Teacher standards? “Yes, we have them—at least I think we do… Aren’t they somewhere in the staff handbook?”
Sadly, this is an all-too-frequent refrain from our fellow educators around the world.
There is strong agreement that every profession should maintain and monitor clear standards of practice, including the teaching profession. We rely on these standards to define the essence of the work of the profession and ensure integrity, keeping us grounded in the best of what research can offer.
No doubt in your school many teachers are daily exhibiting those standards. But are they getting all the help they need to use the standards as a powerful scaffold for doing what professionals do—that is, hold ourselves accountable and get better every day?
Might school leaders be missing out on leveraging those standards to serve as the foundation of a scaffold that would allow their educators to achieve even greater and more consistent quality teaching?
We will talk leverage, but first let's put on the table a few school-leader practices that may lead to standards being written off by teachers as an institutional dinosaur, a stiffler of creativity and autonomy, a proverbial “hoop” to jump through in a course meant to satisfy out-of-touch, ivory-tower residents. It can feel like this when they are:
- used as a “formula” to evoke conformity; when standards become “standardization”
- oversimplified to form a tick list
- overly prescriptive, as in 23 pages of rubrics
- deployed as a threat
- used as an evaluation tool without prior notice
- only trotted out during accreditation
- considered to be minimum performance rather than aspirational
- berated by school leaders as valueless
When evoked in these ways, we understand why teachers run for the hills at the mere mention of “standards.” School leaders really have no choice but to be attentive to the standards of the profession, however. They live beyond the school; they are established at the level of the profession. But they do have a choice about whether to use these principles to uplift the profession and individual teachers or rather cast them as an albatross around educators’ necks.
Standards as allies: 8 ways
Just as standards can be mightily abused, there are many ways to leverage them to achieve their even mightier purpose. And it's all in a single notion: alignment. Alignment of purpose and alignment of practice.
Let’s start right at the beginning.
- Recruit with them
Imagine if the very first encounter a potential candidate has with your school is a rich opportunity to showcase quality teaching by presenting evidence of each standard. Imagine how much more productive your very first interview might be if your framing is around the universally acknowledged essentials of the profession, which are equally about practical skills and dispositions.
- Ask for a standards-based, evidence-based resume
Even before that first encounter, help candidates “lean in” to your school’s culture foregrounding a healthy respect for teaching as a profession by requesting a newer form of ‘resume’ one based on evidence—standard by standard (see TIEonline.com for a well-developed example).
- Use them as the framework for letters of recommendation and phone check-outs
As international school leaders, ensuring that every child in our care will have a quality teacher is a weighty responsibility. We do rely to some degree on the opinions of our colleagues to help us identify teachers who embody that quality and will be able to do so in the context of our school. Here again, standards are a golden opportunity to greatly improve the tools international school leaders use to help each other identify quality teachers. Draft all letters of recommendation using the standards as the framework (see Confidential Letter of Recommendation forms in TIEonline,com as an example). Ask candidates to let their referees know letters should be framed around standards. Have the standards with you when you make that check-out call.
- Use them as the starting point for teacher growth and appraisal programs
Professional standards are the very foundation of an effective process for promoting teacher growth and accountability. A system with no standards can quickly create one of two cultures: one mired in an endless clash of opinions about who knows more about teaching or a culture of “nice,” where unchecked mediocrity can stunt teacher growth.
- Use them to shape professional learning opportunities
When planning for professional learning opportunities, ask teachers to align their requests with one or more of the standards. We all know how whack-a-mole professional learning can be—a real roulette as to whether it will actually help the teacher to improve practice. Crafting PD experiences around standards reinforces the fact that the quality of teaching of each individual has the most essential influence on learning.
- Use them as student and parent survey starters
International schools are often experienced consumers of parent and student feedback. Understandably for parents, their feedback, if not framed differently through the survey tool, become opinions based almost exclusively on their own experience in school. Their experience becomes the “standard” against which they judge what’s happening with their child. Framing parent survey tools around teacher standards, described in parent-accessible language, has so many benefits. It educates parents on what quality teaching really is; it provides them with a benchmark other than their own well-intentioned ones; it becomes a standard-setter by building a culture of professionalism.
- Use them for teacher self-reflection
A self-assessment of practice is another common tool in international schools. In all professions there is an underlying notion that to be a professional is to embrace the cycle of “act-reflect-adjust.” Whatever other reflection teachers are doing—be it about their contribution to school goals, or their own personal goals—routine reflection, standard-by-standard, lifts them up to the essence of the profession.
- Use them to create curated resources
The teaching profession, like most others, is organic by design. As research leads to new understanding about how people learn and the web of curriculum synapses that it engenders, standards are rightfully raised and refined. Ready access to that research is essential to achieving the overarching goal of quality teaching. Try systematically organizing the resources made available to teachers around the standards.
The theme here is straightforward. Professional standards are a key to boosting the quality of teaching. Let’s open that toolbox and get ready to build a scaffold worthy and capable of supporting our teachers, our schools, and the profession.
This article references the Standards of Practice for International Teachers (also Teacher Leaders, Principals, Counselors and School Heads).