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Continuous Improvement: Teacher Induction

This episode is about how High Tech High transformed its teacher induction program to make it all about Continuous Improvement, and put teachers in control of their own learning.

For non-Californians wondering what “induction” is, here’s the deal: in California, your teaching credential isn’t really a “credential” until you go through “Induction” in your first couple years in the profession.

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The Fishbone Diagram and Interrelationship Digraph that Julie Ruble’s group made.

You can get a PDF of an effort-impact chart here.

To find out more about High Tech High’s teacher induction program, visit the High Tech High Teacher Center

If you have ideas for stories, get in touch with Alec on Twitter: @alecpatton


Briony Chown (00:00):

Induction used to be something that our teachers would have to go to on a Monday night. And I didn’t hear very much about it apart from that: it was a commitment, It was a hoop they had to jump through. And in the last few years I’ve noticed a real change. Now we have people coming back and leading PD around the change ideas that they’d been working on in induction. So for example, last year we had a teacher really work on reading groups and we were able to use the ideas that she trialed and the data that she got from that and feed them back and share them out with other teachers.

Alec Patton (00:38):

Welcome to High Tech High Unboxed. I’m Alec Patton and you just heard the voice of Briony Chown, director High Tech Elementary Explorer. Also, Briony and I are married. I should probably mention that. And what Briony noticed about the teacher induction program wasn’t an accident. The program was totally overhauled in 2016. This episode is all about what changed and what other schools can learn from it. But in order for anything else to make sense in this episode, you need to know what we mean by “induction program”, and we’ll start with a painful fact about teaching California: when you get your teaching credential, it’s not REALLY a credential. It’s a “preliminary” credential. I’ll let High Tech High’s Director of Credentialing Operations, Julie Holmes, explain.

Julie Holmes (01:18):

The way California looks at the credentialing structure is that it’s a two-tiered approach. So the first tier of preparation is your teacher preparation program. The second tier is now you’re on a preliminary credential and you have to clear it, and that is through what California calls “induction”.

Alec Patton (01:42):

So why would the state of California give new teachers, who are already among the world’s most stressed out and overworked people, more hoops to jump through? Believe it or not, it’s meant to keep them from quitting their jobs.

Julie Holmes (01:53):

In 1988 teachers were leaving the profession in droves. They’d become a teacher, they would start working, they would quit – and they weren’t just quitting their school to find a different job, they were quitting the profession. That’s when this whole shift for induction came upon us in 1988 and it was really meant to be a mentoring program, supporting people in the field so that they want to stay in the profession and people that get support and feel supported typically want to stay.

Alec Patton (02:28):

So that was the intention. I’m a veteran of the California induction system – High Tech High’s program, in fact. And, as Julie admits, when I went through, it was not living up to its stated purpose.

Julie Holmes (02:38):

Back in the day, induction was a little dry. It was a lot of boilerplate templates that teachers had to fill out and it was, “one size fits all”. So teachers are trying to fill out these template forms that didn’t apply to their setting, or their placement, or the students they were working with, and it was very frustrating to them – and the whole point of it was lost. The whole point of this is an additional program to support you so that you will ultimately stay in the profession. It felt like it was having the opposite effect on teachers: they were like, “Aah, I’m just done!”

Alec Patton (03:17):

Julie and her team did their best to minimize the pain.

Julie Holmes (03:20):

We took out what we could, we took out the really redundant boilerplates.

Alec Patton (03:26):

Then in 2016 with absolutely no warning, everything changed.

Julie Holmes (03:32):

The commission on teacher credentialing radically changed induction. The pendulum swung from over-designed template forms to now it’s all about working with your mentor. It’s all about your individual support. It’s all about what you, the teacher need to be better in your practice. So now we’ve got this amazing opportunity to completely redesign an entire program to serve new teachers. It was just like, “Wow, we’re free, we can do whatever we want!” It was very exciting – and daunting, because if you’ve only had this one curriculum to teach off of and now that binder is out the window and you get to do whatever you want, there’s a lot of freedom in that and it’s a little scary because you want to make sure that you’re providing the best program to teachers.

