to prepare students to perform at this level?
  • How do I develop professional learning for my teachers to empower them to succeed at increasing academic discussion in their classrooms?

After answering these questions, you have created the foundation of your professional learning. Use your new learning to organize how you will then lead the professional learning for your faculty. Over the next three weeks, educate your faculty on the priority of this component of the rubric, and build out a plan for learning.

Here’s a rough timeline:

  • I recommend spending week one offering whole- or small-group learning for teachers with a commitment to implement by the start of week two.
  • Week two focuses on offering feedback from the teachers by asking them how it went and what they still need. This offers additional coaching during the professional learning in week two.
  • Week three is about refinement. Meet with teachers in small groups (or one on one) and break down the successes and challenges. Each teacher should have a specific plan for implementation for the next three weeks.
Third: Observe the Behavior

This step is about spending time in classrooms after the professional learning occurs. You have to inspect what you expect. To do this, you (or you and your team) visit every classroom and look for the actionable behaviors you outlined in step one for just that part of the rubric. As you visit each classroom to examine academic discussion, what do you notice? More importantly, what don’t you notice? Observe, collect, and report out to staff. Offer a quantitative or qualitative review of the results observed each week for three weeks. Show the growth and continue to offer ongoing support as needed.

By focusing on instructional ways to enhance rigor, relevance, or learner engagement, you successfully create growth in all classrooms and all content areas. You may not be able to understand how to make a chemical reaction in AP Chemistry, but you have the skillset to coach your teachers in increasing academic discussion (and other strategies) so that teachers are operating at high levels of collective teacher efficacy all in the name of boosting student achievement.

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To learn more about how to organize your data around a specific area of instruction, check out way #22 in Adam Drummond's new book, The Instructional Change Agent: 48 Ways to Be the Leader Your School Needs.

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