The recent roundtable among CTQ teacher bloggers about improving professional development produced some important and practical recommendations for administrators. 

Reacting to reports and criticisms that professional development (PD) for teachers is ineffective for improving teaching quality, CTQ bloggers responded educamp-style with a virtual-round table on professional development around the theme “How Teachers (Really) Learn.” All of the bloggers who participated are accomplished teachers and distinguished leaders in their individual areas. The method and the breadth of this extended conversation highlight the power of virtual collaboration as a source of teacher learning, and demonstrates how the CTQ Collaboratory is an incubator for such learning.

Highlights of Teacher Expert Roundtable

Renee Moore’s opening blog raises the questions: How do teachers learn? What types of PD are effective? Where should districts or teachers invest their time and money for maximum teacher learning? She challenges the innuendos in some of these reports that the majority of teachers can’t or don’t want to learn with examples of teachers around the nation leading and developing highly effective PD, often on their own time, at their own expense, and in teacher-controlled spaces. In response, John Holland and Jessica Cuthbertson suggest that traditional district-run PD is actually remedial training done to teachers rather than professional learning done with or by them. Several other commenters champion the need for more personalization and choice in PD for teachers, and point to evidence that this trend is already catching on among teachers across the nation.

Veteran teacher and a PD facilitator herself, Nancy Barile offers some practical tips on how to improve the quality of PD offered to teachers including: a) It should be research based; b) it should respond to actual needs in the classrooms; and c) it should include opportunities for ongoing support and follow-up. Commenters support Nancy’s suggestion that not only should time be allowed for participants to practice what is being presented, but that the PD itself be delivered in a manner consistent with how the teachers are being asked to engage their students.

Meanwhile, Jessica Cuthbertson challenges all educators to make greater use of video and mirror elements of the National Board certification process as a professional learning tool, specifically, analyzing our own classroom work, or–better still–peer review of our teaching for and by others. As teacher/teacher educator John Holland notes: “I have yet to find teacher[s] who did not benefit from video-taping themselves.”

Liz Prather brings four key points from adult learning expert Dr. Malcolm Knowles to the discussion, along with practical tips on how they can be applied to teachers’ professional learning within school settings. These echo the seven tips in Nancy Barile’s earlier piece, especially that PD should be immediately relevant and problem-centered.

John Holland celebrates the changing approach to PD in his school, thanks to a forward-thinking principal. He also shares professional learning moments from his own classroom, and how he deliberately and systematically pushes his own learning using various techniques for reflection and data gathering.

There is strong consensus with John’s assertion that we teachers cannot learn or grow professionally unless we are willing to be challenged (or challenge ourselves) about our favorite practices or our valued assumptions.

Colorado teacher Jozette Martinez argues passionately for changes in both the content and delivery of PD. First, she suggests that teachers should have opportunity to choose the topics they need to pursue to improve their own teaching. Freedom to make those choices would result in more efficient use of time and resources. Second, like other bloggers in this series, she recommends letting teachers with expertise in various areas share that knowledge with peers. Tricia Ebner concurs that teacher-led PD is generally more cost efficient and better received, while teacher-led-schools maven, Lori Nazareno, adds this observation: “Personalized professional learning that is teacher-powered is a HUGE step in restoring both [being valued and respected] to the profession.

Kentuckian Paul Barnwell confronts the issue of teacher resistance to professional growth with examples of veteran teachers in his own school/district. He offers several reasons why some teachers are (or seem to be) resistant to change/new learning, most of them related to the top-down, external control of initiatives and the irrelevant PD/training forced on them. Many commenters agree with Paul, and Ariel Sacks sums it up well:

“Unwilling to ‘change’ is probably too vague an accusation, really. Unwilling to get enthusiastic in response to another imposed initiative is more like it.”

Comments also note that while we teachers are tasked with preparing critical thinkers, we are discouraged or even penalized for being critical thinkers about our own practice or PD.

Building on a comment she made on Renee’s post, Tricia Ebner’s blog maps out how PD in her district has evolved over 20 years. From one-size-fits-all-sit-and-get to more emphasis on small group studies, job-embedded PD, including teachers visiting and studying each other’s classroom work. Like John, she credits courageous administrators for supporting and encouraging teachers as they move into these new types of professional learning.

NYC teacher and author, Ariel Sacks, reflects on an article she wrote for the journal Ed Leadership, about work her Professional Learning Circle (PLC) had done, drawing attention to the impact stable teaching teams or PLCs have on teacher and student learning. She warns that teacher retention (or the lack of it) is an important, and overlooked, factor in teacher collaboration–which is itself at the heart of real teacher learning.

Holding up an assistant principal she talked with last year as an example, Brianna Crowley challenges other administrators to think like teachers when planning PD for their faculty. To that end, she shares some strategies that highly accomplished teachers use and urges principals to think of teachers as a class for whom they are preparing quality instruction. It’s a strong analogy on several levels, especially when framed in Liz Prather’s earlier advice to use adult learning theory as a foundation for teacher PD.

Jessica Keigan brings the practical question: How do districts invest in individual teacher learning? She uses her own experience of being denied full PD credit by her district for extended study in her field (English/Language Arts) in Oxford, England as a cautionary tale.  Clearly, we need to push for better policies in the area of what is acceptable professional development for 21st century teachers. The point resonates in light of the examples from this and other blogs in the roundtable series about teachers stretching into new types of professional learning that go beyond what districts and states are used to counting (or supporting). Commenters also note that failure to update such policies may negatively impact teacher retention as well as discourage truly effective teacher learning.

Megan Allen explores four points along the continuum of professional learning where teachers may engage: connect, contribute, collaborate, cultivate. She uses her own and others’ experiences to show how one can easily plug in at one or more of these points depending on personal passion, interests, classroom needs, scheduling, or setting.

As the conversation spirals to a conclusion, veteran teacher, Sandy Mertz digs into his experiences and shares some precious examples of truly practice-changing professional learning, for which he is thankful. Among these, he includes the process of National Board Certification, and one touching example of how PD, done effectively, can reach even the most jaded of educators.

What Administrators Can Do

There are important takeaways from this conversation, especially for thoughtful administrators. These practical changes can significantly improve the quality of instruction for all students.

  1. Acknowledge that teachers want to learn and grow professionally. Need proof? Skim through some of the professional learning opportunities being organized and lead by teachers themselves. What these experiences have in common is direct and meaningful impact on the actual quality of classroom instruction.

  1. Consider the bullet items above and expand what your state/district accepts as professional development in terms of evaluations, re-certification, and resource allocation. Bring those processes into alignment with modern practices of adult learning.

  1. Whenever possible, opt for teacher-led PD, giving participants ample time to collaborate with each other, practice new ideas or techniques, and get ongoing support for implementation.

    • Rely on teacher-led committee to advise or plan professional development [Note: Like one district that has a department of National Board Certified Teachers from its schools who are in charge of planning and facilitating all PD in the district]

    • PD should provide ample opportunities for teachers to model, practice, question, and evaluate classroom practices. This could include release time to visit other classrooms, review of classroom video, or other approaches.

    • Make use of available technology–like video equipment, Google Docs, virtual discussion threads–that could enhance collaboration among teachers across levels, subject areas, or buildings.

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