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Finding the Strength to Sail Through Rough Seas

I recently returned from a sailing trip. Since I had never traversed the seas before, this was a new learning experience for me. However, as a central office administrator, I often sail into new conversations and challenges as educators in our district reflect on the quality and content of professional learning, as well as its meaning for students in the classroom.

One of those job-embedded journeys recently arose when our local board of education in Newton, Kansas mandated that all out-of-state travel require board approval. As a result of that decision, I was asked to provide information on how my attendance at the annual Learning Forward conference is connected to student achievement in the district.

When writing, one of the premiere resources I often use is the Learning Forward publication, Why Professional Development Matters. In this booklet, Hayes Mizell shares in a very succinct and focused manner the attributes of professional learning and the relationship to student learning in the classroom.

"School-based professional development helps educators analyze student achievement data during the school year to immediately identify learning problems, develop solutions, and promptly apply those solutions to address students' needs," the publication notes. "Professional learning is the means for teachers to gain knowledge. Their learning supports not only teachers' learning, but students' as well. When leaders know how to engage teachers, support staff, and students in effective learning, the school becomes the center of learning for all adults and students. Becoming learning schools is our ultimate goal. Student increase in knowledge and skills occurs when the teacher is learning."

The night of the board meeting, there were many assumptions made that were founded on prior notions of ineffective professional development. Many of us have participated in professional development that is "done to us" rather than "done by us." As the discussion swelled on, I realized this was the time I had been waiting for, to use my prior learning and experiences to share how the transformation of teaching occurs when our knowledge is expanded and we utilize the effectiveness of team learning and collaboration. It suddenly rested on my shoulders to share the impact.

This turbulence rippled in the pit of my stomach as the board began to ask questions about professional learning in the district, and specifically my conference request. All of a sudden, all attention was focused on me. I realized that this was my time to share the impact of quality learning. As a 2010 Learning Forward Academy graduate, I had spent the better part of three years researching, sharing and studying the results of my academy project. I took a deep breath, silently reminding myself, "I'm ready for this".

One question posed was, "How do you intend to share your conference learning with educators in the district?"

I began to share how I, along with my colleagues, have developed a comprehensive framework for professional learning in the district. We created a teaching and learning cycle to guide our evidenced-based practice and measure the impact of professional learning. I shared that in the fall of 2011, we are piloting a new professional learning day survey using our online district organizational software that tracks, records and manages professional learning events. We are introducing this survey as a way to begin to measure the impact of district professional learning.

I added that as a result of attending conference sessions on collaborative professional learning, peer coaching and action research, I have learned to become a better leader and have helped teachers to become more effective in the classroom. As a result, students are achieving at higher levels.

I further shared the definition of professional learning and the role of external assistance; especially in a system like ours with deep work-embedded professional learning.

I also explained that as a result of my Learning Forward Academy participation and the district use of the Learning Forward Standards, I created the teaching learning cycle, the measuring impact survey and am now piloting a learning walkthrough in classrooms this fall.

As the board called for a vote, I hoped I had done an effective job of sharing not only how I learn, but how my professional learning affects our school system. I know we have used our learning to transform our schools into becoming learning schools. I know we are intently creating the shift from instructional leadership to learning leadership. I just didn't know if I had been able to effectively transport that understanding to our board members.

When the vote was called, members voted unanimously to approve my attendance.

I'm not sure how all of us reflect on our professional learning experiences. What is for certain is that we are being asked to make stronger and more visible connections between educator learning and student learning. I, like many of you, enjoy calm water and smooth travels, but sometimes the flow changes and we have to be prepared for a rough sail. Learning Forward resources, research and publications are great deck hands as we sail to our daily learning destinations.

Jan Neufeld
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instructional Services
Newton Public Schools, Newton, Kansas

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The opinions expressed in Learning Forward's PD Watch 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.

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