Yet, in so many cases, time for deep, collaborative professional learning is minimal– 3 full days a year seems to be pretty standard, with common planning time during the day sprinkled here and there.
I recently conducted a programmatic review of a district that had not been able to budget full professional days for years. This was rightly viewed by teachers and administrators as the greatest barrier to progress.
The need for professional development has been highlighted by the pandemic and the forced move to “distance learning”.
In my home state of Rhode Island, the governor and education commissioner have responded to that need by issuing a common statewide calendar. In it, they provide dedicated PL days as well as common vacation days.
This gives students a much-needed break. There’s no expectation of logging into a Google meet or needing to be on their screen. Some students, especially older ones might use that as study time as they prepare for AP exams. But for younger students and their families, it’s a much-appreciated pause.
It also gives teachers protected time for professional learning without the expectation of also managing instruction. As I talked with district leaders across the state, I found that the time is being used wisely. Some are learning more about online teaching tools from district and state partners. Others are engaging in much-needed departmental or PLC teams. Some of these meetings are synchronous, others are not.
It’s wonderful that our state leaders recognize the need for protected professional learning time right now, as teachers are trying to navigate this unanticipated crisis.
And providing and protecting time for that learning should be a basic condition of the profession in this country (as it is in several other nations).
A few ideas…
Far too many administrators are stuck in the compliance paradigm.
When I was an assistant superintendent, we created a district-wide professional learning steering committee. Our district-wide Professional Learning Days (or Professional Development, as we called it then) had been met with “just ok” feedback. In addition, the head of the paraprofessionals’ bargaining unit let me know that they were extremely dissatisfied with what the district had been providing for professional development.
So, we set about to change that–to put people in charge of their own learning. Ultimately, two teachers became co-chairs of the committee and we collectively transformed the feeling of PD days. Faculty and staff gave positive feedback and, more importantly, more ideas for improvement. Some administrators attended sessions, others facilitated, some did a mix of both. By the time I left the district, we had ideas and plans for even more personalized and asynchronous opportunities.
No babysitting. No compliance. Just lots of good learning–which translated into deeper and more joyful learning for our students.
And with even more time, and more creative uses of time, we can do better and better by our students and ourselves.
So, let’s appreciate teachers with more than signs and gifts during a single week. Let’s give them the time they deserve to hone their skills and their craft. Let’s appreciate their intellect and expertise by giving them the gift of time.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of listening and learning as four teams of teachers, including one from my own charter network, shared their stories of collaborative design thinking at the Business Innovation Factory. This “storytelling” event was the culmination of a six week project called TD4ED, in which teachers were given the space and time to consider a problem of practice and design their own solution.
While the four teams’ projects differed, a common thread appeared. Each team had clearly been energized by the autonomy given them and came out of the experience not only with a sense of empowerment and enthusiasm, but also with a tangible product to improve their schools.
Their enthusiasm was catching; I can honestly say that I teared up more than once, overwhelmed by this reminder of the collective power of teachers. But I was also left wondering whether I was doing enough in my role as a district leader to create the necessary space for such sparks to catch fire. After all, when I explored the concept of “change-mindedness” many years ago for my dissertation, I found partnership with colleagues as a key factor in contributing to that mindset. And the empowerment of teachers as a key lever for change guided my work in building professional learning communities when I worked as a consultant.
Yet, I know that I did not empower this team as much as this experience did. I wonder, have my core values changed? Or is there simply an incompatibility between the structure of school and the nature of innovation? What can we collectively do to give teachers the space, time and freedom to not only solve the problems in front of them but also to devise solutions before they even arise and to allow for the free-flow of ideas as Steven Johnson artfully discusses in his phenomenal book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation?
In describing the impact his team’s work can have on his school, one teacher used the term “evolutionize.” Indeed, thinking differently about teachers’ work and supporting their sense of purpose, power and partnership can both revolutionize and evolutionize both the profession and the field.Read More