ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Tiered learning for teachers

By Marion Wilson
August 2019
Vol. 40 No. 4

There are multitiered systems of support and varied approaches to support student learning, but what about for adult learners? Adults come into schools, just like children, with prior knowledge, experiences, biases, skill sets, and ways of knowing that influence how they process, retain, and use information. Professional learning should afford teachers tiered opportunities for strengthening practice in a personalized, systematic, and meaningful manner.

As a former principal of a struggling elementary school in a large urban district, my work to strengthen teacher practice was not effective until I realized that I had to meet my teachers where they were. I looked at their knowledge of content, pedagogy, personalities, willingness, and ability to do the work, and, most importantly, their belief in our school’s vision and mission.

Based on these factors, I grouped teachers into tiers with different professional learning needs. Yes, it was lots of work to plan, monitor progress, and evaluate the impact and effectiveness of our course offerings, but it was well worth it when we started building coherence throughout the building, seeing more student-centered learning, and ultimately improved student achievement.

Identifying teachers’ needs

Beginning in 2007, at the start of each school year, the assistant principals, instructional coaches, and I classified teachers into groups using the Willing and Able Matrix, a classification tool that helps senior-level executives motivate and coach employees for maximum productivity and effectiveness based on their attitudes and skills (Landsberg, 2015).

Sorting teachers into well-defined categories enabled us to determine how we would tailor professional learning, supports, interventions, mentoring, book studies, additional resources, and coaching for them. In this way, we would be able to provide job-embedded support to maximize their individual effectiveness while also strengthening our collective efficacy.

Teachers were grouped on their overall competence and teaching effectiveness into the four groups defined in the matrix: willing and able, willing and unable, unwilling and able, and unwilling and unable as deemed in their overall competence to be general effective teachers. (These groupings were flexible and sometimes modified as our observations of teachers’ needs evolved.)

Working with our instructional coaches, we placed the names of teachers into one of the quadrants based on prior experiences and interaction. We sorted independently first and then exchanged notes and discussed our findings as a whole group. Because the goal was support, not evaluation, I did not reveal to teachers why we had placed them in a certain group.

Teachers who were willing and able were almost always invited to serve as thought partners with the administrative team to identify professional learning needs and gaps through observations and assessments, develop modules and sessions on the gaps we observed, and facilitate professional learning with their colleagues.

These parternships created a valuable blend of perspectives. At times, as the principal, I was on the balcony and able to see teacher practice and the needs for professional learning from a different angle. Teachers were on the dance floor or on the front line, and their input and feedback were just as valuable when it came to thinking about what we should do first to help build capacity on certain topics.

For teachers who were considered willing yet unable, we often partnered them with a teacher from the willing and able category who could support them in an integrated co-teaching model. In other instances, we provided our strongest paraprofessionals to support them in the classroom.

Teachers deemed by us as unwilling to make the necessary pedagogical adjustments needed but who had natural teaching ability were provided with incentives such as out-of-town conferences and other incentives to try to reignite their passion. We found we had to outsource their professional learning to a consultant or major organization to get them on board.

Those who ended up in the unwilling and unable category were eventually counseled out or encouraged to find another setting more suitable for them, a topic that is beyond the scope of this article.

Tailoring professional learning to teacher needs

To determine the professional learning needs and focus areas of each group, the assistant principals, instructional coaches, and I looked closely at state assessment results about students’ areas of strength and weakness, along with multiple sources of data, including teaching observations, teacher survey results on their needs about professional learning, and feedback from students that I gathered during visits to classrooms.

In tailoring the professional learning to each group, we carefully considered the high-leverage teaching practices that we wanted to impart to each staff member. Topics included student engagement and teachers allowing for more student discussions or checks for understanding. We provided a mixture of content-based and pedagogical strategies.

We engaged them in understanding the research base for these practices and making connections to their own classrooms, using videos, case studies, vignettes, observations, and visits to successful classrooms within and outside of our own school community. In these visits, we scaffolded them to take a specific instructional lens, using a rubric or checklist.

