We educators find meaning in work that stems from inner passions, interests, ambitions, and the desire to help young minds grow. We also discover meaning as we build our own capacity to continually improve. Noteworthy lightbulb moments and learning experiences related to our particular disciplines lead to valuable awakenings we use to refine our skills and help children along their path of academic discovery.
It appears commonplace in education, however, that teachers find these special moments and true learning experiences to be scarce during typical professional development (PD) sessions. Many educators maintain that this training lacks relevance to their practice, and the term professional development conjures up images of Ben Stein instructing Ferris Bueller’s classmates half to sleep.
So what gives? The answer is simple: Frequently, teachers are right about PD.
Administrators must confront the inert hypocrisy that a one-size-fits-all PD model reveals: Teachers aren’t given the same voice, choice, differentiation, and engagement opportunities afforded to students in droves. This model is rigid and limited in responsiveness to teacher, interests, skill-sets, and overall needs. “Boxed” PD lacks flexibility and fails to incentivize teachers to seek out learning opportunities separate from in-house training. It jeopardizes the professional growth that is so vital to the wellness of the lifelong learner.
This conundrum begs the following questions: How can administrators make professional learning more meaningful to every individual teacher and, in the current state of remote learning, achieve this from a distance?
Here’s the good news: Administrators can breathe new life into PD. Acting as catalysts for teachers to create their own opportunities for learning can help administrators reinvigorate PD through a collaborative process that augments relevancy and highlights different avenues to pursue growth.
The following steps provide a process to help teachers drive their own learning.
Step 1: Investigate and Identify
Surveying staff about areas of passion and concern establishes a safe space for teachers to lift their voices and start a healthy dialogue focused on professional growth. The benefits of remaining curious are the invaluable takeaways administrators learn about faculty and their specific needs.
By providing staff with a platform such as an anonymous survey to self-assess and identify expertise in need of sharpening, administrators are better able to avoid prepackaged professional learning sessions and replace them with more tailored and meaningful experiences for teachers to improve their practice.
Step 2: Take Action, Take Ownership
Forming book clubs and collegial circles based on the common threads found in the survey data solidifies a sense of ownership. Reading is to educators as training is to athletes, and this operation of the professional learning community engages faculty in chats to collaboratively discuss best practices using each other as accountability partners.
As Dr. Seuss famously wrote, “The more that you read, the more things you will know,” and there is power in gaining a common language and mindset by reading together as a team and collectively honing instructional prowess.
Step 3: Share and Empower
Engaging in “unconferences” allows teachers to present what they’ve learned, and other teachers can come and go as they get what they need. It’s similar to the edcamp model, where teachers create their own itineraries, and colleagues serve as peer-instructional resources.
Unconferences empower teacher voice and choice and nurture a shared focus on continual improvement. The payoff is that learning often originates from the serendipity of peer conversation and not the traditional assembling to learn a predetermined outcome. After all, it’s refreshing to attend a colleague’s session by one’s own volition rather than sitting, or sleeping, through preselected seminars that seem futile.
Step 4: Review and Rethink
Encourage taking community walks as an accountability check. How can we know if we’re truly meeting the needs of the community we serve if we don’t understand the socio-political and economic contexts of student day-to-day life outside of school?
Walking through the streets of the town or city where you work allows you to get a true sense of what students face once they leave the school grounds. It also provides a great opportunity to gauge if the professional learning teachers have engaged in is aligned to helping students achieve optimally. Community walks also help to build learning partnerships with parents and position the school as the epicenter of community resources.
Unanticipated events like the pandemic can thwart attempts at progress, but assisting teachers in driving their own learning can help administrators continue to build staff capacity no matter the extreme circumstance. Reimagining PD by considering your staff’s passions and career goals is at the core of sparking a renewed outlook on professional learning opportunities that put teachers in the driver’s seat when it comes to their own education and creating learning experiences meaningful to their trade.