Building a culture of lifelong learning

School districts apply different approaches to professional development and support educators to encourage excellence and retention
By: | Issue: November/December, 2019
October 24, 2019

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.

Six years ago, Dallas ISD found an effective way to foster professional growth among its 10,000 teachers, and it is now producing positive student outcomes in the district.
The Teacher Excellence Initiative defines and evaluates teachers through three lenses: teacher performance, student achievement, and student experiences or perceptions.

While the average teacher salary is $60,000, those who have been teaching for at least three years and continuously excel in all three areas can apply for a distinguished teacher review. Educators selected as distinguished teachers by an in-house committee can earn up to $50,000 more per year, says Cynthia Wilson, chief of human capital management for Dallas ISD. When it comes to learning and applying new skills, perhaps nothing encourages people more than a big paycheck.

“We’ve been able to retain more high-performing teachers over the last three years than we have in the history of the district,” says Wilson, regarding the initiative. Since 2013, teacher turnover has dropped from almost 22% to 18.4%, and retention of distinguished teachers has ranged between 90% and 98% over the past several years.

Fostering a growth mindset

Likewise, other districts have been successful at building a culture of continuous learning. One has revised its performance appraisal system to include conversations between supervisors and staff about growth experiences, while others are offering weekly workshops or posting vignettes on their websites about teacher growth experiences. Although the process varies, the message is clear: Learning and development are part of everyone’s job description.

When it comes to learning and applying new skills, perhaps nothing encourages people more than a
big paycheck.

Meanwhile, Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska has embedded a growth mindset into its culture, says Eric Weber, associate superintendent for HR at the preschool through high school district that supports approximately 7,800 teachers and staff.

“The expectation here is that you’re always learning and growing,” he says. “We know the recipe to help educators become better at what they do. It’s also about priorities. How do you prioritize what people do in order to make time for professional learning?”

Each year, teachers are required to contribute 15 hours toward a school improvement or district goal. Building principals, for example, identify different school challenges—such as creating positive behavioral interventions and supports—and then offer teachers workshops that address those challenges.

“We have two leadership development programs that are pretty innovative and seen as growth opportunities,” says Weber, adding that promoting from within creates a strong learning culture. “Virtually all of our administrators are hired out of those programs.”

Paying tribute: Tweets and trophies

Los Angeles USD supports 10 leadership development programs. Two attract aspiring principals and assistant principals. Roughly half of those who complete the yearlong programs are promoted.
“In our district, we need to be prepared to be instruction and operations leaders,” says Ileana Dávalos, director of professional learning and leadership development. “The end goal is that they all want to be school leaders. It’s all grounded in the school leadership framework.”

Throughout the school year, Tuesday afternoons are reserved for teacher and administrator PD, which focuses on different topics, including support systems and strategies for struggling students. Teachers with academic accomplishments are also acknowledged in district tweets and at principal meetings; some receive certificates or trophies.

“We have to provide opportunities for people to always grow and develop because we need the greatest individuals in front of our kids,” Dávalos says. “We give them choices, and we don’t force learning down their throats.”

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.