The Inside Story: Building a High-Performing, Professional Learning Community

3 June 2016
26 Iyar 5776

While learning is the de facto focus of any school, most schools, like most organizations, are not really learning organizations. Contrast that to the well-researched fact that students learn best in environments where the adults who are educating them are learning themselves. Or said another way, our ability to educate and inspire our students is directly tied to how well we educate and inspire our faculty and staff.

In Gann’s early years, our founding Head Rabbi Danny Lehmann built this new, cutting-edge Jewish high school by surrounding himself with passionate, talented, entrepreneurial educators. When I was hired at the start of our second decade, the Board of Trustees was clear and focused about its charge to me, which included building and developing an outstanding leadership team and systematizing the school’s focus on instructional leadership and professional development. While many schools tend to vacillate in their commitment to professional development, Gann has long understood that, to have a great school, you have to invest in great people and their professional growth—you have to create a learning organization.

Over the past decade, we have developed a performance-focused professional culture by revamping our hiring processes, significantly improving our approach to supervision and evaluation, defining standards of good teaching, and evolving our administrative structure and roles.

Working closely with the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, we have created a new teacher mentoring and induction program. Every new teacher to Gann receives a trained mentor, and every mentor has a coach, all highly trained members of our faculty. Hundreds of classroom observations take place each year, which result in focused conversations about teacher practice. These observations and conversations are also at the heart of our innovative Faculty Rounds Program, in which, similar to medical rounds, trained groups of teachers collectively observe one teacher’s class in person or through video. They then offer structured critiques about the teaching and learning they observed, working together to learn and improve their teaching.

This culture of professional learning pervades our school in other ways as well. Over the past several years, our faculty and staff have led the way to our Mussar (the Jewish ethical-spiritual tradition)-based focus on character development. Significant numbers of our teaching and non-teaching staff learn Jewish sources and, engaged with the wisdom of our tradition, courageously invest in their own personal growth.

As part of our more focused and intentional approach to four years of Israel Education, we are launching our first ever faculty-staff learning trip to Israel this summer. For 10 days 24 members of our professional community will deepen their connections to and understanding of Israel, empowering them to more effectively serve as educational models and guides for our students.

Recently, our school was awarded a $1.5 million grant from The Jim Joseph Foundation to work with two other high schools in the US to develop an Early Career Leadership Fellowship, which will bring new, talented educators and role models into our schools and help grow the pipeline of talented Jewish educators and future leaders for the field. There will be more information coming soon on this exciting new development.

Gann has already become an important pipeline for educators and leaders in the Jewish world and beyond. Our educators and administrators (and alumni!) are serving in leadership positions throughout the Jewish and educational worlds—at schools, camps, Jewish communal organizations, and more. To share one recent example, our very own Sherri Geller, co-director of College Counseling, was named president of the New England Association for College Admission Counseling (NEACAC), a professional association of over 3500 college admissions counselors and high school counselors dedicated to helping students with the transition from high school to college.

This highly intentional, system-wide commitment to reflection and learning results in a range of compelling outcomes for our students and creates a culture in which faculty, staff, and students share a pursuit of excellence, a willingness to be open and vulnerable, and the courage to take risks that enable meaningful growth.

This cultural impact was captured beautifully by one of this year’s Gann Award recipients. Faculty member Sarah DuBeau-Farley said in her speech about her journey as an educator and what it is like to teach at Gann Academy, “Gann is a teacher’s school…where having others observe what you do is not seen as threatening but enriching and where openly questioning what you do and constantly trying new things (and sometimes failing) is not seen as a weakness but a strength. I am privileged to teach in this place.”

Working, teaching, and leading with this level of intentionality and sustained focus on improvement are rewarding and extremely demanding. As our school year comes to a close, I want to express my deep gratitude to and admiration of our extraordinarily passionate and hard-working faculty and staff. And creating this culture would not be possible without the support of our entire community believing so deeply in the mission, purpose, and potential of this extraordinary school. We have come so far, and we have so much more to accomplish—together.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Marc Baker


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