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What Do Teachers Need in Professional Learning?

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Tracy Crow

What if we put teachers in charge of their professional learning? That's a question 2012 national teacher of the year Rebecca Mieliwocki asked in the Burbank Unified School District where she works as a middle school English teacher and leads professional learning. What she found when the district did just that, was that the learning fostered "an awesome sense of organic accountability that I haven't seen before," she noted. Mieliwocki was a member of a March 7 panel of educators discussing the question of teacher agency in professional learning hosted by Learning Forward and the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future. The organizations co-published Moving from Compliance to Agency: What Teachers Need to Make Professional Learning Work, a white paper that explores the importance of amplifying teacher voice in professional learning and outlines strategies to do so.

Moving from Compliance to Agency draws on interviews with dozens of teachers and administrators to offer insights that will help school and system leaders consider how and why to increase teacher participation in decision making about professional learning. Chief among the reasons to turn to teachers in planning professional learning is to ensure it actually meets the needs they have. As one teacher interviewed for the paper noted, "As an elective teacher, I'm tired of going to required PD and hearing this sentence: 'Well, this doesn't really apply to you....'" 

Yet even when professional development hasn't been helpful in the past, teachers know they need opportunities to learn. Dwight Davis, another speaker on the teacher agency panel, noted the tension he experienced as a teacher. "I knew I needed this PD," he said, "but in some ways I [knew] it [was] a waste of time." As an assistant principal at Wheatley Education Campus in Washington, DC, Davis encourages teachers to have freedom to learn. An outcome, he believes, is that they then become teacher leaders who foster more learning, and from there learning "just explodes," he said.

Davis's role in fostering teacher agency demonstrates the important role of leadership, a factor many panelists highlighted as critical to meaningfully bringing teachers' viewpoints into decision making about learning. Teacher agency can't happen in a vacuum. Several educators engaged in the discussion agreed there must be trust, administrative support, and a principal who has the humility to acknowledge teacher expertise from wherever it may come.

The challenge is systemic, as is the solution. The white paper documents that teachers don't have enough opportunities to influence their learning; at the same time, teachers aren't the only educators in need of a learning culture led by system leaders who prioritize the particular needs of every educator. Alicia Perez-Katz, currently a principal ambassador fellow in the Dept. of Education, advocated for both teachers and principals to have agency in their learning. She said that just as teachers aren't getting the professional learning they need, neither are principals. "I am one principal in my building," she said, and noted that she needs opportunities to get support and share expertise with others in her role just as teachers do.

Perez-Katz said that, "As a school, when we agree on a focus and the leader provides vision, teachers need to be able to focus on the work ahead." Leaders then shield educators from the demands that can pull teachers away from these priorities.

Mieliwocki shared that Burbank Unified School District is definitely approaching the question of teacher agency through a systemic lens. Teachers are guided by the system's vision for student learning, and they examine carefully the data that indicate what students need. The district seeks teacher input into learning and grounds their learning in research about the strategies that have an impact on students. And most importantly, teachers make sure that the #1 goal of their professional learning is student achievement.

In conceptualizing professional learning to meet learner needs, let's bring teachers into every conversation. As Learning Forward executive director Stephanie Hirsh noted at the forum, while ensuring teacher agency isn't the only thing schools need for effective professional learning, "without it, we certainly won't create the learning systems that support all students."

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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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