Around 2012, teachers led by coaches and the assistant principals started using the Danielson Framework for Teaching (Danielson, 2008) as the tool to help norm our view of effective research-based practices. This practice helped teachers view effective pedagogy through the same lens as the school leaders. I was proud that most teachers and administrators came to be on the same page about effective instructional practices.

Building rapport and trust

To make this effort successful, I nurtured a professional rapport with teachers by having one-on-one conversations with them, setting frequent goals, establishing interim benchmarks, creating action plans, outlining supports in the forms of book studies, coaching cycles, teacher-led walk-throughs, and allowing them a safe space to be vulnerable.

I wanted them to experience success, so we decided on what success would look like and how we would observe it as they worked to apply what they were learning to their classrooms.
In all this work, I applied the psychology of adult learning. I learned both as a teacher supervisor and later as principal supervisor from Ellie Drago-Severson, an expert in the field, that there are different ways of adults knowing (Drago-Severson, 2008). Experiencing her professional learning firsthand while working in both roles (first in 2008 and then again in 2016) was a game changer for my influence in leading adults. I recognized the need to consider that each staff member had a set of experiences before they met me that may have differed from mine. I worked hard to value the place they were in to receive, process, and do something with their new learning.

We realized teachers needed to be engaged in their own learning. Teacher engagement meant that we had to design based on their learning styles, be intentional about the timing and pacing of meaningful activities, and make it practical. This would allow them to see the benefit in their own class so they could transfer the newly acquired knowledge.

We wanted to ensure that teachers would not sit through professional learning compliantly, nodding and smiling, but walk away without learning anything. We also had to ensure that we had minds on and hands on during each session so we knew that engagement was happening in an authentic manner.

Trust was a key element of all of this work. Leadership must have a good rapport with staff and share mutual respect. It helped that the staff knew that I was once a classroom teacher and empathized with them on many levels. If I could do it, then they could as well. But I had to go further than this to win their trust.

I was the sixth principal in seven years, so they were sometimes apprehensive about what would happen next. I had inherited the school with dismal student achievement results, and some leaders and community members had given up on the staff. I had to not only say I believed in them but show that I valued them. I had to remind them that we were in this together and that only by working together would we be able to get off the failing school list and, more importantly, help improve student outcomes for students who may not otherwise have any other chance but us.
I consistently let them know that I was willing to learn alongside of them. While I was an expert in many things, I was not an expert in everything, so I was not ashamed to let them know when I didn’t know something. That helped to gain their trust.

A different approach

It didn’t take long for teachers to realize this was a different approach than they were used to. In the past, teachers sat compliantly during a weekly meting and listened to the laundry list of requirements and to-do items shared by administrators.

With this new approach to adult learning, teachers were engaged and looked forward to going to the Monday afternoon professional learning time. Teachers knew that they were leaving with a tool kit of strategies, new knowledge, and suggestions on how they could connect their learning to what they were expected to do in their classrooms on Tuesday morning — that is, to bridge knowledge to practice.

I would use the feedback from each learning session to stop, start, or continue what we had planned for future sessions. I frequently visited classrooms immediately after professional learning sessions to inspect what I expected of teachers. This meant visiting classes not for just observation purposes but to check in on their bridge to practice. I wanted to witness firsthand the impact or lack thereof of the strategies they learned.

With a commitment to depth versus breadth — and to ensuring that there was no drive-by professional learning in our school — this process of learning and growth has helped move our school not only off the persistently failing list but onto the list of the top five elementary schools in one of the largest school systems in the world. This change is possible because we are learning better by doing it together.

Marion Wilson

Marion Wilson ( is a deputy community superintendent in the New York City Department of Education, senior consultant at DeePENN Consulting, and adjunct assistant professor at the City University of New York.


Danielson, C. (2008). The handbook for enhancing professional practice: Using the Framework for Teaching in your school. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Drago-Severson, E. (2008). 4 practices serve as pillars for adult learning. JSD, 29(4), 60-63.

Landsberg, M. (2015). The tao of coaching: Boost your effectiveness at work by inspiring and developing those around you. London, England: Profile Books.

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