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Make This the Start of a Great Learning Year

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Stephanie Hirsh

I love the start of the new school year. I love back-to-school shopping and getting new school supplies. While it has been a long time since I have had to take someone back-to-school shopping, I still use the season as an opportunity to buy school supplies for students whose families can't afford them and to clean my desk and closet to make room for the important work I need to do in the new school year.

While many policy changes have influenced what teachers and students are expected to know and do, they will not achieve their goals unless teachers embrace the changes and determine how those changes drive the daily reality in their schools. The start of the school year is the perfect time for teachers to tell us what support they need in order to pull together sometimes disparate policies into a coherent frame that can have a positive impact on their teaching, their learning, and their students' learning.

Here are three actions I invite teachers and those who support them to consider as they launch a new school year:

Serve on a local school committee. I know such teams have a variety of names today, from school improvement committee to professional learning community to school governance committee. In this case, I am focusing on the decision-making body that is responsible for developing and translating the school vision, mission, and priorities. This is the committee that analyzes data to determine school goals and works to assist educators in understanding how their goals can align with school goals. This is the committee that takes time to examine the many new policy expectations that influence the daily work of teachers and strives to make sense of it.

As a member of this committee, you can help build coherence from fragmented messages and create a theory of action that connects dots and makes meaning of the many requirements and programs that influence teachers' daily work. Work to ensure this group establishes a coherent improvement process that guides teacher learning for the entire school year and demonstrates how all new policies align, intertwine, and support each other, leading to better outcomes when treated as a coherent strategy rather than a series of add-ons. This alignment cannot happen without teachers making meaning of these changes within a school-level decision-making structure.

Invest in a learning agenda for your professional learning community. While there is no shortage of challenges you can choose to undertake as you collaborate with colleagues, there are very few opportunities to engage in substantive discussions about what your students need to learn, what you need to learn to help them, and how you will learn. Make your learning agenda visible to your students, their families, and your colleagues. Share when and what you are learning as well as the impact it is having on your teaching and your students' learning. As much as possible, protect yourselves from intrusions that distract your learning team from its core purpose -- professional learning to ensure that your students are as successful as possible.

Tell your story. As everyone knows, professional learning is under attack. There are those who question whether we need to continue to invest the time and money to help teachers get better. We are all guilty of contributing to this atmosphere of mistrust. Too frequently, we have been compliant when others make requirements of our time in the name of professional learning but fail to apply the Standards for Professional Learning to their efforts. As a result, we invest time with hope of great things to come and are disappointed with the outcome and contribute to the rhetoric detailing the sorry state of the field.

This year, trumpet examples of professional learning and support that have helped you to succeed. Bear down on your efforts to eliminate or decrease the time and resources invested in ineffective professional learning. We all know the power of learning something new and how we feel when we are able to implement something new successfully. Make this a year when you can share that story with your colleagues, your community, and your professional association.

May you embark on a great learning year! Let us know how we can help.

Stephanie Hirsh
Executive Director, Learning Forward

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