Professional Development Opinion

Giving Teachers the Reins

October 24, 2007 10 min read
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To help educators learn more about trends and ideas in teaching, teachermagazine.org regularly holds live Web chats with leading teachers and education experts. The following are excerpts from a chat titled “Teacher-Directed Professional Development,“ which gave readers the chance to ask three practitioners—all members of the Teacher Leaders Network—about their work on professional learning teams and teacher-research projects.

I frequently hear that teacher-led professional development is merely “sharing ignorance.” How do you answer that criticism?

Linda Emm: The idea that teachers engaged in learning from one another is “sharing ignorance” is illustrative of the disregard in which classroom teachers are often held—shockingly often by those who supervise and work with them. This is also part of the paradigm that professional development is something that is done to teachers. That needs to change.

Guests for This Chat

Corrina Knight is a former 6th grade language arts and social studies teacher at Salem Middle School in Apex, N.C. She currently works in the technology industry.

Linda Emm, educational specialist with Schools of Choice in Miami-Dade County, Fla., and a consultant with the National School Reform Faculty

Carolann Wade, coordinator for National Board certification and liaison for Peace College Teacher Education for the Wake County, N.C., school district

Teachers’ work is filled with dilemmas, with units we want to make better, with lessons that work great for first period and bomb in 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 guide instruction. These are the areas that we want to learn about and grow in. Who better to collaborate with us in managing and dealing with these issues than our colleagues who share the same context, concerns, and students?

But ongoing skepticism shows that teachers need to get better at making their collaborative learning more visible outside their own small learning communities.

Teachers taking charge of professional development is a great idea, but my experience as a principal leads me to ask: What if the level of teacher-directed professional development rises no higher than “the easiest way to cut out letters for your bulletin board?”

Corrina Knight: Here are some things we do at my school to ensure that that isn’t the case: 1) We have a shared mission that we established together as a whole staff, and our professional development goals are driven by our mission; 2) each learning team submits a plan of what their team’s goals are and what outcomes they expect to see; and 3) teams have to be able to defend the validity of our work and display how it has led to student success. If our plan was to include letter cutting, I’m pretty sure someone would come asking questions.

How can educators convince school district leaders that teachers should have more decisionmaking power in selecting better professional development experiences?

Carolann Wade: In my experience, administrators will welcome teacher input if it is done in a clear, concise, and professional manner. Before you approach administrators with suggestions on professional development, you should be prepared to answer the who, what, when, where, and why questions.

What? Why? What type of professional development are you advocating, and why is it needed at this particular time? Data speaks volumes. If teachers work together and gather data and perhaps conduct action research on an area of need, they can have concrete evidence to provide when stating the case for a particular type of professional development and area of concentration.

How? When?Where? Be prepared to offer suggestions on how you would like the professional development to be delivered. Where would you like it to take place and how often? What times of day do you prefer? Have reasons for your recommendations but be flexible and willing to compromise, because there are often financial and logistical factors teachers may be unaware of.

Who? Finally, consider who will participate in this professional development. Will it be required or voluntary? More importantly, which students will benefit from their teachers being trained this way and why?

When seeking to have input in professional development, teachers need to keep system and school goals in mind, aligning them as much as possible with your suggestions. Developing relationships with administrators that will increase teachers’ influence on decisionmaking takes time and preparation, but the rewards of quality professional development are well worth the effort.

What must a district do to encourage a high level of participation in action research projects?

Carolann Wade: Start simple. Offer training on action research to cohorts of teachers so they can work together. Give them simple steps. Many teachers hear the word “research” and don’t understand that action research is what they are already doing. They just need to keep better records and write their results more formally to share with others. Having administrator support is critical. A little time off to do the paperwork, and some money or renewal credits are also good perks. Giving some kudos to teachers who make the effort to participate also helps. If you work hard and make extra effort, it’s nice when officials like the superintendent notice.

Action research can be excellent or it can be very poorly conceived and executed. How do you handle quality control issues for teacher action research?

Carolann Wade: It depends on the purpose of the action research. If you want products to be presented for the purpose of making system-wide change, the research needs to be monitored closely. On the other hand, if the action research is designed to help teachers improve and share findings of new ideas with other teachers, a less formal approach can be used. I have participated in college courses doing action research and we followed rubrics and monitored each other’s work, just as in qualitative studies. Most of us get better as we do things more and more. If you train teachers how to conduct action research and support them through the initial stages, they should soon be able to share some pretty powerful work with colleagues and school decisionmakers.

