Back to School, Back to Learning: How Teachers Can Set Their Own Professional Learning Goals

—Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.
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One week before Labor Day 30 years ago, I met my first public school class: 30 6th graders standing on the playground of their brand-new school, ranging in height from short and cute to intimidatingly tall. We started that year together feeling privileged to have a classroom TV and weekly trips to the computer lab. Not one of us had ever used a cellphone, nor did we know of the laser projectors or SMART Boards that would eventually become commonplace in classrooms. The most exciting piece of technology in our school was the library’s security system.

This fall marks the first time in 30 years that I am not going "back to school." No doubt, times have changed since I started my career in public education, but I’d like to think I was an effective teacher who adapted successfully to education’s constant changes. That makes me wonder, how do today’s teachers manage constant learning in order to improve their practice?

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards was established in 1987, the same year I began teaching in a public school. While I did not begin my path toward National Board certification until 2002, the National Board Standards and other foundational documents have aligned with my professional learning approach from the very beginning of my teaching career. The National Board’s Architecture of Accomplished Teaching, which delineates steps to follow when teaching students, has framed—and justified—many of the decisions I’ve made in order to improve my practice. We’ve all sat through our share of useless meetings under the title of "professional development." Rather than presume that my school would provide meaningful professional learning, I started setting my own professional learning goals and mapped out ways to reach those goals.

The Architecture of Accomplished Teaching provides a roadmap to guide learning with students, but why not apply these steps to teachers’ learning as well? I invite you to consider the six steps of the Architecture as described below and imagine how they would help guide your professional learning—so you can weather the countless changes that take place in education each year!

Step 1: Know your students, and know yourself as a teacher. In education, we often talk about the importance of differentiating instruction to meet students’ needs, but it’s important to consider your own needs and preferences as well. Based on what you learn about your students, where are your strengths? In what areas would growth impact your practice?

One of my teaching strengths has always been to lecture with a bit of storytelling. More recently, I noticed that my students engaged in learning and mastered new ideas when they had multiple opportunities to talk to each other, play games, and use technology. What did I need to learn in order to connect my strengths and interests as a teacher with those of my students?

Step 2: Set goals for your own professional growth. Goal setting is critical to lesson planning. As a classroom teacher, you are responsible for identifying what content students will learn, and then measuring their progress toward achieving the learning goals you’ve established. This year, set a goal for your own learning, which you can strive to reach while guiding students to achieve their own goals. You might find it helpful to discuss your personal goals with a colleague. I often shared my goals with students as well: This practice allowed me to receive feedback from my students and to model the importance of lifelong learning for them.

In response to my students’ interest in games, I set a goal to learn more about using games in the classroom to support student learning.

Step 3: Implement instruction designed to meet those goals. What paths will you follow to reach those goals? Will you indulge in professional reading, engage in marathon TeacherTube sessions, or work with your professional learning community? Consider creating or joining a virtual PLC using a site like Teaching Partners or Edutopia.

I prefer to learn through reading. Luckily for me, reading materials can be found in professional books, scholarly journals, blogs, and websites. Reading about how to use games in education was a bit of a stretch for me, because I was focusing on computer games. I chose to focus on this type of game since I taught at a school where every student had a laptop. The process wasn’t easy, but knowing that reaching my goal would help students meet their own educational goals kept me motivated. Learning doesn’t always come easily, even with the most realistic goals.

Step 4: Evaluate student learning, and make time to evaluate your learning. Keep a journal, create a portfolio, or meditate. Consider looking back after you’ve posted students’ grades for each quarter and determining your own quarterly grade. Where are you in the process of working toward your goal and meeting your own professional learning benchmarks? Has your personal learning impacted your students’ learning? If you have become distracted by the daily demands of teaching, take steps to recommit to your learning plan.

My goal to learn more about using games in the classroom was challenging for me, but most of my students eagerly participated in the new games I tried out in the classroom. I found that certain platforms, such as Quizlet Live and Quizalize, provided data that measured students’ progress. Analyzing that data helped me know what students were learning—and if what they were learning met their learning goals.

Step 5: Reflect on student learning—and on your own learning and teaching. At the end of the semester or the end of the year, consider what experiences have impacted your practice and how you have changed. Based on your reflections, determine what aspects of your practice you will retain and continue to use. How do you think you’ll teach differently next year? Have you met your professional learning goal?

Although I met my goal of learning more about using games for instruction in my classroom, I found that I still didn’t know enough to see an improvement in student learning. That didn’t mean that the goal wasn’t worthy of my time. Now I had a foundation for building more knowledge.

Step 6: Set new goals. In the same way that you determine when it’s time to move your students to the next level, so it should be with your own learning.

If I were continuing with teaching this year, I’d set a more focused goal—perhaps to see if the games that provide data would help me assess student learning, or to determine which games are more appropriate for different students’ interests or needs. What would I do differently, and what would I do the same with students based on what I recently learned?

Every day and every year will bring new opportunities, experiences, and challenges. Set your next goal and prepare to complete the Architecture steps all over again, both for your students and for you. Learning is an endless experience—keep this in mind as you embark on another fulfilling year of teaching and learning.

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