For Teacher Professional Growth, Study the Soil
By Young Whan Choi, the manager of performance assessments for the Oakland Unified school district
To cultivate growth in teachers, we need to understand our teachers and the context in which they work. This simple idea, which teachers apply when designing learning opportunities for students, can get lost when it comes to teacher learning. There seems to be no shortage of cookie cutter professional development that districts purchase to address everything from teaching literacy across the content areas to blended learning to project-based learning. While many outside PD providers have content expertise, most lack what I call contextual expertise.
For the past eight years, I have been leading PD for Oakland Unified school district (OUSD) teachers on diverse topics including civic engagement, ethnic studies, new teacher coaching, social studies, performance assessments, and project-based learning. Prior to that, I was a classroom teacher in OUSD.
I mention these experiences to say that I have been intentionally building my understanding of the context in which OUSD teachers work. I know, for example, that some teachers have had to wait several months to receive pay for work that they did; some never received payment. I also know that initiatives are a dime a dozen because every couple years a superintendent has jumped ship. I also know that everyday our teachers will have some students in their classroom who are homeless, hungry, and/or traumatized by gun violence.
These are not mere details. They are the pH, water content, and structure of the soil, in which our teachers are expected to put down roots and grow. By studying these conditions, as a gardener would study the soil, I can anticipate the needs of teachers and create an environment that will allow them to flourish.
For the past five years, I have been leading an ongoing learning series for teachers of the graduate capstone project in OUSD. Typically, 70 percent to 80 percent of the teachers are the same as the prior year. I have taken the time to get to know each of them, the schools where they teach, and the curricular resources they use for the capstone project. In other words, I know the content and the context for this PD series. And this seems to have an impact: Routinely, 90 percent or more of them say that the professional learning experience strongly impacts their classroom instruction.
But even with 15 years in my district, there are times when I am leading PD where I am neither a content expert nor a context expert.
I faced such a professional challenge this spring while working with colleagues to organize a weeklong PD for 120 OUSD teachers on project-based learning (PBL). The vast majority were teachers that I don't work with regularly. And while I have used PBL in my humanities classroom, I don't pretend to understand what it's like to lead PBL effectively in an algebra classroom.
With so many unknowns, I made sure to use specific strategies to address the gaps in both my content and contextual knowledge. I found that two strategies—detailed and clear communication and regular feedback—were important to fill gaps in my contextual knowledge.
Detailed and Clear Communication
When teachers registered, we intentionally collected specific information about them, including what school and career pathway they teach in, what grade and subject they teach, how much experience they have with PBL, what project they plan to teach, who they plan to collaborate with, and even what their dietary restrictions are.
Why did this matter? One morning we had teachers organized by their subject expertise. With 120 teachers, we needed to know how many of each subject were coming so each room facilitator could be prepared to lead that number of teachers, which includes knowing how many supplies to have on hand as well as how to break into small-group activities.
The rest of the week most teachers were collaborating in interdisciplinary groups, planning projects based on their pathway's career theme. We needed to know the projects ahead of time because one of the days involved inviting 40-plus community partners to ensure that each project team had a community partner with whom to bounce ideas.
I was also emailing teachers in anticipation of some questions—how much would they be paid, when would they expect to see their checks—and in response to others—was there space for a colleague to get off the wait list. I knew that some teachers would be coming to the PD location for the first time, so I made sure to link a map and leave specific instructions on where to park and I checked the street parking ahead of time to make sure that there was enough all-day parking.
The attention to detail matters not so much because of any single detail but to signal to the teachers that we see them as professionals. We value their time and have prepared thoughtfully for them.
The communication also prompts teachers to share important information with me. I learned that a teacher was planning to miss a day because of Eid al-Fitr—the breaking of the Ramadan fast. I also learned about an existing interpersonal conflict between math teachers at one school site. These details helped us plan for and organize the time when teachers are collaborating. In both cases, we decided to make one of the PD facilitators available to support the teacher teams.
The second strategy was to ask for feedback each day—"What was helpful about today?" and "What could have been more helpful?" After a long day of leading PD, it can be hard to sit down bleary-eyed and look at 120 online survey responses. Still, it was invaluable.
One critical step was to have teachers include their names. While we were concerned that this might limit their candor, we found it invaluable to be able to follow up in person to address concerns. Multiple teachers asked for more coaching support or help facilitating their teams. As a specific example, a teacher was having confusion between her school site's expectations and the guidelines that we were laying out. I was able to follow up directly the next day to listen to the nature of the challenge and help her troubleshoot.
There were also simple but important requests from multiple teachers for afternoon snacks, more coffee, and brain breaks during the long planning stretches. We were able to be creative in meeting these needs. Our coffee-catering company, Red Bay, gave us additional coffee for free, and teachers brought extra snacks like chocolate to share with one another. We also organized a 15-minute afternoon brain break that included basketball, mindful movement, and ultimate frisbee. One teacher who had made such a request wrote in her feedback the following day, "Thank you for the chocolates and time for brain break! :)" Being responsive went a long way in building relational trust and a desire on the part of teachers to participate fully.
Another useful benefit of all this daily feedback was the ability to document what was working and not working, so when we sit down to plan for next year, we have a clear record of what we need to hold on to, what needs modification, and what can be let go. An example of the former is the community-partner day where we brought in professionals to discuss how to make a project more authentic. The overwhelming positive reception made it a worthwhile commitment of the significant time it took to arrange. In contrast, a gallery walk that we organized was not helpful for many teachers who found that the artifacts did not have enough information to facilitate meaningful feedback from the audience.
Being intentional about communicating with teachers and getting their real-time feedback allowed our facilitation team to build contextual knowledge where we did not have it. This context knowledge, or what might be thought of as the conditions of the soil, are vital to pay attention to if you want teachers to grow in a particular content area.
Ultimately, this approach with teachers embodies the same values that are important in educating our students. To teach well means we need to make the time to get to know our students, their stories, and what matters to them. By paying attention to the context of their lives, we can create a more responsive and personalized learning experience, which will cultivate the intellectual and personal growth of all students—and their teachers.
Photos, from the top:
- The author, Young Whan Choi, facilitates the opening session at the Project-Based Learning Institute. (Courtesy of Greg Cluster)
- Christina Ong of Oakland Technical High School and Jariel Arvin of Oakland High School share their reflections on the week. (Courtesy of Young Whan Choi)
- Kisasi Brooks of Skyline High School describes the project he developed to Daniel Spinka, coach for Arts, Media, and Entertainment Pathways, and Zak Silverman of Oakland International High School. (Courtesy of Young Whan Choi)