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Teachers as 'Lead Learners'

Sarah Brown Wessling

I like to tell my students that in our classroom, we're working to flatten the hierarchies that separate teacher from student. I remind them that anyone who comes into our classroom—students, administrators, community members—gets elevated to the status of learner because there isn't more crucial work we do. Yet, living this elevated learner culture is a tall order when it comes to leveraging that philosophy across an entire school, district or state. In my inaugural year as a hybrid teacher (½ the day in the classroom and the other ½ as professional development coordinator for our district) I've learned a lot about what it means to use professional learning to impact not only student achievement, but also learning culture. Here are five snapshots from my learning this year.

Presenting vs. Teaching
So many times I've heard teachers say, "Please don't stand up and talk to me about inquiry, teach that way too!" I agree. Professional learning undermines itself when we don't teach it. If we're extolling the virtues of productive group work, then our learners need to be learning by doing productive group work and not just sitting and passively hearing about it. If we want teachers to be learners first then we need to help them feel that same struggle, nurturing, and excitement they will recreate in their own classrooms.

When Teachers Do the Teaching
When teachers are put in positions to lead their peers, to share their own struggles and successes, colleagues listen. When teachers can close that gap between research and reality, between the vision and how to get there, we're offering our learners a peek into the metacognition of teaching. When teachers can "think aloud," when they can make what's intrinsic, suddenly extrinsic to each other, we can shift that culture.

Systems Thinking
Rather than having the mindset that we're aiming to develop stronger teachers, we must think about cultivating better teaching throughout a system. When I work with administrators, I've often asked them to consider what their "teaching moments" are during a day. Part of our professional learning plans must address the ways in which we all teach everyday, how we all live learning every day.

As a system sees itself comprised, not of isolated parts that work best on a linear path, but as a flattened hierarchy with a compass towards teaching and learning, we'll not only see the impact of curious pursuit, we'll also see that teacher-leader or leader-teacher really means lead learner.

Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa. She is also serving as TCHr Laureate for the Teaching Channel and was the 2010 National Teacher of the Year.

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