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ERS Stories: Teacher Professional Learning Lessons from Shelby County Schools

How the Memphis-area district uses the cornerstones of good teaching to develop teachers, too.

When Oakhaven Middle School teacher Randy Smith sees his instructional coach slip into his classroom for an observation, he knows he’ll get an encouraging note and helpful feedback. At Brownsville Road Elementary, teacher Lakeithia Olds can count on at least 90 minutes of collaborative planning time with her team every week—and knows her fellow teachers will come prepared and ready to play their specific roles.

Oakhaven Middle (OMS) and Brownsville Road Elementary (BRES) are part of Shelby County Schools (SCS), which serves roughly 100,000 students in the greater Memphis region. OMS is a small school, serving 296 students on the southeast side of Memphis. BRES, located on the northeast side of Memphis, serves 578 students and has many novice teachers on its staff. 

Like many school systems, SCS recently adopted rigorous new curriculum aligned to college- and career-ready standards; at the K-8 level, this included Expeditionary Learning for ELA and Eureka Math. And like their peers in many other school systems, SCS leaders realized that to effectively implement the new curricula, they needed to better support teachers so that every instructor could master and skillfully deliver the new content. 

Professional learning in practice

SCS’ approach to helping teachers improve their instructional practice is a strategy we call “connected professional learning.” In this model, rigorous, comprehensive curricula and assessments form the foundation for content-focused collaboration led by instructional experts, which in turn is followed closely by cycles of frequent observation and growth-oriented feedback. Teachers are observed every other week by an instructional expert (coach or teacher leader) who has a deep knowledge of the curriculum. Each observation is followed by a 20- to 40-minute debrief conversation, which includes feedback on the exact lesson that was observed. 

The teachers and their instructional expert carry the conversation over to collaborative planning time, where teachers work in groups to develop instructional strategies. Led by instructional experts, they reflect on the actions they can take in upcoming lessons to accelerate student learning—for example, how to scaffold students’ understanding of a text. At the same time, instructional experts’ schedules are crafted to ensure they have enough time to observe teachers, provide feedback, and prepare to lead collaborative planning time. 

In the spirit of supporting teachers, SCS now requires every school to provide at least one class period per week of “PLC” (professional learning community, or teacher collaboration) time for teachers who are teaching the same curriculum. Every team has a teacher leader serving as the content expert, and principal supervisors attend the first few PLC meetings each year to help get them off to a good start. The district also created an online toolkit with guidelines for how to run effective collaborative planning meetings, including models for reviewing lessons and looking at student work.

Oakhaven Middle and Brownsville Road Elementary were particularly successful in implementing SCS’ connected professional learning strategy, creating a structure that supports and motivates teachers. With this structure in place, each school has established a foundation for strong teacher professional learning that cultivated growth-oriented adult cultures and visions of “servant leadership.”

Facilitating collaboration and feedback

OMS and BRES used connected professional learning to transform their teacher support systems into spaces where collaboration and feedback are crucial and welcome. At BRES, school leaders reorganized the schedule to provide two 90-minute blocks of PLC time per week; one for ELA and one for math. In the second half of the year, they changed the schedule to one 90-minute and one 45-minute team planning period to ensure the right balance of team and individual time. Consistency is important: both teachers and the content experts who lead PLCs prepare thoroughly for every session, and teachers get weekly informal observations with feedback.

Over the course of the year, the instructional leadership team observed that most of the teachers noticeably improved their practice. On the teacher survey, teachers reported that “professional development opportunities have greatly enhanced my teaching strategies” and that PLC coaches and collaborative planning time have been helpful, especially practicing lessons with their peers. 

Similarly, OMS instructional coaches intended for PLC meetings to be a productive space to practice lessons and discuss misunderstandings. At first, teachers felt embarrassed, but the framework of connected professional learning allowed leaders to be flexible in their approaches. Adapting to teacher needs, coach Glenda Burton started by planning with teachers individually and conducting up to three informal observations with each teacher each week—sometimes leaving only positive encouragement. When PLC team meetings resumed, the adult culture had strengthened considerably.

Survey results show the value of connected professional learning at OMS. A spring 2018 teacher survey showed that about 50% of OMS teachers agreed with the statement “in the past six months, I have practiced teaching techniques with a peer or instructional expert outside my own classroom.” By spring 2019, with the new emphasis on teacher professional learning, that figure had risen to 80%. 

A culture of growth and service

Faculty at both OMS and BRES noted that the shifts in their teams’ practices made room for openness and humility in daily interactions. Former OMS Principal Rod Peterson says that it was crucial for the leadership team to model vulnerability and focus on building relationships. Teachers like Randy Smith reported that when the principal showed up in a team meeting, he was there as a learner, not an evaluator. Teacher Lakeithia Olds says that her team is candid with each other when they need help, often collaborating to solve problems together. 

When ERS works with districts to learn what makes a strong teacher professional learning environment, we find time and time again that the answer is culture. But a positive culture requires a team effort. At its core, connected professional learning is about creating a structure of teamwork and observation that allows teachers and leaders to constantly learn and improve. Oakhaven Middle and Brownsville Road Elementary provide a model for what these practices can achieve beyond the measurements of survey results. When done well, connected professional learning doesn’t just facilitate effective teaching and successful classrooms—it creates the foundation for schools to cultivate a growth- and service-oriented culture.

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