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Education Opinion

3 Ways to Build Trust in Professional Learning

By Learning Forward — May 19, 2014 3 min read
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Hayes Mizell

National education reports often have difficulty getting attention, but that was not the case when the Gallup polling organization released State of America’s Schools. Rather than prescribing technocratic approaches for improving education, the report focused on the “human elements” that drive student achievement.

According to Gallup, the factors of engagement, relationships, collaboration, hope, and trust are essential for learning and high performance. This is true not only for students, but also for teachers.

In fact, the report’s headline grabber was that nearly 70% of teachers “are not emotionally connected to their workplaces and are unlikely to devote much discretionary effort to their work.” Among reasons for teachers’ lack of engagement, two stand out. In a Gallup survey of employees in 14 different occupational categories, K-12 teachers “were dead last ... in saying their ‘supervisor always creates an environment that is trusting and open.’ ”

In public education, building trust is everyone’s responsibility, but Gallup emphasizes the importance of school system and school leaders. Implicit is the connection between education leaders, trust, and professional learning.

There is no doubt that a lack of trust is at the core of many educators’ cynicism about and resistance to professional learning. However, education leaders responsible for organizing professional learning can build trust when they:

1) Engage teachers in authentic dialogue about their learning needs. Teachers know their strengths and their limitations better than anyone. But they are wary of acknowledging the latter because they believe -- particularly in an environment of high-stakes teacher evaluation -- that it will cause others to question their competence. What learning experiences do teachers need (not what the principal or central office thinks they need) to perform more effectively? The only hope of engaging teachers in identifying their learning needs is for education leaders to take the time to talk respectfully, honestly, and deeply with teachers, in a safe and supportive context. Listening to the teachers, and acting on what they feel, as well as what they say, can result in professional learning that teachers value and use.

2) Organize professional learning that teachers experience as appropriate and helpful. In spite of an increasingly strong knowledge base of what constitutes effective professional learning, it is not yet the norm for many teachers. Pockets of slapdash professional development persist: one-size-fits-all content, didactic presentation, disregard for local context, information overload, and lack of relevancy and practical application. Teachers have the right to expect that not only will their professional learning be a good use of their time, but that they will emerge from it with necessary new skills and confidence to use them. It builds trust when leaders organize professional learning to meet that expectation.

3) Support teachers’ application of the new knowledge, skills, and behaviors they develop through professional learning. For most people, mastering new learning is difficult. There are at least two steps to the process. The first is the learning experience itself. This can occur on a computer, in a workshop, in a collaborative team, or elsewhere. The second step is more difficult, applying the learning in real time, in a challenging, interactive environment. This is especially true for teachers who may have had learning experiences that were superficial or of limited duration. Like most new learners, teachers need sustained, intensive support and experience to translate their learning into effective practice. Teachers may well ask why education leaders invest in professional learning without including the follow-up support necessary for effective implementation. For professional learning to be trustworthy, its design must address not only the learning process but also the support teachers need to use their learning to benefit students.

The Gallup report raises serious issues about the isolation and alienation of teachers. There are many pathways education leaders can take to address and resolve this problem. Ensuring the responsiveness, integrity, and effectiveness of professional learning is a logical place to begin.

For more about the role of trust within professional learning, see Learning Forward’s recent Transform Professional Learning action brief.

Hayes Mizell
Distinguished Senior Fellow

The opinions expressed in Learning Forward’s PD Watch are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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