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Setting Up Your Teachers for Success: How to Support Teachers for 21st Century Student Learning

Professional Growth

Research suggests that teachers are as important as ever. The RAND Corporation says teachers are the most important school-related factor when it comes to student success. Yet fewer people are graduating with teaching degrees. Those factors, combined with concerns about teacher morale in a post-COVID environment, have school districts across the country rightfully concerned about attracting and keeping the top teachers in their schools.

Thankfully, there are steps districts can take. Dr. Lori McEwen, a former assistant superintendent and chief of instruction meets with districts across the country to support strategic planning and implement student centered equity focused change.

Dr. McEwen’s three decades of experience in education have helped her develop tools districts can use to determine who is best suited for their unique student population. From there, they can then create professional development opportunities that not only keeps those educators engaged but enables them to be the best version of themselves, as well.

Starting With the Students: The Portrait of a Learner

Finding the right teachers begins with identifying the desired outcomes for students. Every school wants to equip students with the skills they need to adapt and thrive both now and in the future — but which skills are most important may vary from district to district, and even person to person.

For that reason, it’s crucial for districts to assemble a diverse group of people to develop what McEwen calls a “portrait of a learner.” This is a composite of the attitudes and competencies school leaders want students to develop over the course of their academic career.

McEwen finds that “the same important 21st century skills come up over and over again: innovation, collaboration, communication, creativity, problem-solving, learner mindset, growth mindset,” across districts. “The portrait of a graduate simply prioritizes and organizes them.”

While many school districts have already taken this step, it is by no means standard. McEwen encourages leaders in districts that haven’t yet created their own portrait of a learner to look at those made by other districts to get a sense of what to do.

“You want to get a whole bunch of folks together to say, ‘What is it the kids need to know and be able to do in the future? What do we need to develop in them?’” says McEwen. “Get a group together of teachers, parents, and kids, and you’ll be able to develop that.”


“You want to get a whole bunch of folks together to say, ‘What is it the kids need to know and be able to do in the future? What do we need to develop in them?’ Get a group together of teachers, parents, and kids, and you’ll be able to develop that.”


Continue with Teachers: The Portrait of an Educator

Once a district has a good grasp on what they want to develop in their students, they can use that knowledge to determine the attributes their educators need to be successful.

McEwen says that a portrait of an educator should answer the following: “What are the essential skills, attitudes, attributes, and dispositions necessary to create schools and classrooms of deep and joyful learning?”

What it takes to make a classroom of deep and joyful learning will depend on the end goals outlined in the portrait of the student. “If we want to build risk takers in our students, how do we reward and elicit risk-taking in our teachers?”

Districts should use the portrait of an educator as an aid to assess which teaching candidates will best suit their open positions, as well as the areas of potential improvement.

Educator and student profiles are not set in stone. McEwen advises setting up committees that regularly check on the efficacy of those profiles. “You want to say, ‘Are we developing what we said we were going to develop? If we’re not, is it because something else has emerged as a priority and something has not been as important? Is the language exclusionary to some people?’” Revisions can be made based on those answers, and profiles can be updated every three to five years.


You want to say, ‘Are we developing what we said we were going to develop? If we’re not, is it because something else has emerged as a priority and something has not been as important? Is the language exclusionary to some people?


Supporting Educators Long-Term

McEwen describes the portrait of an educator as “aspirational.” Few if any teachers will meet all the ideal standards outlined in the profile from the get-go. But each educator deserves the opportunity to strive toward those goals.

That’s where the district comes in. “For school and district leaders, how are we supporting our educators to develop these skills in themselves so that they feel comfortable modeling them for students?” asks McEwen.

How Do Policies Affect Student Success?

McEwen says that districts should look inward, asking questions of their own policies. “How have we or have we not developed the essential conditions under which innovative, collaborative, and analytical educators thrive?”

She encourages school leaders to review the systems they have in place for things like grading and scheduling. To guide them in determining which systems can be left in place and which should be revamped, McEwen suggests setting up core tenets of what she calls “a learner-centric district.”

As with the portraits of a learner and an educator, these pillars of a learner-centric district can be designed by committee. “Are your teachers empowered to say, ‘Hey, we as a group of teachers would like to do something a little bit differently?’”

When district policies can align with what they want from educators, students can achieve greater success.

Using Professional Development

Another way the system can support its educators is by using professional development to build up the skills and competencies the district wants its teachers to model.

McEwen recommends using a variety of practices to do this:

  • Instructional coaches: A district taps their own teachers to take a deeper look at what it means to deliver high-quality instruction. Those teachers then occupy a coaching and support role for their peers.
  • Teacher mentorship programs: New teachers partner with seasoned educators who have a track record of developing the competencies outlined in the district’s portrait of a learner.
  • Committee leadership: Allowing teachers to lead their own professional learning communities, with a focus on the competencies outlined in the portrait of an educator.
  • District “university”: A district-developed plan for professional learning, with micro-credentialing, potentially in partnership with an institute of higher education.

School districts have every reason to be concerned about attracting and retaining the best teachers they can find. With an educator profile in place, they can find educators who fit their schools’ needs, and help them strive to be the best teachers they can be.

Dr. McEwen has provided resources to help you create your own educator profiles. You can find them here, along with her webinar.

Kyle Greco

Kyle is a writer and member of the award-winning content team at Frontline Education. A lifelong learner, he is passionate about exploring the ways in which we can make school better for students and the people who teach them.