Alec Patton (04:22):

At this point, the team knew that teachers in the program would create and follow what’s called an “individualized learning plan” and that they would work with a mentor through school for the course of the year. Those were still state requirements. Everything else was wide open, so Julie and her team talked to teachers about what sounded useful and interesting to them and they looked for an answer to the question, what do you do when you can do anything? Meanwhile, a few people at High Tech High Graduate School of Education were getting very excited about something called “Improvement Science” (only, now they call it “Continuous Improvement”. We’re going to get into that in another episode). Anyway, whatever you call it, at the heart of Continuous Improvement are three questions. I’ll leave it to Stacey Caillier, a director of High Tech High center for research on equity and innovation to explain,

Stacey Caillier (05:02):

“What are you trying to accomplish?” Essentially we like to think of it as “What do you want to accomplish? For whom? by when?”, so that it really forces you to get specific and concrete. “How will you know that you’re improving?” and “What will you actually do to meet that goal?” I think we all are like, “Oh yeah, I’ve got a goal, I’m going to pay attention to some stuff and I’m going to try some things,” but I think in general that middle step of “How will I actually know if I’m making progress?” is a big cognitive leap.

Alec Patton (05:34):

Stacey and her colleague Ryan Gallagher thought those were good questions for new teachers to be asking about their classes, so they booked a meeting with Julie to talk about induction.

Julie Holmes (05:42):

Stacey Caillier and Ryan Gallagher came over to meet with us the induction program to really talk about what Improvement Science mesh with induction and what we’re trying to do to prepare teachers. I knew a little bit at the time about Improvement Science. I had seen what they were doing with different small groups in our schools and I thought, “Well this, you know, this would be a great supplement to our program.” I didn’t fully understand at the time how beautifully it would just blend together. It is the foundation of our induction program.

Alec Patton (06:19):

See, Julie really believes in the original 1988 purpose of induction to help teachers navigate their first years so they stay in the profession.

Julie Holmes (06:26):

New teachers are, they’re in a state of fog in a blur, and they’re just trying to multitask and do so many things at the same time. There’s not always that time to reflect and I think that induction allows that space to reflect on a lot of things. That’s where I love Improvement Science because it molds you to think in a certain way and to think about how to measure something or how the process of something just really deeply understand it.

Alec Patton (06:58):

Okay, that sounds good, but it’s pretty abstract. What does it look like at its simplest? Just take those three questions you heard earlier: “What are you trying to accomplish? How will you know that you’re improving and what will you actually do to meet that goal?” Teachers in High Tech High’s induction program spend a year answering those three questions. They have regularly scheduled meetings:

Julie Holmes (07:19):

We ask our teachers to come in one time per month from the start of the year to the end, so eight meetings across the year, and there’s a lot of people to organize. Induction can be a hundred plus teachers, so if you’re lost in a room of a hundred people, you’re not feeling that supported. That doesn’t feel like a network. You feel like “They probably don’t even know my name.”

Alec Patton (07:39):

And the network is a big deal when you’re doing Continuous Improvement.

Julie Holmes (07:42):

Successful programs, they have networks. We wanted to create learning communities where everyone – new teachers as well as veteran teachers – was gaining knowledge,

Alec Patton (07:52):

So they split the cohort into groups of 10 people or less. Each focused on a different topic with a veteran teacher to serve as coach.

Julie Holmes (07:58):

Teachers would self-select and they were topics, for example, positive behavior supports or reading and writing workshop for elementary students, or making math meaningful.

Alec Patton (08:10):

As Ryan Gallagher explains, this is designed to let teachers personalize their work within a set structure.

Ryan Gallagher (08:30):

Here’s a list of 13 big problems in education: group work literacy, culturally relevant pedagogy… You know you’re limiting the choice that folks can have. But we’ve done our work on the back end to say these are just important things to work on. So there’s a little bit of like, instead of you going out and saying, “You just pick a problem, you know,” we’re saying “Here’s 10 really important ones, why don’t you find yourself in there?” And then it’s time to understand your context, your students, through empathy work, through data that you’re collecting.

Alec Patton (8:46):

This choosing of the topics that happens at the first induction session in September in a big room with each induction coach standing behind a table like recruiters at a college fair.

Julie Holmes (08:52):

We had 15 improvement coaches and they were almost pitching their ideas to teachers, trying to like get them to come into their group: “Hey, come to my group. I’m doing writer’s workshop, sixth through 12th grade!” So improvement coaches did a little pitch this year, which I don’t know if the improvement coaches loved it, but the new teachers loved it.

