“Professional development that is most relevant for teachers is focused on teachers’ real work, provides teachers with opportunities to make choices about their own learning, happens over time, and contributes to building a professional culture of collaborative learning.” ~Kathy A. Dunne~
Most of us envision schools as places where adults spend their time teaching children. Regardless of one’s pedagogical beliefs; constructivist, problem-based or old school transmission/bunch-o-facts, our concept of school is a place where only children learn. Though we recognize the need for teachers to be trained, often this training (or professional development) is structured to occur out of school; at workshops, conferences or on training days.This structure does not serve either teachers or their students well.
I’ve been fortunate over my career to have had the chance to work with thousands of teachers in a wide range professional training contexts; from ballrooms filled with hundreds of teachers, to conference sessions and workshops, webinars and small group inquires. I’ve also had the chance to research all manner of professional learning structures and, in synthesizing these two sources of information, can summarize my belief about teacher professional training with the following theory of action:
If we use classrooms as places where both teachers and school leaders learn; then student learning will be richer, deeper and more impactful.
Over the past few weeks our staff have been engaged in some school-based professional learning focused on helping our teachers learn how they can use common assessment tools and practices to help them improve their math instruction. We have put our teachers into small learning teams (3 or 4 members) and provided them with the time to express the challenges and questions they are wrestling with, explore common themes and patterns and connect them with the practices that may help us address these challenges.
It’s not a complex structure and it rests on the simple belief that teachers want to work together to improve their teaching. In her article, Teachers as Learners, educational researcher Kathy Dunne outlines 7 key aspects that all effective professional learning structures share:
- Driven by a vision of the classroom
- Helps teachers develop the knowledge and skills to create vision
- Mirrors methods to be used by students
- Builds a learning community
- Develops teacher leadership
- Links to the system
- Is continuously assessed
Earlier in my career I served as a school-based Adjunct Professor for a teacher education program and upon completion of the program I would congratulate the teacher candidates with the following reminder; you don’t just have a license to teach, you also have a license to learn. It’s folly to assume that all teachers enter the profession with all the knowledge and skills required to be successful. Teaching is a highly complex and specialized field that requires constant learning and that learning is best situated in the place where teachers ply their craft and, with colleagues who can best help them learn and grow.
John Hattie, in his work The Politics of Collaborative Expertise expresses the imperative that; rather than apply external pressures or mandates, school and system leaders focus instead on providing the structures and resources to support teachers to build their collaborative expertise; within and across schools. As a principal, I trust that the teachers I am leading wish to improve their classroom teaching and are eager to work with one another to do so; even if this learning is complex and demanding.
Teachers spend a large amount of their lives in classrooms; first as children and later as adults. It turns out that the best teachers continue to see the classroom as place where they can learn; we need all teachers to see the classroom this way.