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Un-Professional Development

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By Matthew Riggan, Co-Founder of the Workshop School in Philadelphia

I'll be honest: as a co-founder of a school and one of its leaders, it's very rare that I feel unabashedly good about how we're doing. We have a lot more working than not, but my attention often runs inverse to that. One happy exception to this tendency is professional learning: it's one thing that I think we have really, truly figured out.

When we opened the Workshop School four years ago, we called all of our, um, time together "unprofessional development" (UD) because for all of us, "PD" immediately conjured memories of being lectured at about stuff we didn't care about, and generally behaving like students do when feeling bored and/or patronized. Nowadays we toss around "UD" like it's common parlance.

There are two things that make UD unique. First, it is inseparable from school design. The things we choose to focus on as a faculty flow directly from our reflections on the school's strengths and weaknesses and our needs as practitioners. We use UD as a way to clarify these priorities and develop new tools or processes to make the school work better. Instead of trying to "transfer" knowledge and skills from one person to another, we build knowledge and skills collectively by working on the school. It is our project.

Second, UD is deeply participatory. The entire faculty is involved in planning, designing, and leading it. When we were together last week, our work focused on three main themes:

  1. Building, sustaining, and supporting culture and community
  2. Supporting and challenging students to do their best work
  3. Building a democratic community

The first two themes came in response to a question: in what areas have we learned enough about the work that we could establish a core set of common practices across the school? The third theme, democracy, emerged as we began to really consider what "common practices" meant. If we aspire to be a teacher-led school and a democratic community, how do we decide what common practices are? And what are the implications of that decision? In the absence of traditional, top-down hierarchy, what does accountability for common practices look like? What are we committing to?

Each morning began with reflections on these questions. We then transitioned into workshops about specific tools or routines related to our common practices, like using safety plans (for students and staff) to build community and culture, or introducing a new assessment framework in which every student deliverable is evaluated for both process (how you work) and product (what you produce). Each of these workshops was led by different faculty members.

This approach to school design and professional learning cannot happen without a certain organizational culture. UD doesn't drive staff buy-in, it flows from it. If teachers didn't already feel heard, trusted, and respected, UD would probably feel cynical. It also requires discipline. As we wrapped up our work at the end of the week, one of the main questions we discussed was: how will we know if any of this is working? After the excitement and uplift of designing and planning the work during the summer, it can be hard, even scary, to revisit it later, knowing that things often don't play out the way we want them to. In the end, it's that combination of culture and values, discipline and commitment, that puts the "un" in UD. It's not about getting your head filled with other people's ideas in order to meet other people's goals. It's about defining your own path, and then having the capability and the conviction to walk it.

 

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