Alec Patton (09:11):

I am one of those improvement coaches and I can tell you definitively that this improvement coach did not love it, but I’m glad it worked. The next session is in October. Now everybody meets in their specific group. The first thing they need to do is understand their problem. That’s understand the PROBLEM first. Don’t get this wrong and embarrass yourself like I did when I interviewed Stacy and Ryan. “I start with like, what do I want to accomplish? How do I, what do we want to accomplish? For whom by when, right?”

Stacey Caillier:


Alec Patton:

I literally wrote that down!

Stacey Caillier:

If you’re thinking process wise, I think it starts with what’s the problem we’re trying to solve and there’s a lot in there because I think that, you know, that’s like we’d call it “root cause analysis” and I think that’s a kind of a precursor to even getting to the questions first. Because you need to get clear on the problem before you know what you want to do about it.

Alec Patton (10:03):

You start working to understand your problem in that October meeting, but you also do something else. You get to know your group which means it’s time for me to introduce this episode’s second Julie: Julie Ruble, seventh grade humanities teacher at High Tech Middle Media Arts, who went through induction last year. She was in my induction group so we got together to talk about what we remembered.

Julie Ruble (10:22):

when we were sharing strategies we saw working for us, we started to realize that there were a lot of strategies in the room almost regardless of level actually, ‘cause I still remember getting some of my favorite tweaks from elementary school teachers, and I’m in middle school, and when people are sharing those and sharing their challenges, sharing those kinds of things are where I realized the number one thing induction is going to give me is this environment of educators who are working together to improve, which I know we tried to do in so many ways at High Tech High, but like literally sitting in a classroom together once a month and checking in was really useful for that. It was just very concentrated.

Alec Patton (11:04):

But back to figuring out what your problem is… How do you do this? You talk to some students. We call these empathy interviews because the goal is to empathize with the people you’re trying to help.

Julie Holmes (11:13):

I really, really strongly encourage new teachers to do that and talk to their students. You will be surprised at what they share with you.

Alec Patton (11:21):

In the November induction meeting. Everyone brings what they found in their empathy interviews and it’s time to figure out the root causes of your problem. November is the most technical and jargon-heavy. The meetings begins with a “fishbone diagram”. Lots of people find this terminology a little off-putting. Not Julie Ruble.

Julie Ruble (11:37):

Are you kidding? Love a fish bone. It’s so systematic to me. It’s a buffer against your assumptions and I really like that, ‘cause I make assumptions.

Alec Patton (11:46):

To do a fishbone diagram, you start with your problem. Here’s our problem: “kids are not approaching texts with confidence and motivation.” You start the fishbone diagram with what you think is driving your problem.

Julie Ruble (11:58):

We all did it on post-its. It’s like, why do we think this is happening? We did a ton of post-its and then we had rounds of categorizing the post-its and the bones of the fish are the categories we realized that we had come up with.

Alec Patton (12:13):

Once you’ve made your fishbone diagram, it’s time for an even more confusing bit of jargon. The interrelationship digraph. I’ll let Julie Ruble explain again because she’s a super fan.

Julie Ruble (12:23):

Okay. So interrelationship digraphs blow my mind because I always have a preconception of the cause of a problem that’s probably informed by my race, my gender, my first language and my experience in the classroom that comes through only my lens. All of these things might inform the way I’m seeing reading in my classroom and I just have to pick that apart. And so this is a way after we know some causes we can actually in a very systematic way try to identify which one might affect most of the others. And so it’s like the highest leverage cause like if we were to influence it we might really make a difference in a lot of the other causes

Julie Holmes (13:08):

Then it just all meshes together and teachers leave that night in a daze because they’re like, “Oh my gosh, now I get it. Now I see why I’m having these issues.”

Alec Patton (13:21):

Also at this point teachers hopefully understand why they’ve spent two months on understanding the nature of their problem without saying anything about what they should do about it. To recap the program so far: in September, teachers choose an issue they want to focus on and get placed in an improvement group accordingly. In October the group meets for the first time to start to find a problem they are going to tackle together. Then every teacher conducts empathy interviews with three of their students and when the group meets again in November, they sort of all the factors that are contributing to the problem into categories using a fishbone diagram. Then they put the categories on an interrelationship digraph which leads them to figure out which one is the root cause. That is the place where they can have the most impact.

