Lead Teacher

Impact: how to tell your extraordinary teaching story

Last week John Cole noted here that the current Highly Accomplished and Lead teachers (HALT) certification process is complex and demanding. Now Jill Willis and Leanne Crosswell discuss the support needed for Highly Accomplished and Lead teachers to tell their stories of impact

The rapid responses of teachers to continual changes in schools is evidence of teacher expertise. Every parent and grandparent knows and can tell a story about the positive impact of excellent teachers. Yet it can be challenging for teachers to represent their impact and expertise to others, especially if they are applying to be recognised as a certified Highly Accomplished and Lead teacher.

Making it easier for exceptional teachers who are masters of engaging students and igniting learning, to represent their evidence of impact was a focus of a recent study.

Highly Accomplished and Lead teachers from Independent Schools Queensland worked with researchers from the Queensland University of Technology to refine how they represented their widespread positive impact on students, colleagues and schools.

HALT certification relies on teachers presenting a portfolio of evidence, a valid way to represent the breadth of their broad and accomplished teaching. These exceptional teachers can readily identify evidence from their existing quality practices occurring in their day-to-day work.

Yet demonstrating impact in a portfolio is challenging as it is an unfamiliar writing genre for teachers. Teachers can be too busy doing the great work to spend time writing about it. The type of evidence for a play-based intervention in prep is not the same type of evidence for a digital formative assessment initiative in senior school.  These stories of impact are as diverse as the geographic, social and cultural contexts of Australian classrooms.

As John Cole notes in a recent AARE post, the current HALT certification process is complex and demanding. Teachers believe there needs to be widespread change in the ways that their professional expertise is recognised, so the effort of applying for certification is rewarded in tangible ways.

One way to support teachers to apply for certification has been to reframe the process as a supported professional learning approach. Independent Schools Queensland support the HALT certification process as an ongoing cycle of professional learning with regular workshops with other aspiring HALTs, school-based mentors and networking opportunities.

Our research previously showed that ISQ’s professional learning approach to national accreditation had positive ripple effects for involved teachers, their colleagues and schools.  The process was reported as professionally rewarding and renewing for these experienced teachers.

You don’t realise how valuable the standards are until you start actually measuring yourself against them or looking to improve in particular areas and then you realise, oh, this is actually a really beneficial thing to consider during your daily practice or yearly practice as a teacher.

(Teacher J)

My school was really supportive and they kept offering me opportunities to be involved in different things. So for me, it was a really positive experience…I met with my mentor every fortnight and she’s my direct supervisor and the head of the junior school. You don’t normally get that much time and attention from somebody who’s so busy and in charge of everything, so that was really good (Teacher K)

When school leaders encouraged groups of teaches to apply, or supported HALTs in tangible ways, it had a wide-spread positive impact throughout the school. Leaders reported that HALTs changed the conversations in school staffrooms, supported peer mentoring and connected teachers to broader school visions. HALTs were working as middle leaders initiating successful programs and peer learning for colleagues, mentoring new teachers, and leading in community and professional associations.

However, HALTs found one of the most challenging aspect of applying for certification to be how to write about their impact and evidence for others.

In the follow up research common features and principles were shared with applicants, to see if this support took some of the stress out of the application process. By analysing successful HALT portfolios, the research team identified some of the commonly used features in effectively telling stories of impact. The QUT team piloted sharing the principles in a workshop with applicants and sought their feedback after they were certified to find out what was most helpful. Emerging principles were validated against the literature and through feedback from assessors.