Do most districts that offer teacher-led professional development also invite outsiders to lead professional development courses as well, just so that different perspectives are presented?

Corrina Knight: Absolutely. Only a portion of my professional development is self-selected. We also have district-mandated offerings, as well as school-wide programs, both of which can include outside organizations. I would argue, though, that the most valuable professional development experiences for me have been those that are selected by my learning team, because of the ownership we have over them and the learning that I can take away from them. Based on my experience, I would consider my county- and school-mandated professional development as informational training and my team-selected professional development as real growth and learning.

Teachers understand the value of collecting and analyzing data to guide changes in curriculum implementation and instruction. How do schools support teachers in being able to make data-driven decisions?

Linda Emm: First, they need the time to make sense of the mounds of data that is now available. Which data tells us most about what our students need tomorrow? Next, we need autonomy over the curriculum to implement what the data tells us needs to happen. If we are prescribed a certain skill that must be taught in “x” manner at “y” time, and everyone in the school is required to work on the same paragraph at 9:15 a.m., it doesn’t much matter what the data says. All that happens then is we get frustrated and angry. If we are going to use data to drive instruction, the steering wheel needs to be in our hands.

Please explain how teacher-directed professional development may impact teacher evaluation.

Linda Emm: Interesting question. I’m not sure how they should be connected in a direct, qualitative way. Not if teachers are really taking risks to address their own personal challenges in their practice. That’s work you need to do with trusted colleagues, and confidentiality is an issue that is often quick to surface.

A school that really valued teacher collaboration and learning communities might devise a system where teachers regularly participated in collaborative inquiry and were able to present their findings at some regular interval. Portfolios of teacher learning could also be used. But again, I’m not sure how you would say, “this person is learning enough,” “this person, not so much.” That might be a slippery slope. But I think it would be reasonable to require or ask that teachers participate in ongoing learning experiences as a standard of performance.

Can you share creative ways in which schools designate time for ongoing collaborative professional development?

Corrina Knight: One thing that I have to mention before I answer your question is that I believe that true professional development takes a lot of time. The reason I think that this is so important is because oftentimes professional development is seen as: Go to a training one or two days after school and now you are professionally developed. I believe that to truly grow and learn, you have to use your knowledge, find out what works and doesn’t, and determine what gives you the results that you need

That said, here are some things that we do at my school to create time for ongoing collaborative professional development:

1) Planning time: At my school we have a common planning time built into our school day, and we are obligated to spend one planning session a week with our learning teams. So we spend ninety minutes together each week. We have a meeting agenda and team conventions to help us be as productive as possible during that time.

2) Professional development days: Another thing that my school gives our learning teams is something we call “Data Days.” The administration provides substitutes to cover classes so that learning teams can meet all day to analyze the data results produced by their professional development efforts. We are given lots of flexibility with this time. Some groups use the time to analyze data, some research their focus and goals, some create assessments that will give them better data, and some create remediation and enrichment lessons based on their data. Most groups tend to do a little of all of this.

3) Shuffling students: In our school, we have the flexibility to move students to other classrooms for purposes of enrichment or remediation. So, in order to create extra time for team planning, some teachers can send their kids to another teacher’s class for a special activity. (Yes, the teacher receiving the kids gets a pretty full house.)

4) Duty-free time: Our staff has also come up with various creative ways to minimize non-instructional duties. Our administration covers lunch, so teachers can use this time to remediate students or work with their learning teams. Another way we’ve gotten creative is with assemblies: sometimes the administrators and parent volunteers will take care of monitoring assemblies so that teachers can use the time for professional development.

One thing that really helps generate time for true professional development is innovative thinking by both teachers and administration. When you’re thrown a “no” because of time constraints, find a way to make it a “yes.”

Does use of teacher-led professional development lead to greater teacher retention in our classrooms?

Linda Emm: A few years ago, the journal Educational Leadership devoted an entire issue to teacher retention. In every single article, over and over again, it stressed that when teachers felt a sense of being respected, listened to, and not alone in their struggles, they were more likely to remain in the classroom. That alone should have us scurrying to find the money to support more teacher collaboration time.

Of course, that time has to be spent well and thoughtfully used to maximize the efforts of the group. Just saying to teachers, “Go forth and collaborate” is not enough. It takes skilled facilitators, and a willingness on the part of the group members to work in different ways and to actually learn in a community. Teacher-led professional development can be as ineffective as anything else if the only difference is that a teacher is doing the “telling” instead of an outside expert.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2007 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Giving Teachers the Reins


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