Teachers Appreciate the Value of Adequate Preparation Time

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

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

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.

teacher preparation

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.

teacher preparation

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.

This article originally published on 10/1/2000

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Comments (74)

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Casie (not verified)

Deanndra, I teach in a

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Deanndra,
I teach in a middle school and this year our school changed our master schedule and created grade level teams. At first our principal was going to set up the schedule so that all teams would be off at the same time and all students would be at specials, lunch, or gym. That way grade level teachers would have the opportunity to work with each other and the different disciplines could also meet. We had so many problems making this work due to the number of students in our building and there we some state requirements and contract issues so that it never worked out. We do have team planning everyday with the group of teachers we work with. So, I guess you can say we are moving forward. I do like having teams.

Amanda (not verified)

common planning time

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Wow! I think that it is great that these teachers have this time to work together and talk about issues. We do not have any common time at the high school that I teach at. We have an hour meeting once a month, but the topics are arranged by the administrator. I would love to even have time once a week with other teachers in my department or in the school. This time together makes the school work as a team and get to know each other so much better.

Anonymous (not verified)

I can't imagine parents monitoring the students

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I teach at a elemetary school in a big city and I can't imagine what would happen if we had parents coming in everyday to monitor the students. Besides the fact that the kids would be out of control, I would think it would be tough to get the number of volunteers that you would need. Sounds like a dream school.

Deanndra Huddleston (not verified)

Professional developement

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Wow this has given me some great ideas about creating time professional development and planning. I am currently in a Junior high school and our principal tries very hard to create a schedule that allows us common planning time but having an early release once a month for professional developement would be wonderful. The greatest concern I forsee is getting this approved by the state. I will have to look into the laws and restrictions with eary release. Thank you for all the help and advice.

Deanndra Huddleston

Anonymous (not verified)

Wow, 90 minutes every day to

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Wow, 90 minutes every day to collaborate? I had a few questions to this intially: Who ensures that sharing/reflecting is actually taking place? What checks/balances are in place to make sure that this doesn't become an extended lunch hour? How is it outside staff can be legally responsible for school time supervision?

I come from a district that organizes PD days for all schools throughout the school year. We have to sign up for the sessions we're interested in, the presenter takes attendance, and our school staff meet back at the end of the day to reflect/wrap things up. Quite frankly, not all of the quest speakers are relative to my assignment, and some are mediocre. I'm fine with our monthly dose of PD, I can't imagine having to think it and breathe it during my lunch hour too, every day. I would gladly keep my 1 supervision shift/week and a 40min lunch hour to myself in lieu of this initiative. I think this is a great idea (in theory), but I could not see it working at our school.

Rachelle (not verified)

Inspirational

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Is it me or does this school sound outstanding? It is an inspiration to think that there are schools that have great communication. As a staff we meet once every two weeks. We never have time to talk about curriculum and if we do it is only 2-5 minutes. I would love to observe this school. I would love for my principle to observe this school! It would be great to be that open with colleagues. Does anyone else have a school that remotley comes close to this one? Is anyone at this school by chance going to be speaking at the IRA conference in Atlanta?

Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Sherman Oaks School

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This school is a public elementary school.

Anonymous (not verified)

I am interested to know if

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I am interested to know if it is an elementary school or middle school too. I was also wondering about parents being the monitors. Do they have to go through some training? It is a great idea!

Melanie (not verified)

I agree that this would be a

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I agree that this would be a valuable tool in my school as well. We have late start every other month for 2 hours, where we get professional development time. Most of our teacher workdays have been PD as well but that has only been 2 up to this point. We do have an occasionally staff meeting too after school for about an hour that could be considered PD but beyond that it is up to us. This would be a great thing to have in my school and I will share it as well.

Sheila (not verified)

Overwhelming! Our district,

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Overwhelming! Our district, for the most part, leaves professional development(PD) in the hands of the teachers. My home town school has early dismissal once a month and teacers stay for PD. And I thought that was awesome.

Having this time for PD isn't the only value. There isn't harmony amoung our different grade levels. It would be nice to have time to be more of a team through these meetings.

I will be sharing this article!

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