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The Future of Professional Development Is Teacher Empowerment

Note: Rick is taking a hiatus while he's off talking about his new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. Meanwhile, this week's guest posts will be written by members of Panorama Education, a Boston-based startup that uses data analytics to help teachers and administrators improve their schools. Brian Rainville, Panorama's Educator Engagement Director and the 2010 Baltimore City Schools Teacher of the Year, is guest posting today.

During my years as a teacher in the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS), I saw many sides of professional development. In my first two years of teaching, my school was part of a district-wide purchase of new reading and math curricula. During our professional development days in those years, our district administrators gathered teachers by grade level and an outside firm coached us on how to use our new curricula.

Even though attendance was mandatory, I didn't go to very many of these sessions. After two days of lost time, I decided I was willing to "pay the piper" if I was caught and ignored my marching orders. Instead, I went into my own classroom and worked alone on exploring ways to improve at my craft. I used those days to create lesson plans and materials that reflected my aspirations as a teacher. I knew the time I spent alone pursuing professional development was not ideal, but I believed that it was more productive than the didactic "sit and get" alternative.

It turns out that I was lucky for a few reasons. First, there were other opportunities for me to pursue my professional learning in Baltimore. It didn't take me long to find a community of teachers that gathered monthly to improve their craft. Crammed into the classroom of Linda Eberhart, a Maryland State Teacher of the Year whose math students were the highest-performing class in the state, the group focused on learning as much as we could from her success and sharing strategies from our own work. What I learned in these informal sessions connected directly to my work in the classroom and impacted practice in the immediate- and long-term.

Second, BCPSS was getting smarter about PD, and fast. The district retired the mandatory "sit and get"-style sessions. Instead, administrators asked teachers to select from a menu of sessions that were presented by other effective Baltimore teachers like Linda. The district asked Linda to become the director of mathematics in the Office of Teaching and Learning. And, supported by a federal grant, the district began to focus on identifying and supporting teacher leaders to provide developmental programming and support for their colleagues. Teacher leaders opened their classrooms so that anyone who signed up—principals, teachers, and coaches—could observe their practices, and teacher leaders held collaborative "office hours" to workshop issues, connect with peers, and share best practices.   

During my time in Baltimore, BCPSS developed toward what I believe is the future of professional development for teachers in the United States. We moved from undifferentiated mandatory professional learning to platforms for local teachers to share their strategies for excellence and what was working in their classrooms for their students. Unfortunately, the grant money for some of BCPSS's most path-breaking work ran out, and many projects were curtailed. What kind of community of practice might have blossomed in Baltimore if the support had continued? Learning from my time in Baltimore, I believe successful professional development platforms, systems, and programs will have two main components:

  1. Structures for showcasing, sharing, and validating practices that are effective in the classrooms of superior teachers
  2. Ongoing opportunities for teachers to reflect in collaborative, supportive groups on changes to their teaching practice

Jal Mehta, an associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), leads the project "Building a Knowledge Base to Support Teaching," which is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Jal shared with me in a recent conversation: "Teachers come up to me all the time and ask, 'I'm teaching 11th grade science in Arkansas. What do I do to improve?' I tell them to find other 11th grade science teachers in Arkansas and learn with them."

Jal's idea, that teachers learn best from other teachers who teach the same subjects and grade levels and are in similar settings, is not new to the world of education. Teachers pursue this kind of personalized professional learning with their peers organically.

Paul Bruno, a former middle school teacher and education blogger, reflected on the best professional development he experienced: "Teachers at my school started using PD time to give mini-presentations to other teachers in the school. We presented mini-lessons or strategies that others could apply with the kids because we had the same kids. We were able to walk out with our confidence boosted, and it gave me something to walk away with that I could and did use in my own classroom."

There is a massive amount of expertise sitting in the classrooms of our teachers. The challenge to putting that expertise to work is two-fold. First, we need to recognize the legitimacy of teachers' knowledge about what works in classrooms and prioritize sharing that expertise. Second, we need a structure or a set of structures that allow teachers to pull the curtain back so they can see into the practices of successful peers working in contexts like theirs. Right now teaching is concealed—it is very difficult for teachers to see into the practices of their peers in a way that is efficient or scalable.

Redesigning professional development systems to align with teachers' classroom expertise and best practices is a challenging task, and it won't happen overnight. Still, like the teachers at Paul Bruno's school found, there are ways to create professional development opportunities for teachers that increase teacher agency and collaboration while making the work of teaching transparent to others in the profession. Teachers are already trying to pursue this style of learning. Our challenge is to find ways to help them realize it.

--Brian Rainville

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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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