A distinguished educator describes her school’s resourceful and collaborative culture of teacher learning.
Dayle Timmons, 2004 Florida Teacher of the Year, is a special education teacher and K-1 literacy coach at Chets Creek Elementary School in Jacksonville, Fla., which is a national model for the America’s Choice School Design. A passionate advocate of ongoing professional development, Timmons keeps a highly-respected blog, Timmons Times, that provides a glimpse into the life of a school in which teachers are virtually immersed in collaborative learning activities. She writes about teacher wikis, video-lesson studies, weekly classroom-tech tutorials, grade-level working sessions, book clubs, and more. Her school, she says, has developed “a supportive, caring, risk-taking kind of environment where people [feel] comfortable to grow and learn and make mistakes.”
We recently spoke to Timmons about the culture of professional development at Chets Creek and how schools can make better use of available resources for ongoing teacher learning.
Tell us a little bit about your school’s philosophy on professional development.
Our philosophy is that professional development should be embedded within the day. It shouldn’t be something that we have to do outside of the school day or that has nothing to do with what we’re actually teaching. Professional development should be ongoing—you can’t do a little session here and then in six months do another little session. It has to be part of what you’re doing every single day.
Describe a few of the professional development opportunities offered at Chets Creek.
There are so many. One thing we do is book-study groups. The leadership team chooses a list of books, describes them to the faculty, and then teachers sign up for the book of their choice. The principal orders and pays for a book for every teacher. Each group chooses a facilitator and gets together once a week for four to six weeks to discuss the book as they read it. One of the best things about these groups is that they provide a chance for teachers who are not usually thrown together to get to know each other.
We also do something called “Book-of-the-Month.” The principal buys a specific book for every classroom in the building. Then she brings the whole faculty together one morning a month to teach them a strategy that they in turn are going to teach in their classroom. This month she used the book When Santa Turned Green, which is about recycling, to teach us how to use Google Documents. Every teacher then went onto Google Docs to talk about his or her green ideas. The thought is that if teachers are familiar with a tool in technology, they’ll be more comfortable using it with the students in their classroom.
We have “Bring Your Own Laptop.” Once a week, our instructional technologist offers a time when you can come and bring your laptop and she will teach you whatever it is you want to know. Maybe you’re having trouble with how the e-mail works or you’re interested in learning how to do something with your blog, or maybe you’re a member of a NING community and you want to figure out how to post a video. Whatever the issue is, you don’t have to make an appointment, there’s no agenda, you just bring your laptop, and she helps you.
Also, our “Geeks from the Creek” program is one that would be easy for other schools to copy. On early-release days every other week, we announce a new “geek” and honor that teacher for doing something interesting with technology. The geek from the previous week passes a necklace (we’re using a computer mouse necklace this year because we are emphasizing technology) to the new geek. At the next early-release, the geek shows the faculty what she’s been doing and then blogs about it so teachers can refer to the links if they decide to try it. Check it out at the Web site.
We also have weekly grade-level and subject-specific teacher meetings.
Your school seems to use blogging a lot for professional development. Can you explain that?
We use blogging in many different ways. I think we have 60 active blogs by our teachers now. For example, the lead-teachers or coaches, who are responsible for heading the weekly teacher meetings, blog about their classrooms and their coaching. I blog about what’s happening in 1st grade—the good things that other 1st grade teachers or coaches might be interested in knowing.
We also maintain a school professional development blog. If the school pays for you to attend professional development, then you have an obligation to blog about it while you’re there. We sent eight or nine teachers to a national conference in Hollywood, California, last year, and they all blogged about every session they attended. It helped people back home know what they were learning and it provided conversation when they got back, such as, “Oh gosh, I saw that you went to that session. . .”
Along similar lines, we also have a group on the social-networking platform NING that we started for teachers who were interested in standards-based education. It was initiated by our instructional technologist and it has about 450 members now—people from all over the world who post comments and questions and videos. In fact, there was a video that was actually taped here and then used for [teacher] training in Bangkok a couple of weeks ago. Social exchange happens so easily now—suddenly we’re conversing with people in Bangkok and New Zealand and all over the world, sharing ideas. And just by hearing, “You know, Maria heard from this teacher in New Zealand yesterday!” or that kind of thing—that gets people at our school really inspired and excited.
