Beyond the Binders: How Seeing Teachers as Learners Creates Meaningful PD That Sticks
When I returned from a year on the road representing American public school teachers, I was delighted by the many ways I had seen teachers supporting, leading, and growing students to greatness across the country. From Cranston, Rhode Island, to Bishop, California, teachers were running themselves ragged to give kids meaningful and challenging learning experiences that prepared them for the world we know and the one on the way. It made my heart soar. I was constantly reminded of every true thing we hold dear about teachers: They build the future, one lesson at a time, one day at a time, one amazing kid at a time.
What kept me up at night long after I returned to my own classroom was all the ways teachers are not similarly supported by the leaders who are tasked with guiding them. Everywhere I went, I saw districts expecting educators to take on new programs, new curriculum, new technology, new policies, new assessments and new teaching methods. Their "support" was delivered one giant binder and lengthy PD session at a time. Eventually the poor brains and shelves of the teachers buckled under the weight of the implementation onslaught.
The expectation that teachers can quickly and easily consume, absorb and utilize this firehose of complex information is more than frustrating. Knowing that in many cases, teachers won't be given the time, support and training to translate this important learning work into practice is just plain demoralizing. We wouldn't ask our students to learn in this way, and yet this spray and pray style of teacher development has been the status quo for decades. It goes against virtually everything teachers know about learning:
- It takes roughly 12 exposures for people to learn a concept well enough to internalize it.
- A combination of spaced and massed practice helps cement our learning.
- Real learning requires trial and error, trial and success, and lots of feedback.
- Real learning is messy, takes time, and happens differently for each learner.
That is why in my new assignment with my district office, I vowed to do something--anything--to help both administrators and teachers clear the decks to create safe, real spaces for us to hone our crafts and truly evolve. There will be no more binders and one-size-fits-all PDs.
This week I had a moment of challenge and a moment of truth to test my thinking.
A school of teachers I work with was focusing on drilling down to discover how checking for understanding and providing high-impact feedback could lift student achievement and strengthen instruction.
As the teachers began this exciting work, it quickly became clear how challenging this task would be. There were many questions:
Do we develop our strategies by department or grade level? Can we work with a teacher buddy? Should we create identical lessons together so that we are comparing apples to apples? How might we establish a baseline from which to begin our work and chart student progress? Which strategies might work best for content area teachers versus art, music, and physical education teachers? How can teachers give effective feedback and not get bogged down in marking papers? How can we see if our feedback is driving improvements in performance, ours and our students'?
Before long the teachers and administrators found themselves drowning in questions with no easy answers. That's when my phone rang. It was the principal, whose feedback ran along these lines:
"This is hard."
"Is it too late to shift gears?"
"I don't know how to answer all of their questions."
"Maybe we should simplify."
"They need more help."
Bingo. The moment of truth: The learners need more help.
"Help" was exactly what we would have given our students if they were struggling.
In that conversation, the principal and I understood something that would have been obvious to classroom teachers in a similar situation. We agreed that our efforts to improve teaching and learning must be differentiated. We agreed that when people are struggling to learn, not only is it appropriate to slow down and get clarity before pressing ahead, it's best practice. And we agreed that however hard and unsettling this work might be for everyone, providing steady, stable support for our teachers' learning is THE MOST IMPORTANT work we can do.
This is something that's almost never done--treating teachers like learners. It takes true intellectual leadership to hang in there during the messy part. It requires strong teaching on the part of administrators and lots of time for teachers to talk, think, reflect and grow. It means administrators must try to clear the decks of superfluous priorities so that teachers can do the most important work of all: learn.
It's so easy to hand teachers binders. It's far more difficult to create a space where we can meet together to grow. Please be the administrator who creates and protects that space. We need it.
Rebecca Mieliwocki is the 2012 National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). A 20-year veteran English teacher, Mieliwocki is currently on special assignment for her Burbank, California, district.