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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teachers Appreciate the Value of Adequate Preparation Time

At Sherman Oaks Community Charter School, educators meet daily for 90 minutes of professional development.
By Diane Curtis

Teacher Support: A Culture of Professional Development

Credit: Edutopia

It's 11:30 A.M. at Sherman Oaks Community Charter School, and not a teacher is to be found in a classroom or on the green lawns and pathways outside. Visibility aside, however, the teachers are doing some of their most important work.

Every school day between 11:30 and 1 P.M., Principal Peggy Bryan and all Sherman Oaks teachers gather in the teachers' room for ninety minutes of professional development -- a rare occurrence in schools despite the widespread call for more teacher professionalism. The teachers debate instructional theory and practice, try to solve problems that have come up or are likely to come up in their classrooms, discuss curriculum, commiserate, seek advice, offer encouragement, or quietly reflect or refine a lesson plan.

"It's always wonderful stuff -- things that get your brain stretched," says teacher Barbara Lynn of the content of the midday block. "I feel like a professional." While the format of the daily meeting is always open to revision, last school year two of the five-a-week "midday blocks," as they are called, were set aside for personal planning. Three of the five were scripted, with formal agendas and case-study analyses, in which each teacher documented the progress of two students, sharing and analyzing work samples with other teachers.

Listening and Being Listened To

Bilingual teachers confer about what's working and what's not and plan for refinements in the instruction. The math specialist leads workshops on math curriculum. Ditto for the literacy specialist. Conversations about whether practices in existence should be modified or eliminated often lead to consensus before the topics are brought up on formal agendas. For example, frequent informal discussions about Exhibition Nights, in which students present their work to parents and other members of the community, led to agreement that their frequency should be reduced from three times a year to two.

Before one midday block, teachers were asked to diagnose a piece of student writing with the idea of determining the next step in instruction. Using samples of work from the two students they each had decided to use for year-long case studies, they analyzed the pieces and offered suggestions for how best to improve that particular student's writing.

Now that she has experienced such stimulating collegial interaction plus the time for reflection and planning that is taken for granted in many other professions, Lynn says she could not go back to the isolation that is often the fate of teachers. "I need to be able to talk to adults. I treasure that time of sharing ideas. It's a time to bond ... which other teachers don't get to do."

Besides being able to bounce ideas about educational philosophy and strategy off each other, the teachers can talk about individual students. For example, if siblings are at Sherman Oaks, teachers of those students may seek each other out to learn as much as they can of the family circumstances and dynamics so as to better know the student in their class. "It adds to the community feeling that they're all our children," says Lynn.

Making Time for Professional Development

While many school administrators say that building time for teachers to join together as professionals during a jam-packed school day is practically impossible, Bryan, who seldom takes no for an answer, says it was easy. Teachers meet while students have lunch, study hall, and a recreation period. Paraprofessionals -- usually parents -- come in during that time and oversee the children. "It's simple, inexpensive, and it makes all the difference," Bryan says.

Becky Fleischauer, spokesperson for the National Education Association, says it's a "common refrain" of teachers that they don't have enough time for professional development, classroom preparation, or a forum to share good ideas. But she cautioned that such practices as midday block should be negotiated locally. "What to do with their lunch hour is very local and should include the input of teachers," Fleischauer said.

Peggy Bryan, conferring with second-grade teacher Sandra Villarreal, tries to visit the classrooms every day.

Credit: Peter DaSilva

Understanding Through Questioning

Bryan's style and philosophy prevent her from stepping in with a prescription for the one best way to solve a problem, both at midday block sessions and when she formally evaluates teachers, which she does every other year for each teacher.

"I don't think suggestions are too useful," Bryan says. For evaluations, Bryan comes into a classroom with a blueberry iBook, takes laptop notes on what the students are doing and the teacher's interaction with the students, and then immediately turns those notes into questions for the teacher and prints them on the spot.

"I leave them with questions," she explains. When a follow-up discussion is scheduled, Bryan talks through the questions with the teachers and allows them to reflect on their classroom actions. "Ordinarily, they get back to what they need to do next." If they're really stuck, Bryan may refer them to another teacher.

"If they learn from each other, it's so much better. You're fostering that whole sense of interdependence and independence." No teacher should be dependent on one source for answers, just as no student should be dependent on one source for answers, Bryan states. That philosophy has also been transferred to the classroom, where teachers encourage students to seek help from each other.

Sherman Oaks teachers like Sandra Villarreal praise Bryan for demonstrating morale-boosting respect for the staff in many ways, not least of which are giving them an equal voice in decisions and allowing them to attend outside professional development conferences of their own choosing. Through keeping an eye out for what her teachers would be interested in, letting them decide what conferences or classes would best benefit their teaching, employing an on-site, full-time substitute teacher, and taking advantage of grants, Bryan has created a system in which professional development is valued and regularly and advantageously used.

The school and students ultimately benefit because teachers return from such conferences energized and eager to share their newfound educational knowledge with fellow teachers. Villarreal, who teaches first and second grades, is particularly interested in technology and bilingual education and has been a leader in imparting the latest theories and strategies to her colleagues.

Fourth-grade teacher Osvaldo Rubio helps students with their desktop publishing. In the spirit of growing their own expertise at Sherman Oaks, Rubio was previously a student teacher from the local university and now serves on the leadership team, providing professional development to other teachers.

Credit: Peter DaSilva

Family Within and Without the School

The family feeling that Sherman Oaks has cultivated with the community also is evident within the school. Teacher "field trips" have included a visit to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. A three-day summer retreat -- most recently held in Pajaro Dunes -- combines both fun and purpose.

