Vicky’s View: 4 Tips to Strengthen Your Practice

April 25, 2023

Vicky’s View: 4 Tips to Strengthen Your Practice

(Pictured left to right: Vicky Condalary, Omar Duron, Marco French, Devon Willis-Jones)

By Vicky Condalary, NIET Senior Vice President of Services and Partnerships and 2001 Milken Educator Award Winner

Surprise – Excitement – Pride – And just a few happy tears! I still remember the rush of emotions from the day I was recognized as a Milken Educator Award winner as a first grade teacher at Cedarcrest-Southmoor Elementary School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My school partnered with NIET and I saw firsthand how developing and supporting teacher leaders can increase educator effectiveness and student achievement.

Now, one of my favorite parts of my job with NIET is helping celebrate great teachers and leaders in our partner schools. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to help formally recognize some of these partners as winners of the prestigious Milken Educator Award, known as the “Oscars of Teaching.” Every Milken Educator Award ceremony brings back the same rush of emotions from my ceremony, and I am so proud to celebrate educators around the country who are making an impact.

Last week, I was able to network and collaborate with many of my fellow Milken Educator Award winners at the 2023 Milken Educator Award Forum in California. I also joined my colleagues and fellow Milken Educator Award winners, NIET Assistant Director of Louisiana Devon Willis-Jones, Gadsden Elementary School District Associate Superintendent Omar Duron from Arizona, and Queensborough Leadership Academy Principal Marco French from Louisiana, on a panel to reflect on our journeys. Each of us have special memories of the day we were recognized with the Milken Educator Award, and each of us are quick to acknowledge that a lot of hard work and learning went into earning the award. Together, we identified a few strategies and best practices that specifically helped us in our work to impact both educators and students. I hope there are a few nuggets in the tips below that help strengthen your practice or give you a new perspective on a familiar strategy.

Tip 1: Protect Your Professional Learning Time

Devon Willis-Jones, now a member of the NIET team, won the Milken Educator Award during her time as principal at Jeanerette Elementary School in Jeanerette, Louisiana. Devon is a strong instructional leader and credits that expertise to the NIET Teaching and Learning Standards Rubric. Her leadership helped move Jeanerette Elementary School from an “F” rated school to a “B” rated school in just one year.

Devon shared that, though the use of the NIET Rubric is helpful in improving instruction, its use must be accompanied by dedicated time for professional learning and collaboration. As a principal, she knows just how easy it is for school operations to take over everyone’s time. While these operational tasks are necessary, they should not dominate professional learning time. Weekly professional learning provides the most benefit if it is instructionally-focused. Teacher leaders can help protect this time for teachers to collaborate and learn new strategies that have been field-tested with their students. 

We know that when teachers have dedicated time for professional learning and collaboration, their instructional skills improve. Gather more tips on how to protect this time from schools in Louisiana highlighted in this feature.   

Tip 2: Use Data to Drive Instruction

It has been a joy to watch Omar Duron progress in his career and build on his learning as a teacher leader who turned that role into a “springboard to leadership.” He has served as a classroom teacher, teacher leader, principal, and is now a district administrator. Through these roles, he has maintained a focus on data and the ways in which data can inform instruction. This focus has been especially helpful in his work to ensure that English learners master both the language and course content. 

The use of data to drive instruction goes hand-in-hand with Devon’s reflection about the importance of protecting professional learning time. Teachers need dedicated professional learning time to work collaboratively to analyze and reflect on student data. Doing so will illuminate which instructional strategies are working and which might need rethinking. Involvement by school and district leaders in this work is essential. Student work and student data can be used in this setting to identify areas of reinforcement and refinement for individual teachers and students, leading to more impactful coaching moments. 

Tip 3: Create A Positive Learning Environment for Students and Teachers

As my friend Marco French shared during the panel, teaching is a sacred profession. We, as educators, are responsible for shaping the minds and hearts of the next generation. This is a heavy responsibility, but one that can be lightened with intentional planning. Part of this planning includes taking steps to create a positive learning environment. Creating a positive learning environment can impact outcomes for not only students, but also teachers. 

Now you might be thinking, “Sure Vicky, that sounds great,” while also wondering how one actually creates a positive environment. Principals like Marco have found a few strategies to be especially helpful in this work. First, think about learning from the student and teacher perspectives. Consider how they experience lessons and professional learning, respectively, and maybe even shadow a student or teacher to get the full picture. Second, adopt a strengths-based approach in feedback and coaching moments. Providing positive reinforcement of practices and learning, along with areas for refinement or improvement, enables students and teachers to build on their strengths while seeing how small improvements can make a big difference.  

School leaders can take intentional steps to create positive environments where students and teachers feel safe and engaged in learning. This blog provides a few more strategies for a positive school environment that you might consider as you plan ahead for summer school and the 2023-24 school year.        

Tip 4: Support Teacher Candidates to Develop Their Instructional Skills

Another topic my panel explored was the importance of strengthening the pipeline of new teachers entering the profession to ensure that new teachers are supported and successful. NIET has collaborated with over 75 universities through the years to create best practices and tools that educator preparation programs use to ensure that their teacher candidates graduate and enter their classrooms with strong instructional skills and knowledge. 

One of the key levers we have seen in this work is the adoption of an instructional rubric that is tailored to the needs of teacher candidates. NIET collaborated with university partners to create the NIET Aspiring Teacher Rubric (ATR) to ensure that it directly responds to the needs of teacher candidates and university faculty. The use of the ATR to support teacher candidates helps strengthen instructional skills by connecting coursework to practice, providing a tool for teacher candidates to reference both during their preparation program and after they enter their own classroom, fostering teacher candidates’ understanding of student ownership of learning, and creating collaborative learning environments for teacher candidates. 

We are seeing teacher candidates leaving their preparation programs stronger than ever and job-ready on day one in their own classroom. To learn more about what using the ATR looks like at Southeastern Louisiana University, check out this blog from my colleague Dr. Amy Wooten. 

It was an honor to share the stage with Devon, Omar, and Marco last week at the MEA Forum, and I hope the tips we discussed are helpful in your everyday practice. As we like to say at NIET, we all have to be lead learners and model the practices that we want our teachers and students to adopt. These four tips will help you be a lead learner.

In the meantime, don’t forget to follow NIET on social media and sign up for the NIET Newsletter to keep up with our work, celebrate our partners’ successes, and access more helpful tips and resources for your own journey as a lead learner!