The Consummate Professionals

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 From the Autumn 2012 Caller

By Lark P. Palma, PhD, Head of School


No matter what study you reference about school reform, the most important element of successful schools is the excellence and effectiveness of the teacher. Teaching involves an intricate, complex, and challenging set of skills. Teachers may make as many as a thousand choices within one school day, including making quick and nuanced adaptations of the lesson plan, figuring out how to communicate best with each individual student (verbally? through body language?), when to pause effectively, and how to pace the lesson and shape activities to sustain the students’ attention.
Given the complexity of teaching and the solitary nature of a classroom, where a regular feedback loop is not available daily, teachers need and seek feedback on their teaching from peers and supervisors. I ponder the reluctance of teachers nationally to trust evaluation systems that are designed to improve their practice, not to weed them out. Their reluctance is complex – and there may be reasons to be distrustful – but, like any other respected profession, teachers undergo yearly reviews. I am saddened by the teacher-bashing that is the substance of much political discourse, but how can we gain stature as a profession if we resist constructively critical commentary?
Catlin Gabel’s professional growth system, instituted in the late nineties, adopted the work of Charlotte Danielson, an economist, teacher, curriculum specialist, and supervisor in schools for many years. When she was charged to help develop a system for professional growth, she conducted a study of thousands of teachers to identify characteristics of the most successful teachers. The result was Enhancing Professional Practice (Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, 1996). The elements of highly effective teaching were divided into planning and preparation, class environment, instruction, and professional responsibility. Under each characteristic are numerous behaviors that the teacher and the supervisor reflect on and observe on a continuum, combined with classroom visits and immediate feedback. We adopted her model because the process was sensitive to the diversity of teaching styles, respectful of the complexity of the teaching-learning process, and easily adapted to the mission of our school and our bedrock belief in student-centered, experiential learning. Our goal is to make sure that every teacher at Catlin Gabel is evaluated using this process. The system empowers teachers, in whatever stage in their career, in whatever subject, to move from good to great; great to greater.
We look for teachers from robust national and international candidate pools who have demonstrated the attributes inherent in our professional model. We observe how they teach classes here to our own students, their recommendations from current employers, and through individual reference phone calls. We watch their interactions with our own students very carefully and ask for written evaluations from a committee of older students. They are the best judges. All candidates we select for daylong interviews are experts in their disciplines or grade levels; they are the ones who we can see are magic with students.
We create a superb faculty by starting with superb employees. We give them instructional materials and technology, fund innovation and new team summer planning, and give them freedom and unbridled support to execute innovative ideas. Most importantly, we give these professionals ongoing support at perfecting the art and the craft of teaching.
This issue presents snapshots of teachers who started at Catlin Gabel in four different decades. They share their career development and why they are teachers. They ARE the consummate professionals.