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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

Robert Lemmon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The interaction being conducted beteen teachers and administrators is extremely selfless. I often view teaching as a service to the children and society. These teachers are truly serving there community, students, and families. The giving up of a personal lunch could start a strike in some unions. But these teachers and administrator are focused on what is good for the students.

Greg's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After watching the video and reading the article, my initial thoughts come back to what impressive leadership this school has. The only imposing the principal did at this school was force others to have a say in what happens. What a concept! Have a say in your own life. It makes logical sense that teachers, students, parents, administrators would have a large emotional stake in an enviornment that they help shape and cultivate. Why doesn't this happen more often? For me, the part I love the most is the fact that the staff have the opportunity to have ongoing collaboration. This is the one area I keep pushing for at my school and am slowly making progress in getting more. This school example makes me proud to be an educator.

Corie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Being a teacher in Middle School makes me very Envious of these teachers in California. I am fortunate to work in a school that provides us with grade level planning, but I somehow think that many school districts take the wrong approach to professional development, providing activities that just fit a "specific inititive" instead of meeting teachers where they are at and bringing them up to the level where they need to be. A principal who is constantly questioning her teachers to stretch their selves and to continualy improve should be the modle. Unfortunatly instances such as these are not seen in mainstreem public education which warrents the question Why. When Teachers are able to collaborate and plan they are more equiped to face the challenges of a unique profession.

So in closing I end with a simple formula
Planning + professionalism = preparation
Preparation = increased studnet achievement

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Jane's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the idea of collaboration with respect to lesson planning. Being able to bounce ideas with other professionals can only improve what we bring to the classroom. Those teachers are lucky to have a leader who values collaboration and does everything she can to foster it in her school. I was very impressed with their hiring practice of screening teachers who would fit in and having a panel of teachers in on the interview process. Those daily blocks of time are worth their weight in gold. You look at the community that these teachers are working in... transient, low income. To be successful in teaching these students and having them excited to come to school required working outside the box. It looks like they have succeeded in promoting a student-centered learning environment.

Ian's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Julia : I read your comment wondering if the school is still pursuing professional development and went to the school website to see. I don't find anything about the professional development or the block of common prep time but it is clear that the school is still going strong with the project based focus. The website is very easy to navigate and has alot of info for parents. I was very impressed with the calendar that has a daily view and it lists community events that will be a help to families and adults as well as students. It has turned itself into a community resource and not just an isolated place where kids go to spend their day.

The common prep time would be a godsend. It is clear from the teachers experiencing it here that it is valuable and improves their practice for student learning. It is this kind of information which is vital to use as evidence if we are to be agents of change in our schools and districts. Isn't "evidence" the key word these days to use as support for what is done in the classroom? Well lets use that process itself to start turning the tables on more standardized classes and teaching environments.

Even in this day of more funding cutbacks it is crucial for voices of creative change to speak up and find solutions that are not within the standard toolbox.

Charity Tanaleon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I appreciate the new approach to incorporating staff development into an elementary school system. I am curious to know how you and your staff deal with the 'No Child Left Behind' legislation and the issues of state cut backs. As well as your inspiration behind the new development of your school model. I get the sense that your school environment emphasizes problem based learning/ project based learning; what are the trends of student progress utilizing this method and students' critical thinking abilities after they are promoted to junior high school.

I understand that this article was written back in 2000; do you and your staff still maintain this mid-day professional development model even today? Has your curriculum changed? Do you find that parents have become more involved with school activities through your renovatation of school dynamics?

What advice would you provide a school or district that would try and implement your educational model?

Diane Demee-Benoit's picture
Diane Demee-Benoit
Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Edutopia visited Sherman Oaks School in 2000 for this story and video segment. You should contact the school directly for information about its current professional development activities. Contact information may be found on the school's Website

Anonymous (not verified)

The structure of Sherman Oaks Community Charter School staff development program appears to have all the basics needed to successfully equip their staff. Not only does the staff development include all staff, it also incorporates parent/community involvement. Everything from the open format, encouraged networking, and shared decision making makes the school a rarity. Overall, the article portrays a school with continuity throughout; from hiring to maintenance.
On anther note, the only way for a school of this kind to be and remain successful is to have free reign, support, and access to finance like that given to Principal Bryon. In this day with the current state of the budget in California, I am sure a school of this caliber is not in the near/distant future.

Shane Taber's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Providing for on-going interaction and exchange of ideas between teaching colleagues certainly can promote a more stimulating and professional atmosphere. San Jose's Sherman Oaks Community Charter School appears to be a successsful model of what a progressive, child-centered ellementary school should be. I, too, wonder how it is fairing today, 8 years later, what with the devastating budget cut-backs that all California public schools are having to realize. My guess is that the teacher field trips to SoCal aren't in the budget now nor are the 3 day summer institutes the staff enjoyed at the beginning of each new school year. How fortunate for the teachers et al. who were able to reap the benefits created through the supportive efforts such a progressive principal, district administration and the community.

Denna Vinyard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a teacher of twelve years and I feel collaboration among teahers within a grade level can promote student success and reduce teacher stress. When teachers have time to plan together and bounce ideas between each other it makes it easier to plan. Not only do you have the ideas of four, five etc. teachers you can also share the work load while allowing certain members to complete plans and jobs for everyone. Teachers teaching teachers is effective. I like to visit other teachers classroom once in a while to just "see" what they are doing and "see" what is working both for academic improvment and classroom management.

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