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End-of-Year Conversations Solidify Teachers’ Learning

With structured discussions, educators can share wisdom gained in a turbulent year—and be better prepared for the coming one.

May 14, 2021
Allison Shelley for the Alliance for Excellent Education

No doubt we will appreciate this summer in ways we never needed to in years past. Before packing for vacation, however, it is crucial for teachers to unpack all they have learned while navigating online, in-person, and hybrid teaching environments for over a year.

If anything, the pandemic has been an opportunity for rapid and dramatic professional growth. Unfortunately, much of it has occurred in isolation. Without a method to share and synthesize this learning, districts risk losing this knowledge, just as students sometimes do during summer slides. That’s why school leaders must create conditions for teachers to capture, process, and reflect on their collective learning experiences.

I coordinate professional development in my district, and my team has experimented with what we call K–12 conversations: a systemic framework that builds and supports a learning community and bolsters efficacy. K–12 conversations create the conditions for all levels of a district to have fruitful small-group discussions about assessment, instructional practices, and social and emotional wellness—and that’s been particularly helpful given the events of the past year.

Now Is the Time

A recent Edutopia post stressed the importance of “rebuild[ing] the frayed social fabric of our learning communities.” The research is clear: the best way for teachers to regain their sense of community is to provide opportunities to connect, problem-solve, and collaborate. That’s exactly where K–12 conversations come in.

This year especially, it is imperative to hold K–12 conversations before teachers leave for summer. That way, come August, they will be armed with the wisdom that comes from weeks of marinating in district-wide shared knowledge. If we wait until September, school leaders risk teachers returning to school feeling the way they started this past year: anxious, overwhelmed, and disconnected.

How to Create K–12 Conversations

A successful K–12 conversation takes planning and good upfront organization. To make the most of teachers’ time together, take these steps.

Get organized: Detailed planning will set the stage.

  • Using a master spreadsheet, code teachers by level: elementary (or primary and intermediate), middle, high.
  • Find the person in your district who has expertise with spreadsheets so that at the press of a button, cells/teachers are placed in heterogeneous groups of six to eight.
  • Have leaders or instructional coaches check the groups to make sure there is an even distribution of levels, schools, and content areas.
  • Two weeks prior to the conversations, give teachers time to individually reflect. This year especially, teachers need tools to organize and examine their thinking. (If you need reflection ideas, Cult of Pedagogy’s Gut-Level Reflection Questions is a good resource.)
  • Assign a leader for each group (also at least two weeks prior). The group leader will be responsible for taking attendance, reviewing norms with participants (e.g., “We will keep the dialogue positive”), and facilitating discussions.
  • Establish norms and conversation starters. Share them with participating teachers a few days prior to the conversation.
  • In a planning screen cast or meeting, support your group leaders by sharing suggestions about how to keep the conversations flowing, how to include everyone, and how to steer away from negativity.

If you are hosting a conversation on campus, assign each group to a classroom indicated on the spreadsheet. If possible, prepare the room by arranging desks in a circle, with a thank-you note for the table leader.

If you are hosting a conversation online, create links for the meetings and paste them into the spreadsheet.

Manage the conversation: Start conversations with a waterfall introduction: In the chat, everyone types their grade level/subject/school/years teaching/something fun but waits for a signal from the group leader to press send.

Limit discussion to 45 minutes to an hour, especially for your first conversation. After introductions, the group leader should review the norms and conversation starters one more time. Having this information on a screen may help discussions stay focused. Encourage teachers to use the information from their reflections as talking points, and conclude the discussion by having teachers share one takeaway with their group. Finally, allow time for teachers to add their reflections and record big ideas in a feedback form or personalized professional development plan.

Conversation follow-up: Leaders can analyze the data from teacher takeaways and determine common themes in individual schools, grade levels, departments, and the district as a whole. In our district, staff development summarized the big ideas from the conversations to drive future professional development. The data was shared with administrators and teachers alike.

Looking Back—and Ahead

According to John Hattie’s influences on student achievement, classroom discussion doubles the rate of learning for students. The same is surely true for professionals. I was optimistically anxious the day we held our first K–12 conversation—it seemed like a powerful and authentic way for colleagues to gain a better and broader understanding of the whole child, but my team and I were unsure how teachers would respond.

Fortunately, once teachers started talking, magic happened, and feedback was phenomenal. Teachers rated this activity a 4.4 out of 5 stars and supplemented ratings with their personal takeaways. One teacher wrote, “Having time to share, listen, celebrate, be vulnerable with one another was empowering for all of us!” Another stated, “I think it would be great if you could bring us together with the same group of people from time to time. We were able to build a connection with the group of teachers. It would be nice to continue it.”

As we wind down this school year, teachers don’t need formal professional development sessions, ed tech tutorials, or death-by-Google Slide/PowerPoint faculty meetings. Instead, school leaders and instructional coaches must provide teachers the time and space to learn from one another and grow together. In truth, the best professional development that teachers have right now is found in each other.

And that starts with a conversation.

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