Firstly, it helped applicants to be aware of the four genres of stories of impact that commonly featured across portfolios. Personal stories were often about growth in knowledge and skill and may have started from a dilemma of practice. Action planning stories of impact were inquiries situated within practice or a team. Project management stories of evidence reflected delegated projects, while advocacy stories represented how teacher championed new initiatives or a specialisation within and beyond the school. While there will be other genres that are equally effective in telling an evidence story, having these as a starting point helped applicant teachers decide how to structure evidence clearly. (Left, figure 1: Four genres of evidence stories in portfolios)

Secondly, professional learning about the how to make claims with evidence was highly valued by the applicants. Within the portfolio, easy to read stories of impact had some shared features. They made it easy for another person to see the decisions and actions of the expert teacher. Some of the key features of quality stories of evidence were summarised in figure 2.

Figure 2: High quality evidence features in portfolios

Some of the stress of writing about quality practice can be addressed through professional learning resources. Teachers should be supported to create evidence stories that celebrate the diversity of schools and learners, as understanding how to effectively represent professional stories of impact is still an emerging skill set within the profession. 

How many stories of impact are needed for certification is another question worth asking. We need to pay closer attention to the national certification picture and learn from the experiences of teachers and systems. 

Certifying bodies such as Independent Schools Queensland, the ACT Teacher Quality Institute are already working with HALTs to tailor the process to be a supportive professional learning opportunity.  There is potential for HALT certification to be both a recognition for the individual teacher, and a funded, strategic priority enabling the systemic and collective capacity building of teachers’ practices in their local contexts.

The nation’s Highly Accomplished and Lead Teachers are an untapped resource with huge potential to lead school and system improvement. Nationally there is more that can be done to find ways to support our expert teachers to be recognised.

A streamlined, and refined certification process is possible if we do as we ask our HALTs to do – reflect on and learn from the evidence.

We acknowledge that this research was conducted on the lands of the Turrbal and Yugara people. It was funded by Independent Schools Queensland, supported by Suzanne Jessen, Jo Wise and Anjulee Singh and the 2019 – 2020 Highly Accomplished and Lead Teacher applicants. The research team included Dr Rebecca Spooner-Lane, Dr Andrew Gibson and Dr Peter Churchward.

Dr Jill Willis is a researcher in educational assessment and evaluation in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education, and Social Justice and the Centre for Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology, in Brisbane, Australia. She specialises in educational assessment and evaluation to understand how reflexive self-assessment informs personal agency and system change. She is chief investigator in current Linkage projects Thriving in Vertical Schools and Accessible Assessment. She tweets @DrJillWillis   

Dr Leanne Crosswell is a researcher in the fields of mentoring and  teacher resilience in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education, and Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology, in Brisbane, Australia. Her research explores how professional learning including professional reflexivity, shapes teacher identity, resilience and agency.  Recent publications include, Quality Assuring Teachers for Resilience and Wellbeing.

Why the push for tremendous teachers ground to a HALT

For more than five years there has been a vision to put a Highly Accredited or Lead Teacher in every Australian school. That means every school would have a teacher certified at one of the top two tiers under the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, working in class and working with staff every day. 

 AITSL chair Professor John Hattie is the greatest champion of this dream. His vision is to identify and value teacher expertise and impact and spread it to every corner of the country. In 2016 he fashioned the idea for Highly Accomplished and Lead Teachers (HALTs) as one of five goals to re-boot education in Australia.  

So, to fulfil the dream of HALT in every school, (based on the latest count from the Australian Bureau of Statistics) the nation would require 9542 certified teachers. Yet the reality is that only 891 educators have achieved certification since 2012 (2020 numbers). Every year about 100 teachers are certified by various state and territory authorities. 

But the gap, the gulf between the dream and the reality, is not closing.  

Promotion of HALT certification has been persistent and high profile. At various times $10,000 bonuses and study grants have been offered as incentives. AITSL has devoted significant slabs of the internet to promote the scheme and there’s an exclusive summit laid on for HALTs every year. The enduring promotion efforts are premised on the belief that the presence of a HALT improves a school’s learning outcomes, contributes to an increased culture of learning amongst staff and enables quality teaching to impact across the school (AITSL HALT Spotlight, 2018). 

