On Jan. 24, readers questioned three members of the Teacher Leaders Network—Corrina Knight, a 6th grade language arts/social studies teacher at Salem Middle School in Apex, N.C.; Linda Emm, an educational specialist with Schools of Choice in Miami, and a consultant with the National School Reform Faculty; and Carolann Wade, the coordinator for national-board certification and liaison for Peace College’s teacher education program of the Wake County, N.C., school district—about their work with teacher-directed professional development. Below are excerpts from the discussion:
Question: I frequently hear that teacher-led professional development is merely “sharing ignorance.” How do you respond to those critics?
Emm: That idea is illustrative of the disregard in which classroom teachers are often held—shockingly, even at times by those who supervise and work with them. It’s also part of the paradigm that “professional development” is something that is done to teachers. Our work as teachers is filled with dilemmas, with units we want to make better and lessons that work great for first period and bomb with period four. We want our assessments to tell us if our students have mastered the content. We want to understand how to help the silent voices in the back of the room. We have data, data, data, and we want to know how to use it in a meaningful way to drive the decisions we make in our planning and implementation of lessons that engage each student. These are the areas where we want to learn and grow. Who better to collaborate with us in managing and dealing with these issues than colleagues who share our context, our concerns, and our students?
Organizations such as the National Staff Development Council, the National School Reform Faculty, the Looking at Student Work Collaborative, and the Coalition of Essential Schools have been engaged for years in figuring how how best to support teaching professionals as they construct new knowledge about their craft and students. What we need to get better at is making our learning public outside our small learning communities. Teachers also need to value the time they spend, as Phillip Schlechty calls it, “working on the work.” The disdain their supervisors may feel for the value of their collaborative work is passed on. I have actually heard a teacher say, “We don’t have time to think about improving our practice—we need to get ready for the test!” In what universe is this a sane response? And yet, everyone in the room nodded in vigorous agreement.
Time and time again, we ask teachers, in reflecting on our collaborations, “How is this professional development?” We need to learn how to answer that question in ways that will help our critics understand that the learning most likely to have an impact on our own practice is learning in which we are actively engaged with our peers, focused on the students we serve.
Question: Sometimes I find it easier to get teacher buy-in than administration buy-in. How do we help administrators see that teachers need time for development and input into what they learn?
Knight: This is a particularly challenging question because a lot of what you are asking has to do with relationships and trust. Administrators are held accountable for so much that I imagine it is difficult for them to give up control, which requires trust. Administratively selected professional development produces easy evidence that teachers are learning (or at least that the opportunity was provided).
At my school, teachers create a professional-development plan and anyone else can look at it, ask us about it, and so forth. Our ability to defend the plan and get results is key, because that establishes credibility and builds trust between teachers and administrators.
A powerful way to achieve administrative buy-in, then, is through results. No one can argue against something that produces calculable student success and improved learning. Teachers who do action research often do it without direct support from the administration. The problem with this route is that you have to juggle the additional responsibility of embarking on something new without having extra time built in by the administration. If teachers can prove how the work they’re doing will produce favorable results for the school, administrators will more than likely create the time and give them the flexibility they need for the work to continue.
Question: Have you discovered any conceptual models that are helpful in designing effective professional-development offerings?
Wade: Yes. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is a wonderful conceptual model. Its certification process includes the essential components of effective professional development in that it does the following: (1) occurs over time, several months to several years; (2) is job-embedded, requires teachers to implement theories and methods in their own classrooms; (3) causes teachers to examine their own practices and reflect on their own teaching to see what is effective and what needs improvement; and (4) provides collegiality, working with teammates.
The National Science Foundation has funded many professional-development opportunities over the past few years. I was fortunate to participate in one called Teaching Excellence in Mathematics. Working as a team, 60 North Carolina teachers participated in a five-year professional-development project to raise both our content knowledge and pedagogy skills in mathematics and to foster leadership skills. The NSF may have some recommendations on these conceptual models to offer soon.
Question: What in this approach is new or innovative? Learning teams seem to have been around for decades. How is this different?
Emm: Learning teams have been around for decades. Some have been effective—and actually were learning communities under a different name—and some were not. What defines this work is that the people in the group (grade-level team, academy, critical-friends group, or whatever) work together over time, with the express purpose of improving their practice. They do this by examining their own and their students’ work and becoming experts about their students’ strengths and weaknesses. They design instruction that is engaging and assessments that are authentic.
If the only thing different that happens is saying, “You’re now a learning team,” then you’re right—nothing of substance has changed.
Question: What about the problem of time?
Knight: True professional development does take a lot of time. My team typically sets one large goal a year (not to say we don’t address other issues, but we don’t take on multiple large tasks). The reason this is important is that often professional development is seen as going to a training session one or two days after school, after which you are professionally developed. But to be truly “developed,” you have to implement your knowledge, find out what works and doesn’t, and determine what gives you the results you are seeking. One thing that can help generate the time needed for true professional development is innovative thinking—by teachers, administrators, everyone. When you’re thrown a “no” because of time, find a way to make it a “yes.”
Read more from our Chat Transcripts.
A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: Teacher-Directed Professional Development