When people ask what I do for a living, I tell them that I am an instructional specialist, which is a job title that can be hard to explain to anyone without firsthand experience. This role is ideal for teachers who love collaborating with adult learners (colleagues or administrators) on a large range of instructional challenges. Specialists are invited to work with school-based teams by designing professional development (PD) and providing coaching toward achieving learning targets, both on an individual or a wider scale.
Although instructional specialists usually accrue several years of classroom experience, teachers frequently view them as outsiders and view the ideas they bring to the table with some skepticism. To increase the likelihood of success in collaborating to meet shared goals, instructional specialists must build an authentic relationship with teachers that shows clear value for the expertise of all.
Dig a Little Deeper, Listen, and Focus
Typically, training sessions are born when instructional specialists visit schools and meet with school-based leadership teams to identify professional development needs. As planning gets underway, is there a teacher voice in the room to echo what leaders request? If the answer to this question is no, then it may be unrealistic to expect teacher buy-in during any prescribed training. For example, while administrators may wish to focus on how to differentiate instruction to address the needs of mixed-level groupings, teachers might think that another topic is more useful or urgent.
Instructional specialists can ask the following questions to make sure that teachers and administrators are in alignment about the needs of the community:
- What data can I look at to contextualize the professional development focus under discussion from a student or teacher perspective?
- Has your school done work with any similar topics in years prior, or is this a new area of focus? If the former, could I see what work has already been done?
- What teachers in the building have expertise in this area? How can they help in the design or leadership of this work to build the capacity of their colleagues?
Red flags may appear in the conversation that follows from these questions. For example, if teacher capacity is widely invalidated, that is an indicator of potential trust issues between teachers and administrators. Or, if the proposed initiative seems to come out of nowhere, that might also indicate a lack of focus on effective training measures that address practical needs for instructional growth. In either case, offering tactful ideas where possible for course correction is essential to ensure that all voices are heard.
For example, if an administration team would like to implement a learning progression focused on increasing student engagement and teachers seem lukewarm, try to gather more information. Perhaps the instructional specialist and a member of the school leadership team can meet with a group of teacher representatives to ask for their thoughts or ask teachers what engagement strategies they already use. That way, whatever learning comes next will truly reflect the needs of the audience being addressed.
No matter how much a visiting instructional specialist may know, the true experts in a school building are both the administrators, who have a bigger-picture view of school priorities, and the teachers, who have on-the-ground knowledge of daily intricacies that impact instruction. Tuning in to what others communicate is much easier if we take the time to turn off inner agendas and listen carefully despite distractions that the environment around us provides. Instructional specialists who design sessions for an unfamiliar audience must be vigilant about focusing on the salient ideas that everyone shares.
Most important, any inner “expert” voice that wants to offer solutions quickly must be put on hold so that vital processing can occur after a meeting without having to make an immediate plan of action. Otherwise, prioritizing speed over accuracy and jumping to conclusions (an enemy of skillful listening) will make an unwelcome appearance. When we work too fast, it is too easy to identify the wrong course of action, which damages the important trust between instructional specialists and school-based teams.
Embrace Available Expertise for Facilitation and Partnership
Instructional specialists should learn about the human resources in every school they work at. Suppose a school is focused on implementing blended and personalized learning across content areas. Find a few teachers who apply this approach with success, and ask for help in planning a learning progression for their colleagues. In-house experts are not only more connected to the needs of a school but also far more likely to capture the positive attention and investment of their colleagues.
A few years ago, I collaborated with a biology teacher on PD around applying academic rigor to a variety of classroom structures. Using Webb’s Depth of Knowledge framework, he presented a lesson in which students created a game whose rules mimicked the process by which natural selection leads to adaptation. This teacher’s colleagues were excited to see how he applied what seemed like a theoretical concept in a training to a real classroom situation, and they also left the session with increased willingness to try something similar in their own practice.
Assuming that the administration is open to including teacher expertise in the facilitation of professional development (and again, intentionally omitting this step is a red flag), setting up a space to collaborate with classroom-based experts is key to an ideal outcome that values the instructional lens.This two-way model of expertise allows both parties to embrace a variety of different vantage points and strengths, all of which lead to the achievement of an identified professional development goal with clarity.
Anyone who operates with the word specialist as part of a job title might feel entitled to own their expertise, and there is nothing wrong with that—to a degree. However, the real magic of moving a school forward happens when instructional specialists facilitate effective partnerships between teachers and administrators to increase student growth. Once that needle starts moving in the right direction, the power of a collective approach to school improvement speaks for itself.