A 2020 research program as part of a Master of Education (Research) study overseen by Edith Cowan University aimed to determine teacher attitudes about certification. The study worked with focus groups of secondary teachers from the independent system in the ACT to determine what teachers are considering when think about applying for HALT certification. Teachers said they were more likely to consider preparing their own application, if they believed:  

  • The entire teaching sector recognised the value of HALTs; 
  • Their own system and their own school supported teachers who were working towards HALT status; 
  • There were regular platforms to highlight the work of HALTs, and   
  • The application process was simpler. 

Based on the study, more Australian teachers are likely to consider certification if they feel it is truly national scheme. Currently not every state and system recognises HALTs – not across Victoria, not in Tasmania, and not in all of WA. In Queensland, there are specific requirements from each system. The idea that a teacher is certified as an expert practitioner in one state or one system – but not all – undermines the credibility of the entire scheme.  

Part of the credibility gap lies in inconsistent approaches regarding payment for certified HALTs. A patchwork of bonuses across systems and jurisdictions unpicks the credibility of certification. A consistent approach to rewards would provide a banner to show how Australia’s educational sector values and rewards expert teachers.  

Focus group participants were apprehensive about the application process to become a HALT. Uncertainty, misunderstanding and lack of trust surrounded this aspect of the HALT landscape during their discussions. These teachers believed preparing an application was complex, expensive and relied on opaque processes and procedures. Teachers said they would feel better about applying if the process was simpler, more open and less expensive. 

The focus group participants raised further questions – what do HALTs do, and why is it important? They felt specific and regular demonstrations of the impact of HALTs – how they bring ‘more’ to classes and schools – may help address the uncertainty about the value of HALTs. The respondents pointed to cross-school leadership and prescribed roles within schools as possible areas for public demonstrations of HALT impact, increasing the credibility of certification. 

HALT certification in 2022 seems to be a badge searching for a role.  While the label is promoted and presented as an elixir for each school, many teachers remain unconvinced about the value of the outcome. For the applicants each year who plan portfolios and curate evidence, who prepare to have their career judged and assessed – these efforts must be about more than a shiny badge. Systems to apply rigorous inspections and then identify expert teachers must provide outcomes greater than a smile and handshake, a framed certificate and an email signature block. Defining the purpose of certification, defining roles and career progressions for HALTs, and making HALT matter on the national stage are essential to make meaningful progress in the growth of HALT numbers. 

The ACT is one of the most consistent suppliers of certified teachers. On a pro-rata basis, it is a powerhouse, with 88 HALTs working in the territory’s 136 schools – 65 per cent of the way to securing a HALT in every school.  The ACT Teacher Quality Institute is the regulating authority for HALT certification and has developed a vibrant package to help expert teachers achieve HALT status. They have adopted a modular approach to application, spreading the workload over two years. They have provided exemplars and mentors for applicants. They have arranged for payment to be made over two years, rather than 10 months. Their efforts to make the application process much clearer and more direct are at an early stage, but they could provide important indicators to remove wider concerns. But the skepticism of ACT teachers participating in the study, who operate in an encouraging environment, suggest teachers in other areas may hold more serious apprehensions. 

Teacher concerns about applying as HALT were direct – “it’s too hard, it’s not relevant, I’m too busy, what’s the point anyway?” Without a clear direction of the value of certification, these questions remain unanswered. Certification may be recognised in pay, in promotions, in leadership roles, in community advocacy. The exact nature of that value is yet to be determined on a national scale. Gonski 2.0 recommended better career paths for teachers. Grattan Institute has provided a blueprint for making use of expert teachers. To encourage teachers to pursue certification, the nature of HALT certification has to provide more impact – for HALTs to do more, to lead more, and for the scheme to be more than just a badge. 

John Cole is a Highly Accomplished teacher from the ACT, first certified in 2013 and again in 2019. His research with Edith Cowan University was part of a Master of Education program, looking at teachers’ attitudes towards HALT certification.