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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Professional Development with Andy Hargreaves

By Peter DeWitt — May 24, 2012 5 min read
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“Many professional learning communities can be horrifically stilted caricatures of what they are really supposed to be.” Andy Hargreaves

In a perfect world educators would have the opportunity to take time and reflect on their practices. School districts would be able to offer a plethora of professional development opportunities to staff that would allow for true professional growth. Unfortunately, with budget cuts school districts are being forced to do more with less at a very crucial time in education.

Most states have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and new teacher and administrator evaluation. The CCSS are designed to change the way teachers educate their students but without the proper professional development, the process of change may take longer than expected. Unfortunately, districts are under a time crunch in most states across the U.S. so time is not on their side. We need to stay away from just getting things done and move toward getting things done correctly. PD will help implement those changes properly.

Besides CCSS, there are so many areas that educators would love to learn more about. Without the benefit of going back to college to get another degree, professional development opportunities offered by districts are the next best way to help educators learn how to teach struggling learners, figure out how to best narrow the achievement gap among poverty stricken children or how to implement technology into the classroom.

We hear a great deal about Professional Learning Communities (PLC). Twitter is a buzz with opportunities to connect with colleagues near and far. As we see the good ole’ days of districts being able to offer a variety of PD to staff, we look forward to creative ways to make sure staff get what they need.

Andy Hargreaves
Andy Hargreaves is the Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College (website). Before going to Boston College, he was the co-founder and director of the International Centre for Educational Change at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto.

Dr. Hargreaves knows a great deal about professional development. Although the good ole’ days may be behind us, the professional development that was offered may not have been the best. Some of the PD of the past was not always done with integrity and schools need to make sure that what they offer now is done correctly. Andy offered some advice on establishing the best PLC’s.

PD: What are the key ingredients to establishing a professional learning culture?
AH: The most effective practice is when the principal is a good practitioner who knows how to bring the best people together and get them to work as a collaborative team. I have been in schools in America where the principal understands that there are teachers within the building who know more about instruction than the principal does and can capitalize on that.

Good principals bring all of these people together so they can push or challenge one another to help move the school forward. This can only be done when the leader creates a high trust environment. If there is fear, anxiety, gossip and a lack of trust, then there is not a strong professional learning culture.

In addition, in order to create a collaborative culture, there needs to be a clear focus (ex. Behavior management, emotional development, literacy etc.). When these conversations around the focus take place, it is important to value both the evidence as well as people’s judgment and experience together. It’s also important that educators can share practice as well as challenge and question practices because that will help foster growth.

PD: How important are professional learning communities (PLC’s) and are schools doing them correctly?
AH: Everyone should be doing them but they are easily misunderstood. My concern is that too many schools are doing them incorrectly and that they are often badly implemented. I have seen professionally learning communities where there are very stilted conversations. PLC’s may be supposed to be about looking at student work but can turn out to be really about comparing scores that students in different classes have received on their tests.

In addition, I have seen PLC’s where teachers look at data and have to come up with some instant magic response to intervene and fix the problem. Many times these learning communities are only looking at the kids with the problems and are only looking at the kids who are falling behind. They only look at the interventions that can be used to help these kids and they are not also looking at the kids who are succeeding. We could learn a lot about what we are doing right by looking at those kids who are doing well.

Many professional learning communities can be horrifically stilted caricatures of what they are really supposed to be. PLC’s should be a place where educators are excited to go and be challenged to think differently. PLC’s need to be a place where educators can go and learn from colleagues whom they can rely on, Where they can solve problems about student learning and talk about their mistakes. They need to be a place where educators can grow in their profession. Veteran teachers and novice teachers can learn from one another in these PLC’s. We need to remember that teaching is very, very difficult and no one will ever do it perfectly. But in PLC’s they can learn how to do it better.

PD:Twitter is being recognized as one effective way to establish a self-driven PLC. What are your thoughts?
AH: This is a new question for me. I know now that when I am giving a presentation in Singapore, my students in Boston can be following what I am saying because the conference attendees are Tweeting out when I am saying. I think sometimes this is a generational difference but if you ask my opinion I think that Tweeting is very good for an issue that is emerging because it provides awareness.

Twitter is really good for an idea that is being put out by someone. Educators share strategies that others can learn from and they can participate in small conversations with one another. However, Twitter is not and should not be a substitute for deep reflection. In the world we live in we have to think fast and we have to think slow and the two things go together. We cannot think fast instead of thinking slow (End of Interview).

The times of offering a plethora of professional development within district or sending staff to expensive conferences may be a thing of the past for many schools. Fortunately there are great conferences that staff can attend, but schools have to provide great PD within their district as well. It is more important than ever that administrators set a tone of high quality professional development for staff because it will benefit our students for years to come.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.