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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

Casie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also thought of those same questions. I actually pistured some of the teachers i currently work with and how they would react. We only have 3 full days of professional development through out the year and they are truly horrible. They usually consist of every teacher from the entire district getting together to listen to a guest speaker who talks about nothing for 6 hours. It is torture and they are starting to get worse. I think it is time for my school to make a change but I also couldn't imagine using my entire prep and lunch up each day.

Maria's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a wonderful concept where all the teachers in a school know about the issues that their students may be facing, especially for those students who receive special education services.

A daily opportunity for adults to interact, professionally, and be able to plan and share is more of what is needed. Perhaps not on a daily basis because of scheduling conflicts, but definitely on a weekly basis.

When everyone is on the same page and everyone has the information needed to impact the same group of students at the same school, that is simply a perfect equation and magnificent teamwork!

EricaO's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This should be the norm and not the exception. We're all wowed by the professionalism portrayed by this administration, not to mention jealous =).
I wonder what kind of response I'd get if I forwarded this to my principal (or even superintendent)? 90 minutes is pretty impressive...I think I'd love 30!

Becky P.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This sounds like an amazing opportunity for the teachers and the students. How wonderful it must be to be able to collaborate with other teahcers every day. I am so impressed that you are actually able to be role models for life-long learning that we as teachers know is such an important part of life.

K.D.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

90 minutes to interact with your colleagues each day. What an opportunity! I would treasure the opportunity to discuss ideas/problems with adults. To have it scheduled into your day is truly a professional attitude. At my school we are lucky to see each other at lunch time. I share the schools philosophy that collaboration is the best tool. I have noticed that the more people (in this case teachers) are treated as professionals the more professional they (we) become.

Bryan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This sounds like a great idea but would this work for a large school? I work at a middle schools with overlapping periods and lunch schedules and to make something like this work would take a major overhaul of the system. Not that this could not be done but rather convincing the district and the administration that it is necessary would be very difficult.


Erin T, Sacramento's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find this planning and colloaboration time to be an excellent idea. I often lament that there is not enough time to accomplish meaningful work with my colleagues. I would love to have a chance to work with same subject teachers as well as same grade level teachers so we can create cross-curricular lessons or at least complement each other's lessons if possible. I am not sure that I agree that it should happen each day, although it seems they have organized it well enough so that it is also planning and preparation time for teachers several times a week. I also think this might be easier to implement at the elementary school level than at the secondary level, where we often must be available during student lunches for labs, make-up tests and club moderation. But I do love that there is an administrator who is willing to try it!

Julia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a motivating workplace for both teachers and students. Having experienced the process of forming a new school, I know that being on board from the inception can have a positive impact on the attitude of the administrator, staff, and parents. It is obvious that teachers are hand selected for their willingness to collaborate and give of their time. I've never been at a school where teachers would be willing to use their lunch time for these meetings. I noticed that this report was presented in 2000 and much has changed finiancially in California. Back in 2000 my principal eagerly sent teachers on conferences too, but sadly with budget cutbacks the last few years, conferences were one of the first "frills" to go. I hope this school is still vigorously persuing professional development and if so a follow-up into how it is going and how they are able to continue to manage would be enlightening.

Kashmira's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think this is just great to give teachers an opportunity to collaborate everyday for ninety minutes. In my opinion when teachers collaborate they bring a wider base of knowledge to class. Furthermore professional development should be an ongoing process of of individual and collective examination and improvement of practice. This setup is very beneficial for beginning teachers like me who need the support and guidance in the first few years of teaching.

Otilia Martiniuc's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The way this school, teachers, and administrators are set is the ideal way to operate for the best interest of teachers and students. It is certainly on many educators' wish lists. It is refreshing to see an administrator with that kind of mind-set and with a genuine desire to see the school succeed. I can only imagine how education would improve at so many levels if all districts, schools, and administrators adopted this way of developing staff. During my student teaching, I was part of grade level meetings with English laguage teachers and I remember hearing ideas being tossed around, and how great it was to hear something I had never thought of. Collaboration and interaction at that level really fosters the growth of new ideas and it creates a sense of bond between teachers-imagine being able to do that for 90 minutes and having that time available! I would definitely benefit as a teacher and as a result, my students would get even better instruction and interaction.

To have 90 minutes to collaborate is generally not going to work in most schools. There is a crunch for time and covering of curriculum in that short time, which leaves little room for anything else. It is sad on one hand, yet encouraging on the other. If there are still adminstrators out there that have those kinds of goals and plans, it isn't hopeless and it is definitley worth trying for.

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