Brian Nethero is the Executive Director of the Sanford Inspire Program, a gift-funded project in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University which has developed an online suite of free modules aimed at supporting teachers in the development of knowledge, skills, and mindsets to inspire their students. Previously, Brian taught 4th grade in the Roosevelt School District in Phoenix, AZ. He has also facilitated new teacher professional development programming and led a school team through an intensive summer development experience. In this conversation, Brian guides us through the free resources available at Sanford Inspire and how he recommends using them.
Thriving Schools: The Sanford Inspire site has a lot of tools and resources aimed at helping teachers get better. Can you tell us, from your perspective, what some of the main problems are with the current state of professional development?
Brian: I would say there are 4 items that stand out as significant challenges in professional development. The first one is the amount of time teachers spend in development activities before they can begin implementing practices in the classroom. Teaching is difficult, and it takes a lot of ongoing experience and growth to become a proficient teacher. The second issue relates to how specific the development is. Right now, most teachers get the same training, delivered in the same way, at the same time, and from the same source. This uniform experience makes it hard to make training relevant to different teachers with different challenges and needs. The third issue is that a lot of professional development isn’t actionable. Even though a teacher has just sat through hours of sessions, we often don’t see any direct improvement in their instruction as a result. The final issue is that the traditional system is also very expensive. We spend more than $18 billion each year on a system that teachers themselves report as not being very useful.
Thriving Schools: How does Sanford Inspire address these challenges? And improve upon the outcomes we’re getting with the current system?
Brian: The first one is obvious – all of our resources are free. We are supported by a generous philanthropist, T. Denny Sanford, who realizes the importance of inspirational teachers and is committed to supporting them. The next thing is that all of our modules are on-demand. This means in under an hour, teachers can access research-based background knowledge and tools on very specific topics that are relevant to them. Finally, the whole platform is designed so schools can flexibly use the materials in a way that best fits their needs.
You can explore the Sanford Inspire curriculum here. The domains of practice are 1) Learning Environment (child well-being, managing student behavior, safe & welcoming environment, and classroom procedures), 2) Planning and Delivery (ELL, backwards design, components of direct instruction, components of inquiry, differentiation, checks for understanding, materials & resources, and elements of delivery), 3) Motivation (theory, engaging influencers & role models, culture of achievement, investment in learning, and engagement), 4) Student Growth and Achievement (setting goals, tracking progress, and assessment), and 5) Professional Practices (culturally responsive pedagogy, professional competencies, professional conduct, and reflective practitioner).
Thriving Schools: How many modules are currently offered on the site?
Brian: Right now, there are 65 modules that are complete and finished. By this summer, we will have over 80. Some are around an hour, while others are closer to a 30 minute experience.
Thriving Schools: How do you recommend educators use the resources at Sanford Inspire?
Brian: The first thing I suggest educators do is take a look at all the modules our collection includes. When we put our modules together, we pulled from all the best frameworks available – the Danielson Framework, the Marzano Framework, the Teaching as Leadership Framework, and the TAP Framework. We looked for what these frameworks agreed on when it comes to “good teaching.” And what we found in the process is how we ended up organizing the materials and resources on our site. I also recommend folks getting clear on what they want to focus on – is it helping new teachers develop, is it supplementing after-school PD sessions, is it providing tools for individual growth plans, or something else? So again, I suggest educators understand what our collection includes and what their specific needs might be.
As Sanford Inspire spends most of its time working with schools and districts implementing its resources, it has identified many different strategies for using its resources successfully. For example, a school leader can assign individual teachers a module based on a need identified during a walk-through observation. Also, a Professional Learning Community at a school can choose a series of modules to complete throughout the year as a unit of study. Finally, a school leader can implement On-Demand Modules as a part of their school-wide staff development plan.
Thriving Schools: What types of teachers most benefit from these professional development modules?
Brian: When we started to create our modules, we did have an exclusive focus on early-career, novice teachers. For instance, a lot of the modules in our “Learning Environment” domain are focused there. But as we’ve evolved and worked with hundreds of different schools, we’ve realized that lots of veteran teachers were also benefitting from our resources. So now we say that every teacher can benefit from this collection of modules and find resources that fit a specific need they might have.