I’ve heard Chets Creek also uses video-conferencing. How and when do you use it?
We are very fortunate to be one of the schools in our county that has the ability to video-conference. Mainly we use it when working with the Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership, which is a teacher-training center that serves our district. Teachers take full-day professional development courses at the Schultz Center, during which someone drops into one of our classes and films a live lesson. After the lesson, the teacher who was filmed debriefs with those who watched from the Schultz Center. We do that probably once or twice a week.
There are some other schools in the county that have the same video equipment so we have “video-lessoned” back and forth with them. One was an inner-city school and, as a suburban school, we were very interested in learning from them. We video-streamed lessons back and forth for a year. We also video-streamed a live lesson from Chets Creek to the participants at the conference we attended in Hollywood. They were able to watch a lesson while it was happening in Chets Creek and then talk to our teachers about it afterwards.
What is your role in the planning and implementation of PD at your school?
I’m one of about 10 people on the leadership team, which is made up of administrators and the lead-teachers. We all get together for an hour and a half once a week and plan out what is going to happen school-wide. It’s sort of the school “think tank.” My responsibility is to come to the table with ideas about the group of 1st grade teachers that I lead—what they need, what they want, what would be exciting for them, and how to put it together to make sure we are providing for the first-year teacher and for the very seasoned teacher. We try to differentiate to make sure that teachers aren’t sitting through things they’ve already had and that we use the veterans to teach younger, newer teachers. We expand the horizon for all teachers.
How do teachers find time for all of this professional development?
First of all, our teachers in elementary school have daily common planning time for their grade level. I think that’s pretty unusual. In order to do that we have slightly larger class sizes than some other schools in our county. Everyone agreed that they would give up one of their planning days each week for professional development. So once a week we have professional development on the clock for everybody in that grade level. That’s huge.
We’re also fortunate enough to have early-release days in our county. Every other Wednesday children go home an hour and a half early so we have the whole school available to do professional development. And we certainly make good use of that time.
You touched on this earlier, but how important is school culture in influencing whether or not professional development is successful?
If there’s one thing I could say to anybody who really wanted to change their professional development, it would be to create a positive school culture. As long as teachers are shutting their doors and are afraid or intimidated to let their peers in, it’s just not going to be the kind of place where you want to be. Here there is a lot of trust.
Was it always like that? No. Did everybody always buy in? Well, of course they didn’t. We started just like everybody else did. But, over the years, teachers who were really uncomfortable with that open-door model pretty much self-selected out. The people that we hire now come because they’ve heard about the support and the professional development and they want to be a part of that environment. But it started with school culture. Our principal had a vision and knew that in order to do professional development she had to create a family—a supportive, caring, risk-taking kind of environment where people felt comfortable to grow and learn and make mistakes.
The way things happen here is that a teacher steps up and says, “I really think this is something we need, it would be really beneficial here.” Then somebody on the leadership team provides the support that that person needs to offer an in-service or training for other staff members. There’s a lot of support. If you can dream it, you can just about do it here.
Considering that most schools are facing major budget cuts right now, do you have any specific ideas for cost-effective or free professional development?
Look at the talent in your own building. We pay for very little professional development. We’re in a very large county—there certainly is professional development available to us—but we depend on very little outside of our own school. If we need something, some expertise, we look into our contacts and the people we know that would be willing to come do it for free. We might barter, but we really do look at the varied talent that we have in our midst and the contacts that they have.
And now there’s also so much online that’s free—it’s like an explosion. We have been looking at that more and more. If you just wanted to concentrate on technology-related professional development, there’s so much you can get for free. But it’s really about spending the time and learning it yourself. Our teachers are self-learners, they are self-directed. We don’t really need to say, “You have to get 16 hours of professional development and you have to do this project” because they are so hooked into it that they want to do it. And they’re coming to you and saying, “Oh my gosh, I found this Web site last night,” or “Oh my gosh, I’ve met this person over in New Zealand and they’re doing this great workshop!” I think a lot of it is what you develop in your own building.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2009 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Grassroots Professional Development