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Independent Schools: Making Professional Development Work

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When I started teaching in independent schools in the 70s the old timers taught me a subtle lesson about professional development: ignore it, and it will go away.

Professional days back then were few and far between. The culture of teacher autonomy that infused too many independent schools in those day offered anyone who wanted it an excuse to regard professional development as optional. Conferences were social occasions, and even the huge New England Teacher Conference, once sponsored by several regional independent school associations, was largely a chance to meet up with old friends and be entertained with the possibility of only modest enlightenment. (As I wrote in an earlier post, teachers working in the many dynamic and self-aware middle school programs tended to be exceptions.) You could still head back to your classroom unharmed by new ideas.

The landscape began to change in the late Eighties, as many schools felt some real urgency around issues of diversity, which required (then as now) considerable professional education around attitudes, pedagogy, and institutional culture. By the mid 90s the curricular thinking flowing into independent schools from Project Zero at Harvard as well as thought leaders Grant Wiggins and Heidi Hayes Jacobs meant that it was becoming pretty hard for teachers to remain ignorant of "curriculum and assessment design," at least as concepts.

The challenge was to shift the cultural set toward a new concept of "professional growth." If for a hundred years this had mainly meant promotion to administration, it was coming to mean something more: that teachers had before them, and should embrace, the prospect of actually getting better at their work. For a hundred years teachers in most sectors and most places had been able to imagine that there really wasn't much new to learn about; teaching was teaching, a craft eternally unchanging in its essence.

I take time out to mention that science and math teachers had been given a jolt at least in the area of content in the years after Sputnik's launch in 1957. Large-scale curriculum projects--PSSC physics, BSCS biology, CHEM Study chemistry, IPS general science, and of course the "New Math"--ramped up the content and number of courses students were taking, and with many of these came summer "institutes" where teachers could learn enough to stay ahead of their students as they pursued the curriculum (for example, the BSCS "blue" text) "from Molecules to Man." Exciting times, and my experience was that many independent schools were early adopters. Science teachers occupied a world of their own, diligently setting up novel experiments in (often) new lab spaces to counter the Soviet menace. As for New Math, I don't know quite how it got into schools, although I do have my suspicions as to how it got out.

An analogy that I found compelling in 1992 or so when I first heard it had to do with doctors: Would you go to a specialist who had proudly not learned anything new since finishing medical school? Well, of course not, but convincing teachers that their profession is truly like medicine or the law proved hard; perhaps the vast salary differentials between teachers and these other professionals accounted for the difference in attitude. At about this time I became involved in leading professional development efforts at my school, a task made easier by an enthusiastic new head whose excellent vision seemed to be working out in terms of better enrollment and higher pay raises but was made harder to realize by a lingering culture of both teacher autonomy and departmental isolation.

The autonomy and isolation things were hardly unique to my school; everyone I spoke with in those days shared my frustrations, but in time we developed both structures and programs that invited teachers on board, and Change Happened. Professional learning opportunities became a selling point when hiring new teachers, and a number of experienced people discovered that new ways of doing their work could be energizing and fulfilling. A handful took the opportunity to seek new directions in their careers, but in time we had a culture in which, for example, a successful 1:1 program could be established from more or less a standing start in a single year and in which conversations about teaching and learning have become more common than talk about the Red Sox.

Professional learning takes root when teachers see that the results will enhance their working lives--efficacy, satisfaction, even pay. It requires a school environment in which change is seen as progress toward results worthy of the effort; this is as true in any independent school as it is in such recently touted examples as the Union City, New Jersey, schools or New Dorp High School on Staten Island.

I believe that independent schools are at last starting to pass through the barriers of our own history, and that there is a growing realization that teachers must be what so many school mission statements extol: lifelong learners. There should no longer be excuses or ways for teachers to opt out of professional learning that will make them more effective in engaging, challenging, and educating their students. The ongoing work, of course, is to find optimal ways of engaging, challenging, and educating teachers with professional learning experiences that meet their needs and interests even as they support the institutional goals of schools and meet the individual needs of students.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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