As you may have gathered, this is a very visual process which does not exactly lend itself to podcasting. With that in mind, we’ve included links to our improvement group’s fishbone diagram and interrelationship digraph in the show notes. Now let’s continue to the rest of the school year. There’s no meeting in December because December is crazy for everybody. Then in January it’s finally time to move from defining the problem to testing solutions, so everyone in the group does some research, finds out what other people have done to address their problem and brainstorms interventions that they could try in their own classrooms. It’s time for our next piece of technical language: the “effort-impact chart”. This is pretty straightforward and we’ve got a printable PDF in the show notes. Here’s how it looks. On one axis you put effort going from low to high. On the other axis, you put impact also going low to high. Everyone in the group writes down possible interventions to tackle the root cause of their problem on post-it notes. Then they put them on the chart, which means they need to ask two questions: “Will this take a lot of effort? and “Will this have a big impact?” Once all the posts are on the chart, everyone zeros in on the low effort, high impact part of the chart.

Julie Ruble (15:06):

One of the things I love about looking at impact versus effort is I know that sometimes I’ll think of a change that I know would be a slam dunk for students. I know if I did it it would make such a big impact. So I’ll get started on it and it will be so high effort that I will never actually put it into effect. And I’ll harbor a lot of guilt about that, which will create other problems in my teaching. And if I just take a moment to think about how much effort it’s going to take versus how much impact it might have, I’m so much more likely to choose a quick change that I could put into effect. It just makes a lot of sense to organize things this way. We’re all about doing like the biggest thing and like, “Yes and” there are some small things we can do that we will actually will do cause they’re accessible

Alec Patton (15:55):

For a lot of teachers. Thinking about how much effort something will take feels a little bit subversive. We’ve internalized an expectation that we just do whatever it takes because we’re doing it for the kids. This is one of the reasons the teachers burn out, so an induction program that gives new teachers permission to make decisions based on effort is going to help keep people in the profession, which, remember, is the point of induction. At the end of the January session, every teacher chooses a change idea to try. Then they decide what data they’re going to collect to see whether it works or not. Over the next month they’ll test it out, collect the data and write up what actually happened. This process is called a PDSA cycle, which stands for “plan, do, study, act”. The teacher writes up their PDSA on a single PowerPoint slide and during the spring they do four PDSA cycles.

Alec Patton (16:39):

Then they write up their findings in a report called a change package. This is designed to be short and readable so other teachers can use it. They present this to a panel in May, and that’s it. That’s the entire induction program. But that summary is kind of vague. So let’s talk through what Julie Ruble actually did. Julie focused all her PD essays on quick jots. That is, brief notes that students jot down their notebooks when they’re done reading in class. We’ve put all Julian’s PDSA slides and her final change package in the show notes so you can see what all of these look like. For her first change idea, Julie gave students a specific focus for their quick jots. For example, one day she gave a mini lesson on character development and then instructed students to focus on character development in their quick jots for data.

So she checked the notebooks with students she’d chosen to focus on and found that a few of her students weren’t just confused about character development, they weren’t writing quick jobs at all. Now, in hindsight, it seems like her second PDSA should have focused on those students, but at the time she was preoccupied with checking notebooks more efficiently, which you will understand if you’ve ever lugged all your students’ notebooks home on Friday only to lug them all back unopened the following Monday. So Julia had her students mark the quick jots they wanted her to read with post-it flags when they handed in their notebooks. Here’s the question she was trying to answer:

Julie Ruble (17:56):

Will the post-it notes help me check this faster and easier? And the answer’s no. FYI. The flags fall off, and I’m looking through pages and pages to figure out where their post-it flags are and I don’t know if they fell off or if I’ve just missed it. This was just a fail and I really needed to adapt it.

Alec Patton (18:14):

During the normal course of teaching, it would have been easy for Julie to read too much into the post-its failure. Best case scenario, she would have felt guilty about the looming pile of unchecked notebooks that were shedding post-it flags by the hour. Worst case scenario, she might’ve decided “quick jots really aren’t working for this class” and stopped doing them entirely. But the PDSA allowed her to see this for what it was: no more than a single unsuccessful experiment. And it was then that she came back around to the findings of her first PDSA: The students who are jotting nonsense or not jotting it all

Julie Ruble (18:45):

My last PDSA I realized “okay, that system for checking as closely as I wanted to, it’s not going to work, and the priority right now is that three kids aren’t doing it at all. I’m not going to try to figure out another system before I address these three kids.” ‘Cause if everyone’s doing it on a regular basis, stopping and asking  of what they’re reading, “huh, did I get that?” Then I know they’re going to grow even as I’m trying to catch up on how I collect data about it.

