How School Leaders Can Support Teachers in Making the Shift Toward Student-Centered Learning

Common themes emerged around the supports that school leaders have put in place as their district makes the shift toward student-centered learning. We hope their insights and advice provide some guidance for other school leaders who may be just getting started.

In June of 2021, we published the report Student-Centered Learning in Michigan K-12 Schools: Factors That Impact Successful Implementation. This study aimed to capture the ways in which Michigan schools are implementing student-centered learning practices along with the factors that impact the successful implementation of such practices. 

To inform the report, we interviewed teachers and both building- and district-level administrators from five Michigan school districts: Berrien Springs Public Schools, Hamilton Community Schools, Oxford Community Schools, Portland Public Schools, and the Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium, & Keweenaw. These school districts belong to a larger network of districts that are early adopters of student-centered learning called the Michigan CoOp (MiCoOp), which is led by Lisa Sitkins. 

This mini-series Student-Centered Learning in Michigan K-12 Schools—which is part of our larger student-centered learning blog series—is meant to accompany the report and further explore the practical implications of the research. 

In addition, the mini-series celebrates these schools as well as other K-12 schools throughout the state of Michigan who continue to work toward implementing student-centered learning models that include elements of digital learning, personalization, and competency-based learning progressions

We’ve explored why schools are making learning student-centered as well as how—by providing voice and choice, by taking a competency-based approach, and by monitoring student needs and progress. We’ve also described challenges and opportunities schools may encounter along the way. 

In this final post, we share and discuss ways that school leaders can support teachers as they make the shift towards student-centered learning. 

Create a vision for the district

In order for any school district initiative to be successful, a well-thought-out vision developed over time with input from all relevant stakeholders should be clearly communicated to staff. 

While our School Leader Insights blog series provides guidance and advice focused on developing and supporting digital learning programs, the advice pertains to developing any vision—technology-related or not. The authors stress the importance of starting with the “why,” developing a shared vision, and ensuring there is motivation for those making the change.  

Starting with the end in mind or the “why” by creating a Portrait of a Graduate can help school leaders consider what their vision is for learning when it is truly student-centered.

With teacher and community input, many school districts have begun developing their own Portrait of a Graduate, a vision for the district that visually explains the knowledge, skills, and qualities a graduate will need to demonstrate mastery throughout their education. 

It’s a statement of ambition for all students.

A clear focus or vision from district administration can help to support teachers and other administrators move forward with student-centered learning as it helps to communicate the bigger picture. 

Starting with the end in mind or the “why” by creating a Portrait of a Graduate can help school leaders consider what their vision is for learning when it is truly student-centered.

Deliver intentional professional development

When we asked teachers and school leaders about the structures that are in place to assist them in making the transition to student-centered learning, almost each and every conversation and survey response mentioned professional development in some respect.

What seemed most important to teachers is that professional development is relevant, engaging, and provided consistently over time. When professional development is delivered, discussed, and then revisited throughout the year or years, it has a much greater likelihood of being impactful. 

Several administrators shared how well-received and empowering some of their professional development is when it is delivered by their own teachers, providing them with an opportunity to showcase and share the skills that are their strengths. 

Some school districts are taking professional development a step further and personalizing it

“How we’re guiding teachers in this process is very much the same as how we want teachers to guide students in their own learning process,” explained Berrien Springs curriculum director Angela Cramer. She acknowledged that we learn from how things are modeled for us, and hopes that by having the opportunity to personalize their own professional development, teachers will be inspired to try these same personalized learning models for students in their own classrooms.

Ensure professional development aligns with your school district’s values and vision for student-centered learning. Professional development should be ongoing, engaging, collaborative, and personalized.

“How we’re guiding teachers in this process is very much the same as how we want teachers to guide students in their own learning process.”

Provide internal and/or external coaching

In the same spirit as personalizing professional development, some school districts are working on personalizing coaching for teachers and staff.

Portland Public Schools’ curriculum director Simone Margraf explained that they provide coaching both internally from their own instructional coaches as well as from local Intermediate School District instructional coaches. Portland strives to ensure coaching is personalized to the particular group of teachers they are working with. 

