Education Opinion

What Professional Development Should Be

By Nancy Flanagan — March 25, 2014 4 min read
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Nothing is more fascinating and absorbing to me--or, IMHO, central to the preservation of a high-quality, fully public education for every child in America--than teacher leadership. It is the key reason to believe that public education might not only survive but regenerate, the hinge upon which genuine reform swings. I was thrilled to be asked to speak about teacher leadership at the 2014 Ann Arbor Open School conference on progressive education, and spent last Friday and Saturday happily wallowing in my favorite subject.

It was a fabulous conference--and absolutely unique. The Open School invented their own brand of ed-camp 31 years ago, two decades before the ed-camp pioneers, without having to rely on snazzy tech-tool training to lure participants into sharing and swapping their best ideas. In fact, the conference site--a very rustic Lithuanian Culture camp about 40 minutes outside Ann Arbor--has limited connectivity (a comes-and-goes single bar) so it was that rare gathering where most participants weren’t sneaking continuous, surreptitious peeks at Twitter, Facebook or their inboxes. (With two exceptions--the guy checking his NCAA brackets at 10:00 p.m. Friday and the teacher who took Saturday morning off to marry her partner of 17 years, then texted a teary, exultant photo to the group.)

Naturally, I’ve attended tons of education conferences--the suit-and-heels mega-convention types populated by educators whose districts, organizations or universities paid the tab, and the mostly-teachers type where expensive keynoters are the draw and pre-vetted “content” is presented with the intent of making instruction more “effective.” Dynamic conference presenters--yes, they’re out there--are always torn between knowing that people need time to filter ideas through their own mental models, and feeling that if they’re going to be paid, they’d best have some attractive new stuff to share. Preferably on well-designed slides. Sit & Get lives on.

This conference was nothing like that. Ann Arbor Open School--a K-8 public school, part of the Ann Arbor system--was created around a progressive philosophy and maintains a delicate balance between complying with current, increasingly rigid reformy mandates, and preserving their core raison d'être: child-centered, project-based curriculum and instruction, responsive to the children’s interests. There’s an in-district waiting list of families wanting to get in and a cadre of committed and dedicated teachers.

What made this conference experience what professional development should be? It was:

  • Responsive to the teachers, parents and school leaders who attended. The principal and superintendent were there, as were a dozen or so parents, plus teachers from other schools. A homegrown, annual conference--just to talk--is an Open School tradition.
  • Tailored to the work, the mission and the students. Friday night’s program was an informal talk by a former student, who shared insights around several issues including factors that lead to school success and learning loss over summer vacation. There was an ingrained, un-faked comfort level between the young man and the teachers, many of whom had been his teacher, years ago. They poked thoughtfully at some of his talking points, while simultaneously expressing pride at the reflective man he’s turned into--and that was beautiful to watch.
  • Held in a setting where relationships could be renewed, distractions minimized. Sleeping on an iron camp bed and sharing communal sinks were part of the experience--but the homemade food was incredible and the late-night, wine-fueled conversation rich.
  • Low-cost, driven by participants’ needs and goals, rather than big names or sponsorship from organizations with programs and materials to sell.
  • A safe atmosphere in which to wrestle with thorny issues, argue, or change one’s mind--or simply take a walk together, down to the lake.
  • Designed to connect, rather than instruct. The amazing teacher-filmmaker Amy Valens was there to share the story of Mission Hill School in Boston, and the general response from participants was: In what ways are they different from us? The same as us? What ideas can we adapt? What can we learn from them? Not: Here are the reasons we can’t do that.

I was there to present on teacher leadership. I was prepared to share dramatic, even shocking information about the staggering gap between custom-tailored teaching practice and state and federal policy. I planned to tell them about teacher leadership “programs"--where “leaders” are selected and trained and funded, to do the bidding of organizations and promote policy initiatives. I wanted to talk about role-based leaders with defined duties, contrasted with a more organic kind of leadership--leadership that emerges from place and need. Which--it suddenly struck me--was present, in spades, in the room already.

A principal who enthusiastically attends a conference planned entirely by her teachers, to learn with them? Teachers who won’t let their internally-designed spring weekend together die, after three decades? Precious time set aside to talk about things that matter most in serving the 500 children in their collective care, as educators and parents? If that’s not natural and authentic leadership, I don’t know what is.

Laszlo Bock, Google’s Senior VP of People Operations, revealed in a recent article what they look for in a job candidate--and it has nothing to with GPA or former job titles. It is

leadership -- in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership. Traditional leadership is, were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there? We don't care. What we care about is, when faced with a problem and you're a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what's critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power."

At the end of the weekend, I was chatting with an Open School teacher who shared that she looked for stressed parents in checkout lines, amusing their babies and toddlers by making faces, gesturing and perhaps saying a word or two. “I’ve been teaching kids forever,” she said. “I know how to help.”

Professional leadership. Grown, tended, modeled and nurtured. Simple as that.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.