"I would say our first priority is bonding and having fun together, spreading culture, reconnecting," Bryan says of the August gathering. But work is accomplished, too. The curriculum focus for the 2000-2001 school year is math and logic, so the retreat included conversations and workshops about math and logic materials and instructional strategies.

"The people you have on your staff will make or break you," Bryan insists, which makes the hiring process -- in which a team of teachers interviews each candidate -- all the more critical. The hiring process is unique, and prospective Sherman Oaks teachers cannot be shy about being in a fishbowl. Candidates are asked to solve a classroom problem or come up with an idea to improve teaching at the school -- with fellow teacher applicants. The domineering problem-solver who imposes his or her ideas on others is hastily rejected since collaboration is so important at Sherman Oaks. Candidates also are handed a laptop, and the staff gets a quick idea whether the teacher candidate can meet the Sherman Oaks requirement that all teachers have knowledge of technology.

What Sherman Oaks reaps, Bryan says, are "Renaissance" risk-takers who are "smart and quick and sensitive and compassionate. ... This staff is an amazing group. They just exude enthusiasm and belief and confidence -- and it's contagious."

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

Comments (74)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jodi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This sounds like an amazing place to teach! At my school we have about 40 minutes a week to collaborate, but that time is generally spent scoring the weeks constructed responses and is not often productive. This time would be useful since grade level teachers are expected to teach the same thing in the same way every day at my school. Having time to work together daily would make this expectation much easier.

The video states the students are participating in a recreation block. I am curious to find out exactly what the students are doing. 90 minutes a day is a large chunk of time, although I'm sure 30 minutes of it are used for student lunch. I would like to know how they handle supervision during that 90 minutes.

It was also refreshing to see that teachers are encouraged to attend outside conferences. It is difficult for teachers at my school to go to conferences, mainly because there aren't many in Hawaii and we would need to fly to mainland to attend.

A school where teachers are valued as professionals and treated as such sounds like a dream. If we could all be so lucky!

Judy Ledforde's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I applaud Sherman Oaks for recognizing that teachers need time to collaborate. Too often I find collaboration happening during the walk to the restroom, or snatching a few moments before or after school. Staff at my school are very protective of anyone infringing on our lunch time due to the fact that budget cuts have already reduced our minutes. I would be most willing, though, to spend that time in meaningful collaboration, and teacher development.

Keri Benjamin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This does sound like an amazing school to work at. I think it is important for teachers to collaborate with teachers within their own grade and the grades prior and after their own. This allows for fully understanding the curriculum, needs and expectations of students. I wish that this was a possiblity at every school. As mentioned by someone else, maybe then there would truely be no child left behind.

janell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When does professional development get in the way of collaboration and prep? I find myself very frustrated. Our school starts the 13th of August, we reported back to work this Wednesday, and have been in meeting discussing how to improve Iowa scores and other school improvements. Meanwhile the schedule has not been discussed, room assignments and rotation has not been addressed, you know, the tid-bits that make a big difference. Never mind that we need to curriculum map and collaborate with other teachers. An 8 hour workday is really 10 hours!

Valerie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Did the teachers give up their lunch to do this? I think people need time to relax, eat a nutritious lunch, use the restroom, return personal phone calls, etc. There are books written on the efficacy of the 20 min mid-day power nap. That said, if at least 30-40 min were set aside for personal time, that would still leave 60 min for collaboration and planning. We are so data rich and prep time poor that this would be a welcome change! I am going to suggest something similar at my school site and/or district. It would take a commitment of time and resources from all levels, including parents; but if it were presented properly, I really believe most people would support it. The problem is, too often, programs are designed without input from all stakeholders, and implementation is often flawed and therefore unsupported. Hopefully, some administrators and district leaders will wise up and make teachers a part of the true decision making process. As teachers are held increasingly accountable for test scores (student achievement), they need to be allowed to have a lot more say in the design of programs they will be using.

Sally Beach's picture

This option sounds very intriguing for professional development. Our school meets every Wednesday afternoon, after the students leave and everyone seems to be "brain-dead" by that point. It would be beneficial to have a time earlier in the day for teachers to gather to discuss various educational topics.

Sally Beach's picture

This option for professional development is very intriguing. My school meets every Wednesday afternoon after the students leave and everyone seems to be "brain-dead." It would be much more beneficial to meet earlier in the school day about various educational topics.

cynthia binkley's picture
cynthia binkley
1st grade teacher from Gallatin, TN

I think this concept of having collaborative meetings during the school day rather than after hours is much more beneficial. I am amazed that this can be done on a daily basis though. I do not see this daily time frame working in an elementary setting. I hope to initiate a collaborate group in my school this coming year. I have been an instructional coach for the past two years in my county. One of my jobs was to facilitate PLC's. It was interesting in that the school where it was mandatory for teachers to meet with me was not as beneficial as my other schools where it was initiated by the teachers themselves. I will say that there was much learning and growth in many of them that led to student growth which is the whole idea. Teachers left the meetings feeling more empowered and having more input also.

AlynneG's picture

I have never heard of professional development happening in the middle of the school day. I can see how it would be beneficial because I know that at the end of the day I am exhausted. My school does professional development on Friday afternoons and I am tired by then. I wonder if my school provided professional development before school or during the day if it would be more beneficial. I also love that this article really proves that these teachers truly enjoy working together. Staff members with bad attitudes can bring down an entire group. This staff seems to truly care about their students, each other, and their journey on being a life long learner.

Deanna Rupert-Wilson's picture
Deanna Rupert-Wilson
EAL Teacher at an International School in Busan, South Korea

I love this schools commitment to the ongoing professional development of their teachers. One of the biggest complaints at my school now is that there is not enough time for teachers to collaborate and really develop their teaching skills. I think an administration that is willing to carve out time for their teachers to collaborate is amazing and necessary.

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