Thriving Schools: With so many resources on the site, how do you recommend educators or school leaders diagnose the areas they might need help with?
Brian: The diagram below gives you a few examples of how this might look. Each column of the graphic also has additional considerations that provide different implementation ideas. But again, to emphasize the point I made before, a lot of this hinges on a school leader reflecting on the needs of their school and staff.
Thriving Schools: Let’s dig into some examples of the program in action! Can you tell us how schools and district partners are using the Sanford Inspire materials?
Brian: One of the more successful applications of our modules that we’ve seen was an elementary school district that was working to improve its new teacher induction program. As part of this, all 1st and 2nd year teachers were paired up with a mentor teacher and asked to have monthly meetings to discuss their teaching. However, the district found that these meetings weren’t fruitful – they’d often turn into venting sessions and community commiseration. So we collaborated with them to fully re-vamp this mentoring process, including our modules along the way. Now, every teacher completes a module prior to each monthly check-in. Sometimes that module is chosen for them and sometimes it’s agreed upon between teacher and mentor. That way, teachers are able to spend their monthly meetings discussing what resonated with them and how they’re going to improve their practice as a result. Let me give you another example. Another district we work with has decided to use our modules across all of their schools as a way of completing and earning required professional development credits. This particular partner has put all of our modules on-line in their own portal and teachers can complete the modules that fit their needs. So there’s two examples, both of them equally effective and impactful!
Thriving Schools: Are you seeing any non-traditional uses of the materials? Applications that you didn’t anticipate when the program first started?
Brian: Absolutely! One that I find interesting is a group called Harmony Project Phoenix. It’s an after-school music intervention program for under-resourced, low-income communities where they bring expert musicians into schools to teach music to students. The program, by the way, also has a tremendous number of proven impacts beyond just learning music. While excellent musicians, many of the program instructors had never taught before and hadn’t led a group of students in a school setting. So we partnered with this organization to use a select set of our modules to help the musicians manage student behaviors and build culture. I think the take-away here is that there are many settings in which adults are asked to lead kids, but are never given any training or tools to help them improve their craft. We can help out with that too!
Thriving Schools: The last area I’d like to explore is how these resources could be used in an instructional coach model and supplement the coaching a teacher might be receiving. What are your thoughts on this?
Brian: Great question! Let me start by saying our modules are great and they’re a tremendous resource. They are not, however, a magic bullet. We can’t make teachers better without them having some skin in the game. So teachers who simply watch a given module and do nothing else, aren’t going to get better. There has to be some sort of application after watching these modules. There has to be! So in the best case, we see teachers working with their instructional coaches and using our materials based on the needs a coach is seeing through in-class observation or a self-diagnosed need. And where we come in, is preventing that teacher-coach duo from having to go out and find high-quality, research-based information about a particular area of development. So now, for example, when a coach identifies a teacher as needing work on student motivation, they can direct them to one of our three modules in that topic and conduct a follow-up in their next weekly debrief. And by the way, our modules come with a coaching guide that helps the coach understand the content the teacher received and how their classroom practices should improve as a result.
Thriving Schools: Are there any other resources or sites we should be aware of (that you haven’t mentioned yet) that would be great to pair up with or used in tandem with Sanford Inspire?
Brian: One of the things we’ve been thinking about internally is this idea of micro-credentials, which would be a competency-based assessment of what teachers might be learning through our modules. So our modules, as they are today, provide this tremendous research-based background knowledge and accompanying tools. The purpose of a micro-credential, then, would be to assess the extent to which teachers are able to apply and effectively execute on that awesome information you just got in the module. There is a platform that we partner with called BloomBoard where teachers and school leaders can come together to build different groupings of credentials based on competency.
As a side note, the site also offers resources on Recruitment and Clinical Experience. However, Sanford Inspire is no longer focused on those areas. The resources are only offered on the site to the extent that they may be beneficial to educators doing work in these areas.