Professional Learning

The Power of Vulnerability in Professional Development

Sharing your students’ work with your peers fuels incredible professional growth. 

November 1, 2016
© Edutopia

As part of our professional development (PD) at Two Rivers Public Charter School, we meet at least three times a semester with a group of colleagues to analyze student work. We do this to inform our instructional planning and design. We explore and gain feedback on questions like:

  • What stage are students in their understanding of and competency with the knowledge and skills we’re teaching?
  • What essential knowledge and core skills are assessed by the assignment?
  • What are next steps for teaching this skill to students?

This protocol helps us identify potential gaps between learning objectives and student mastery, come up with solutions to meet our students' needs, and improve our teaching practice. Here are step-by-step instructions and a video on how to adapt this PD protocol at your school.

Bringing your students' work to be critiqued by your colleagues may not be easy at first—in fact, it can make you feel vulnerable. But it's in that vulnerability that you will find strength and support from both yourself and your colleagues.

At our school, we bare it all. We lay it all on the table—the good, the bad, and the ugly. We do this without ego, and we do this in order to become better teachers for our students. We do this because our leadership does a lot of work to cultivate trust in our staff. We set norms to work together. We also work hard to value each teacher’s different strengths. We take risks and honor the need to have difficult conversations. We are convinced that we learn better together and that our work benefits from the perspective of others. Many school-wide practices and routines are in place to allow us to do this, but nowhere is our willingness to be vulnerable more present than when we look at student work together.

How We Look at Student Work

When we look at student work, we share it honestly and with no filters. We gather with a group of teachers from different grade levels and content areas. The work is presented with minimal introduction and then discussed. The presenting teacher does not speak but listens, and then joins the conversation at the end after having had a chance to process all that has been gleaned from their students’ work.

Your Value as a Teacher Is Not Based on One Lesson

In order for this to be a useful experience, we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable as professionals. We must first see ourselves as separate from our teacher selves. We are not just teachers. This separation helps us to see our work objectively. One crappy lesson does not a crappy person make, much like a brilliant lesson does not mean you are a brilliant person. We all have learning to do as teachers, and both the teacher who presents and the teachers who critique are enriched by this experience.

It’s Not About You, It’s About the Work

Needless to say, it can be terrifying to present work to your peers and ask them to judge your planning and design. Thoughts like, “What if they think I’m a terrible teacher?” are common. You are essentially asking fellow teachers to evaluate how well you have taught something—as evidenced in the work presented in front of them—which can be scary! Pushing past that discomfort is crucial. It is essential that when you bring work to the table, you don’t take things personally. It’s about the work, not you. With practice, this gets easier.

Be Honest

Though our leadership does a ton of work to set up structures that encourage trust, no real growth can happen unless each teacher commits to taking and sharing professional risks. If you allow yourself to be vulnerable—if you can be open to critique—the benefits can be astounding. Your perspective can widen to encompass the vision of your entire team. If you remain open and vulnerable, your work gets exponentially better. Being open to critique can yield richness beyond belief. This does not happen if you are not honest, or are trying to show off your best work. You must expose your weaknesses.

Trust Your Team

None if this can be done without a team that you know will not judge you personally. You need to be able to trust that they have the interest of the students at heart, will be fully present, and will analyze your students' work with all of their teacher brain powers. I am lucky to be at a school where our leadership actively and intentionally cultivates trust among our staff. If you feel isolated at your school, reach out to like-minded colleagues. It can seem daunting, but don’t let that discourage you! The effort it takes to create and nurture professional relationships is worth it.

My first year teaching, I was at a school where there was not a lot of support or efforts to build trust. It was a large high school with hundreds of teachers. What made that year a resounding success for me was that I found two teachers that I could depend and rely on. As a first-year newbie, I failed many times, and I was able to see those failures as growth opportunities because of my tiny, trustful group. Once you create a group of like-minded colleagues, expose your struggles. That is an important first step toward establishing trust. When we shared our difficulties and strategized for improvement, it also built trust in our group. Though my colleague group was not facilitated by that school’s administration, the group was helpful—it allowed us to be vulnerable and truly hear others’ perspectives.

Valuing and trusting a wide range of perspectives is key. Although I now teach 6th-grade English language arts, I know that an early childhood teacher or a math teacher can view the work in a way that I would never have thought, which is invaluable. I can also gain important teacher wisdom by looking at their students’ work as we engage in these professional conversations.

A Culture of Colleagues

Looking at student work together has an immediate positive impact on the work we do in the classroom with our students. It’s like having a six-person super brain helping you plan your next lesson. However, part of the benefit of this practice is that it perpetuates a culture of trust outside of these conversations. Because I know I can be vulnerable while looking at student work, I also know I can seek help at other times. If I’m feeling that something is not going well in my classroom, I know that there are a host of teachers willing to help me think things through objectively. That is one of the most awesome things about our school. Our professional community allows us—even when the work is challenging—to feel that we are not alone in the work.

How have you been able to build trust?

School Snapshot

Two Rivers Public Charter School

Grades pre-K to 8 | Washington, DC
526 | Charter, Urban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$14537 Two Rivers Local Educational Agency $14439 all DC charters
Free / Reduced Lunch
60% Black
25% White
10% Hispanic
4% Multiracial
1% Asian
Demographic data is from the 2015-2016 academic year. Fiscal data is from 2014.

This post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from Two Rivers Public Charter School.

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