Formative Instructional Practice: What Leaders Can Do to Help Teachers Succeed

What Leaders Can Do to Help Teachers SucceedWhen we think about formative instructional practice, we typically have the teacher in mind. What is the teacher doing differently to engage students and collect evidence of learning? Yet without leadership support for formative instructional practices, teachers won’t be able to fully reap the benefits, nor will students. I hope school and district leaders who are reading this will consider the fact that they need to take specific actions to help their teachers be successful with formative instructional practices. These actions include helping build collaboration time into teachers’ schedules, setting the tone, and communicating that this work is important and why it’s important.

Clarifying who owns the learning (teachers) and who owns the learning environment (leaders) when it comes to professional learning is essential, and it’s one way leaders can help teachers succeed. Leaders can focus on these six factors to support the process of professional learning (and all six translate to the classroom):

  1. Choice. Ensure teachers have some autonomy in deciding which formative assessment practices and strategies to try implementing or how exactly to approach the learning. By providing choice, we can better respond to different teacher readiness levels.
  2. Flexibility. Encourage teachers to make modifications to the strategies to make them their own so that they’re as applicable and relevant as possible to their environment and for their students.
  3. Small steps. Learning is incremental, and it takes time to change practice. To make lasting change, support teachers with the time, resources, and coaching they need as they transfer new learning into their daily routines.
  4. Responsiveness. The information we collect is nothing until we act on it. Support teachers in not just eliciting evidence of learning, but then also making responsive adjustments to their instruction based on that data. It is also important for the teacher to teach students to be responsive in using their own data.
  5. Collegial support. Provide teachers with both a space to collaborate with peers around formative assessment practices and the time to meet with them. This gives teachers opportunities to develop personal action plans, report back to a peer group about the result of implementing those plans, and reflect and receive feedback from colleagues who are addressing similar challenges.
  6. Supportive answerability. Teachers, like any professionals, need to be held responsible for results AND they must be provided with the time and resources to accomplish meaningful change.

Providing collaborative learning structures helps principals take responsibility for (own) the learning environment…”

Let’s talk a bit about that learning environment leaders are responsible for — another tool that truly helps teachers succeed. Communities of practice take many shapes and forms. Your school may be using professional learning communities (PLCs), teacher learning communities (TLCs), whole-faculty study groups (WFSGs), or other communities. The premise is that for the integration of formative instructional practices to become a habit, behaviors have to change. Supporting teachers in changing behaviors requires planning for the following: time, space, resources, and leadership support. Providing collaborative learning structures helps principals take responsibility for (own) the learning environment, while helping teachers own the learning.

As a leader, you have five additional considerations to help teachers succeed:

  1. First, learn more about formative instructional practices yourself. “Effective principals don’t just arrange for professional development; rather, they participate in staff training provided to their staffs” (Stronge, Richard, Catano 2008). While you don’t have to be an expert, coaching is easier if you have background knowledge to share.
  2. Model what you learn. Take opportunities when working with staff to use formative instructional practices yourself and be transparent about it.
  3. Establish success criteria so you’ll know when you have personally been successful with this work, and your teachers will know when they are successful in integrating formative instructional practices.
  4. Don’t forget to plan for the future. What needs to be in place to ensure that the continued success of this work is not solely dependent on a single leader?
  5. Communicate often about the work, the successes, the challenges, and the celebrations. The business world says that conveying the message seven times in seven ways is essential in getting ideas across to a variety of stakeholders.

Next Steps for Schools and District Leaders to Consider

Use these questions to help you think about how you already are supporting or how you want to support teachers in integrating formative instructional practices:

  • What time is currently used by teachers to learn about formative instructional practices and deepen their personal practice?
  • What expectations exist for the use of this time and the learning? How have you shared these expectations with teachers?
  • How will teachers know when they are successful in integrating formative instructional practices? What changes in behavior will be seen in teachers? In students?
  • How are we monitoring progress of changes in instructional practice?
  • What supports do teachers need to move to the next level of their practice?

For more ideas about this topic, read How to Make Formative Assessment a Habit: Beyond the Classroom Practices. You can also learn more about the professional learning we offer at NWEA to help teachers and leaders build and strengthen powerful formative assessment practices districtwide.


Stronge, James, H., Holly B. Richard, and Nancy Catano. 2008. Qualities of Effective Principals. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


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