Alec Patton (19:13):

So PDSA three is a worksheet based accommodation for kids who’ve not gotten the hang of jotting, which is just three kids – requiring them to show me their jots during exit procedure or have to jot during break and following day”. Intense. These are like, riveting narratives. Like now I’m like, “what’s going to happen?” Are the three students who aren’t jotting, able to jot if they have a separate sheet and daily accountability? Results: two students were able to jot a lot more effectively with this accommodation. The other student is still not jotting effectively. So what happened?

Julie Ruble (19:44):

Well, okay, so now two kids are back in the system where we’re all reading together and for that one kid, that kid is telling me this isn’t working for me. We’ve tried to tweak, it’s still not working. And so that kid actually went into a book club with another student where they were reading aloud to one another because that is the kind of thing that their attention required to track a book at that time. And so I needed to keep going until I knew that they needed that and I needed not to ignore it and let them flounder. So it was still good data. Like if you can’t do it, that’s also important to know.

Alec Patton (20:21):

For Julie’s final PDSA, she went back to focusing on the whole group this time. The problem was kids taking their time, getting their independent reading books out at the start of class. Her change idea was to walk around the room and give a gentle tap on the desk of students who hadn’t started reading. It worked. And now I’m going to tell you something I didn’t mention before: Julie’s not a new teacher. She had been teaching for 11 years. When she went through induction, she’d just been in another state and is really strict about its credentialing. Nevertheless, her PDSA has transformed her classroom practice.

Julie Ruble (20:53):

I think if I were doing this in sort of the casual way I did before, I would not have necessarily picked up on that one kid and changed the structure as quickly. I would have, you know, half-heartedly tried a bunch of different things and then been like, well there’s always one. You know, that’s not okay. You know? And so it’s really good to systematize it to where I’m like, there is one and now another structure supports them. And not only that, but I’m noticing as we go through these, every conclusion that I came to, I am still using: I’m using the worksheet accommodation for kids who struggle setting it up in their notebook. I’m using the book club for kids who struggled even still with a worksheet accommodation. I’m using the walk around and tap instead of verbal reminders and so it’s really neat to see that, you know, it’s not like I thought, Oh, these are the results of my PDSA. Let me put them in my plan. It’s more just this taught me something and I use what I learned and I think that’s the cool thing about this is it’s all been so applicable that I do it naturally now.

Alec Patton (21:54):

To me there’s a lot to love about this way of doing teacher induction. I love that it helps teachers like Julie make useful sustainable changes in their classrooms. I love that it puts teachers in charge of what issues they prioritize and what data they collect. I love that it helps teachers form networks with other teachers who are trying to figure out the same problems, but most of all, I love how it trains you to think about what happens in your classroom. For Julie Ruble, this way of thinking has been literally revolutionary in the sense that it helps her identify systems of oppression and tear them down.

Julie Ruble (22:25):

What I realized doing Continuous Improvement is that it is what I was already doing as a teacher in the sense of, Oh, noticing a problem, trying out this quick tweak and collecting data, but naming all of the steps and doing them in a more formalized way kind of helps me to check where I was doing it in too informal away to catch oppressive ideas. Data collection is a good example of this. I think I’m collecting data all the time. I am collecting data all the time in my classroom, but having to stop and ask myself, does the data I’m collecting actually match the interpretations I’m making and is it unbiased data or am I using assumptions about what’s happening in my classroom? Just that tweak of thinking about it that way is a good reminder so that as I’m doing it now, I’m not just using my assumptions as data, but I’m instead thinking, okay, how do I know that each of my students is getting what they need?

Alec Patton (23:32):

You’ve been listening to High Tech High Unboxed. I’m Alec Patton. Our theme music is by Brother Hershel, with additional music by Brady Bookser,High Tech High Media Arts Class of ‘22, and High Tech High’s very own multimedia ethnographer, Brent Spirnak. To find out more about High Tech High’s induction program, visit Thanks for listening.


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