What Should Professional Learning for Educators Look Like?

Teachers are really busy people. I would say that 90% of their time if not more is taken up with teaching their students, duty, marking, reporting and following up with parents. Every teacher could add to this very basic list, but I would imagine that most would agree that they have very little spare time.

If you add to this the really important time teachers need to regenerate and connect with their families and the outside world, the amount of time teachers actually have to work on honing their professional skills is very low.

Still, teachers are very engaged in professional development and they are as a group, very motivated to learn new ways to engage and educate their students.

All this leads me to one important conclusion – how can we provide teachers with valuable PD. Teachers’ time is precious and we should never waste it with useless or irrelevant PD. Sadly, from what I have experienced, the sessions planned by education districts often fall into the category of irrelevant.

The reason for this is that there is little teacher choice involved in our PD models. Inevitably, consultants and other board officials make the decisions on what is essential for teachers to learn without asking the learners. When these decisions are made centrally, there is no teacher voice evident.

Within schools, teacher voice is still missing. Many principals seem to believe that they must be the arbiters of what is important for teachers to learn. The principal may not have taught in a classroom for years, but somehow they are experts on what a teacher needs to know.

This system needs to be turned on its head ie. teachers need to be asked what they need. Another thing we increasingly tell teachers is that to be a valued professional, they need to blog or tweet about what they do in their classroom. Again, another assumption made about time and individual preference. Not everyone needs to get on Twitter or start madly blogging. While this appeals to some educators, this needs to remain their choice. If it is imposed on them it falls into the same category as district-mandated professional training.

Choice needs to come first. Along with choice must come time. If we really believe that teachers are capable of making good decisions on what they need to learn, we must give them time during the school day to do this learning.

This can be done, but others have to become comfortable with giving up control. Once educators are given time and choice they make excellent decisions on what they need to focus on.

We have done this several times and the results have been great. Teachers are very happy to work with their colleagues and set their own professional agendas. Sadly, many say they have never been given the chance to do this before.

At one school, we ran a triad system where teachers from three schools worked together deciding who they were going to work with and what would be the focus of their study. As principals, we did ask them to have a plan and to report back to the group, but the rest was up to them. The results were wonderful. Teachers came up with their own inquiries and studied questions that we as principals would never have come up with.

Michael Fullan has done some work in this area, but it doesn’t seem to go far enough. In his video Learning is the Work below does mention that the ‘culture’ of learning has to change, but I never really saw this happen for teachers and I certainly never saw any change in how PD was delivered to principals.

The wonderful Ontario Capacity-Building Series has featured articles on choice in professional learning for years. In 2014, they published an article on principal collaborative inquiry. In 2010, they produced an excellent article on teacher collaborative inquiry that actually outlines the seven characteristics of effective teacher inquiry. Finally, again in 2014, an additional article was published on collaborative inquiry for educators. The article emphasized that everyone should be a learner and that the top-down model of PD was not effective.

CI (Collaborative Inquiry) requires a safe, inclusive environment built on trusting relationships. An open-to-learning stance is a condition of a collaborative learning environment. A culture of inclusivity must be part of the CI mindset when interpreting evidence and studying the student experience. CI promotes a democratic approach to shared leadership and joint responsibility (distributive leadership) for student learning.

To me, the key word here is democratic. This I don’t see. I do see teachers collaborating (not admin), but they still are not in charge of the inquiry – the focus is still carefully guarded by the district.

Both Fullan and the writers of the 2014 piece talk a lot about a change in culture. I agree that this is certainly needed in education. However, until there is true respect for the voice of the teacher in crafting professional development any talk of real cultural change is mute.

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