How to Grow Teacher Practice Using Habits of Mind

by Art Costa, Bena Kallick, and Allison Zmuda

There are predictable policies and practices in the opening month of school that center around setting goals as a classroom teacher, grade level, department, or school. Well-intentioned to be sure, but perhaps out of alignment with the teacher evaluation system. Surely you don’t think that merely putting him or her on a scale from one to four will tell you whether the teacher is practicing both the art and craft of teaching.

We need to understand that, while observing the teacher instructing content, we must also observe — and help teachers to self-observe — their dispositions.

People who are concerned with this question look for evidence of the Habits of Mind. For example, do you observe teachers:

  • Remaining open to continuous learning: Having the humility to say,  “I have so much more to learn,” and wanting to find out.
  • Thinking about thinking: Regularly planning, monitoring, and reflecting upon actions and tasks and being aware of your own thoughts, strategies, feelings and actions, and their effects on others.
  • Problem solving: clarifying issues, data gathering, and rechecking information, such as:
    • Gathering data through all senses
    • Questioning and posing problems
    • Striving for accuracy
  • Communicating effectively: both orally and in writing by:
    • Listening with understanding and empathy
    • Communicating with clarity and precision
    • Thinking interdependently
  • Creating, imagining and innovating: Generating new and novel solutions and strategies, inventing new ideas and alternatives.
  • Taking responsible risks: Trying new and different ways, even if there is a chance for failure. It is as if you are living on the edge of your incompetence and you need to take a chance on jumping off the edge and try some new learning venture.
  • Persisting: Persevering in a task through its completion. Looking for ways to reach your goal when stuck; not giving up.

Incorporating Habits of Mind as a Teacher

It is that very subtle concept of being a teacher or lead learner. As teachers incorporate Habits of Mind into their thinking and behaviors, they say, “I need more practice with…” or “I am so excited by how much I have learned about…” or “I need to go deeper into this material…”

They have developed the desire to continuously improve and learn. This development is as powerful for teachers as it is for students who also need to see teachers modeling these dispositions with intention, genuinely looking for feedback, and reworking to continue to improve. Such dispositions must be developed, nurtured, supported and practiced on a regular basis.

The environment and culture of the school must honor and encourage these dispositions. Schools with supportive cultures are more likely to foster significant growth among its teachers. For example, Furr High School in Houston, TX, has built a culture around the Habits of Mind and personalizing learning.

As a result, professional learning focuses on both academic and dispositional growth. Teachers sign an agreement with Dr. Bertie Simmons, in which they commit to remaining open to continuous learning. The entire culture works to integrate Habits of Mind into all that they do, including students working beyond the school walls.

Like the whole child, whole teachers are a composite of human motivations and developmental drives:

  • Cognitive: Teachers must be cognitively and emotionally challenged, continually planning for, engaging in and reflecting on learning experiences.
  • Physical: Teachers must feel safe, secure, healthy, fit, resilient and strong.
  • Emotional: Teachers must be stress free, in a trustful, non-evaluative environment.
  • Social: Teachers must be in collaborative, interdependent, reciprocal, relationships.
  • Spiritual: Teachers must transcend the trivial in curriculum and be dedicated and committed to achieving the larger value of what they do as purposefully leading to a better, more beautiful and harmonious world.

Bringing more joy, energy, and vitality back into professional growth plans necessitates paying attention to these drives as teachers feel that what they are focusing on and committing to is challenging, possible, and worthy of the attempt. We need to provide teachers with a voice in what they are committing to and a seat at the design table to co-create a collaborative, dynamic learning experience where they feel safe to take risks, learn from early attempts, and openly reflect on key learning.

Attending to the whole teacher, we suggest evidence of the growth and development of these habits can be collected by triangulating data between self-observation, peer observation, and administrator observation. Many schools have developed surveys, group process observation tools, and journals to offer data regarding the habits.

This data should be weighed as significantly as that of student performance. It is data about how effectively teachers are continuous learners who can both give and receive feedback to further their own growth as well as the growth of the professional community. After all, isn’t evaluation about improving and growing — not punishing?

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