“These coaches are working with pods of content area teachers not at the assessment-level so much, but on the delivery of instruction…on meeting the individual needs of students. So it’s not about ‘spray and pray’ in that they all get the same thing, but making it about how this group needs this and this group needs that,” described Margraf. 

Coaching, either from internal staff or from consultants outside the district, can help support both teachers and school leaders as they make the shift to student-centered learning. 

Design opportunities for collaboration

As a teacher, I never had enough time to collaborate with my peers. They had so many good ideas and creative lessons, but there just wasn’t usually enough time built into the day to share, discuss, and develop them beyond a surface-level understanding. 

Intentionally designing opportunities for collaboration can give teachers time to work together to design creative student-centered learning opportunities. 

Oxford Virtual Academy principal Janet Schell emphasized the importance of providing opportunities for teachers to work together in vertical alignment among various grade levels—learning from each other; ensuring there is continuity as to what student-centered practices are implemented; and bridging gaps between elementary, middle, and high school. 

“It’s really being a community of teachers and sharing what you know,” added Tracey Hurford, Oxford Virtual Academy lead elementary teacher. 

Whether it is through the establishment of Professional Learning Communities, Communities of Practice, and/or designing formal processes for making curriculum decisions based on student data, give teachers time to learn from each other and to collaborate

Utilize technology to facilitate individual learning

Technology can help enable student-centered learning opportunities, and allow teachers to spend more time working with students both individually and in small groups. Students can be physically together but working on individual learning activities at their own pace.

Berrien Springs superintendent Dave Eichberg explained: “Our one-to-one technology allows teachers to provide direct instruction and support to a group of students who have the same gap on a particular learning target without worrying about the rest of the class being disruptive or becoming disengaged.” 

Technology gives teachers the capacity to create a variety of learning activities for students of many different abilities. 

“A teacher can’t teach 30 different lessons to 30 different kids every single hour. It becomes necessary to lean on technology to give students access to content and content knowledge,” stressed Oxford Virtual Academy hybrid learning coordinator Jordan Dennis. 

Technology can help teachers bring student-centered learning to fruition in their own classrooms, freeing them up to facilitate individual learning experiences, and providing a plethora of pathway options for students as they work at their own pace. 

“A teacher can’t teach 30 different lessons to 30 different kids every single hour. It becomes necessary to lean on technology to give students access to content and content knowledge.”

Empower and support teachers

As indicated in our survey data by both teachers and administrators, empowering teachers to take risks was the biggest support districts have put in place to support teachers in making the shift towards student-centered learning. 

It can be difficult for teachers to give up tried and true routines to incorporate new pedagogy into the way they are used to teaching, but it’s been the constant push and encouragement from administration that has made Hamilton Community Schools teachers feel so supported. 

According to Andi Steaban, the support and professional trust that Oxford Virtual Academy’s administrative team has in their staff results in teachers who are less hesitant to take risks and more likely to look for opportunities to try new things, such as implementing student-centered learning strategies.

Not every student-centered strategy will work the first time, and it won’t necessarily work for every student. That’s okay, and that’s the point of student-centered learning—giving each individual student what they need and allowing them to progress at their own pace. 

Keep in mind that the same flexibility should be afforded to teachers. Some will latch on and adapt quickly, and others will need more time and more support. Entrust teachers to make some instructional decisions for their students as they navigate the transition. 

Provide time, support, and encouragement to teachers who are willing to take risks and try new things. 

Listen, tap into their expertise, and empower them to drive some of the work.

Student-centered learning blog series

In our Student-Centered Learning blog series, we lead a discussion about student-centered learning: what it is, how it can help students and schools, and how to make it a reality. Our hope with this series is to provide practical insights to school leaders, teachers, and parents on how to make education more meaningful to students. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

Christa Green

Christa Green

Christa received her master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from Kent State University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. She taught middle school language arts and social studies for seven years before coming to work for Michigan Virtual in 2018. As a research specialist with the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, Christa enjoys using her passion for education, curriculum, research, and writing to share and shape best practices in online and blended learning with other educators within and beyond Michigan.

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