Kids pay more attention to what we do than what we say. That simple truth has profound implications for teaching 21st-century skills: If we want students to collaborate, innovate, and solve problems, we need to model these skills ourselves.
During the best week of professional development I have experienced, my colleagues and I taught one another. On Monday, our school’s math coach stopped by my classroom to look at student work together and plan next steps. The following day, she observed me teaching and gave me the constructive criticism I had invited. Later that week, I went down the hall to watch an outstanding new teacher in the grade above mine integrate technology with productive group work. On Friday, the teacher next door came over to observe how I use Writers’ Workshop to teach expository text structures.
My colleagues and I did what Singapore does so well—we took part in an “ecosystem” of education, an open system that enables best practices to escape the confines of each teacher’s classroom. We also did what Ron Thorpe, the head of National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, talked about at this year’s International Summit on the Teaching Profession. Observing good teaching is not enough, he emphasized. Teacher leaders need to make explicit not just what they’re doing, but what they’re thinking.
We made time to share the thought process behind the instruction we observed in each other’s classrooms. This intellectual aspect of collaboration has made Finland a leader in teacher recruitment and retention as well as student achievement. In Finland, teaching is a knowledge profession where teacher leaders engage in inquiry together.
The benefit of this collaboration to our students was twofold. First, we became better teachers that week. Second, we practiced what we preached. We set goals to hone our strengths and address our weaknesses, then worked together to meet those goals, just as we expect our students to do.
In Finland and Singapore, action research isn’t just something preservice teachers do to get their teaching credential. Instead, designing questions about the craft of teaching is an integral part of teacher leaders’ ongoing professional development.
At a policy level, the best systems bring teacher leaders and policymakers together as partners rather than adversaries. We have all seen politicians who cite the U.S.'s dismal PISA rankings to highlight the need for reform, then go on to suggest reforms like privatizing education or punishing “failing” schools that are the exact opposite of the best practices implemented by high-performing nations.
As teacher leaders, we need to make this simple case: If we want to transform the systems that shape 21st-century students, we need to transform the systems that shape 21st-century teachers, too.
Justin Minkel teaches 2nd and 3rd grade in northwest Arkansas and was the 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year.
The opinions expressed in Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable 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.