Teaching Profession Opinion

Professional Learning Takes Time

By Noah Zeichner — June 05, 2014 6 min read
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Facilitated by the Center for Teaching Quality, seven teacher leaders who attended the Global Cities Education Network Meeting in Singapore in October 2013, have co-authored a new report entitled “A Global Network of Teachers and Their Professional Learning Systems.” Representing Seattle, Toronto, Denver, Shanghai, Singapore, and Lexington, they offer recommendations for how school systems can better structure and support professional learning for teachers. Noah Zeichner reports.

As I finish up my first decade of classroom teaching, there is still much I want to learn. There are students I struggle to reach. There are complex global issues that I want to study and then turn into lessons. I want to master my craft.

In general, I reserve most of my professional learning for the summer. In past summers, I have attended history seminars, studied Supreme Court cases, and participated in a “design lab” where I created an interdisciplinary project with a team of colleagues. I have read entire books without thinking about grading essays or planning the next day’s lesson as I turn the page. During the summer, I have the time and space to think and reflect on my practice.

This kind of uninterrupted time for professional learning is rare during the school year for most teachers. But does it have to be that way?

Last year, I travelled to Singapore for the third meeting of Asia Society’s Global Cities Education Network (GCEN). I joined a team of teacher leaders from several of the GCEN cities, including Lexington, Kentucky; Denver, Colorado; Shanghai; and Toronto. After a rich few days of dialogue with GCEN delegates, we continued our conversations online for several weeks following the meeting. We were particularly interested in discovering more about each other’s professional learning systems.

While in Singapore, I had the chance to visit the Singapore School of the Arts (SOTA). I was amazed to learn that teachers at SOTA instruct students for about 12 hours during their 42-hour workweek. This is low, even for Singapore, where most teachers spend no more than 18 hours a week instructing students.

This means that for 30 hours a week, teachers at SOTA are collaborating with colleagues, meeting with students, preparing lessons, assessing projects, and engaging in other meaningful professional learning activities. And most teachers still work well beyond their contractual hours. With far less student contact time than we are accustomed to in the United States, there is time and space for professional learning.

All teachers in Singapore are also entitled to 100 hours of professional development. The Ministry offers multi-day workshops and mini-courses that last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. This is in sharp contrast to what I have experienced throughout my career. During the school year, my professional development often consists of “drive-by” workshops that rarely connect to what I am teaching. This approach conflicts with research that has found that one-shot PD lasting l4 hours or less has no positive impact on student learning. In fact, one study shows that it can take nearly 50 hours of continuous professional learning for PD to lead to improved teaching and increased student achievement.

Back in Seattle, I calculated the number of hours that a typical secondary teacher in my district is in front of students. I accounted for passing periods, before/after school prep time, staff meetings, and lunch. A full time teacher in my district is in front of students approximately 26 hours per week, which accounts for about 70% of the contractual workweek.

The remaining 11.5 hours of non-instructional time each week is highly fragmented. There is a half hour before the school day and half an hour after students are dismissed. Depending on a school’s bell schedule, there is often a 50-minute planning period and a 30-minute lunch. In most schools in Seattle, teachers attend weekly after school meetings. These short pauses throughout the day do not allow for the type of continuous professional learning that teachers in Singapore and other high-performing systems, such as Shanghai, experience.

My GCEN teacher colleagues and I analyzed the time for professional learning in our respected systems and thought about ways to improve conditions where time is lacking. My colleague Paul Charles, a fifth and sixth grade teacher in Toronto, shared his ideal scenario.

I would like to have time to collaborate and co-plan with my colleagues during the instructional day as often as possible—preferably on a daily basis. I would teach for a couple hours before a block to observe lessons learned, and co-develop plans for improvement based on our conversations. Following afternoon instruction, there would be another block of reflection and collaboration, leaving time to independently process my learning and modify strategies for the following day’s instruction.

Taking Paul’s thoughts a step further, to make professional learning more meaningful, we should find ways to align evaluation systems to professional learning opportunities. My colleague Xu Jianlan, a primary school teacher in Shanghai, explained how PD connects to the evaluation process in her system.

Our evaluation system is based on how we develop students’ learning habits, not their test scores. (Test scores are important in Shanghai, but we are not evaluated on them.) We are also evaluated holistically on our participation in collaborative professional development and lesson study. I believe the system works well because we get to see one another teach a great deal. Teaching is very public in Shanghai. We get training in how to observe one another’s classrooms.

Given that fewer teaching hours means that class sizes are much larger than typical classes in North America, it may not be feasible to fully replicate how systems like Singapore and Shanghai structure time for professional learning. Yet, there are certainly practices and even mindsets that we could embrace.

  • Rethink how teachers’ time is allocated. More time for professional learning alone is not enough. We must be strategic about how time is divided. Educators are often faced with competing initiatives when deciding how to use time for professional development. It is important to find ways to integrate various PD needs into a comprehensive, consistent, and flexible plan.

  • Create more opportunities for teachers to learn from one another. I hope to be part of a small group of teachers next year who teach the same subject. With one or two substitute teachers, we can watch each other teach the same lesson two or three times throughout a day, reflecting and providing feedback for each other between classes. While our current system is not set up for this type of collaborative professional learning, by creatively using the time we have, we can make it work.

  • Connect teacher evaluation systems with professional learning systems. This year, for the first time in my career, I developed goals for my evaluation that are aligned with the work that I’m doing in my departmental professional learning community (PLC). One of my primary goals this year is to teach and assess collaborative group skills more effectively. In my PLC, we are designing common assessment tools that I will use to measure student growth for my evaluation.

Continuous professional learning for teachers is a critical part of any education system. Fortunately, there are many great examples around the world to guide us toward more effective and meaningful professional development. It will take time and perhaps some political will to shift the PD paradigm system-wide, but we can begin to reshape our own professional learning as individuals, departments, and even whole schools right now.

Will you join me?

Noah Zeichner is a National Board Certified Teacher at Chief Sealth International School in Seattle, Wash. He also spends part of his day supporting the Center for Teaching Quality’s global teacher leadership initiatives. You can read Noah’s blog, Minding the Globe.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning 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.