The 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, released in February, was a rather bleak snapshot of teacher morale across the country. But the survey also showed that educators who expressed a higher job satisfaction shared a common experience: They were more likely to have benefitted from effective professional development opportunities and collaborative time with fellow teachers.
“Effective professional development” is a phrase that may sound incongruous to many classroom teachers. Done right, professional development is indispensible. Still, the very term can trigger eye rolls, shaking heads, and heavy sighs. For many classroom teachers, the words summon bad memories: the valuable instruction time that was wasted listening to a so-called “expert” who hasn’t spent a day in their classrooms, or the day-long workshop that was held in a half-empty, windowless hotel conference room filled with an endless parade of PowerPoint slides.
Those are just a few of the reasons the snarky comments fly when educators discuss professional development, calling it “Spray and Pray,” “Drive By,” or “Sit and Get.” These experiences often end like this: “We’re done. Now, go ahead and successfully replicate what you’ve learned in your classroom. Good luck.” Follow-up training? Don’t count on it. Collaborative time with colleagues? Hmmm…no. How do administrators know you’re really talking about learning and instruction?
Lynne Dixon, a special education teacher in Waynesboro, Va., has experienced her fair share of those kinds of head-scratching, bewildering moments.
“I would sit listening to these experts who were brought in. They were very knowledgeable about the topic, but didn’t really know anything about our schools or our students,” Dixon recalls. “So it wasn’t really relevant or useful. And I would walk out of the session wondering, ‘Did I really just sit through that?’”
Dixon is relieved, however, that those kinds of wasted professional development opportunities mostly happened during the first half of her career. About a decade ago, professional learning in her district began to turn the corner. And it wasn’t because there was more money for conferences, better experts, or the workshops became longer. What has made a difference for Dixon and her colleagues is that they have more time to share and collaborate with each other.
“The most valuable expertise we have is right inside our building and around the district,” Dixon says. “The best people we can learn from and help improve our practice are colleagues.”
There are plenty of worthwhile one-shot professional development programs that focus on building valuable skills and expertise. The issue is that too often these experiences represent the only opportunities for educators to improve their practice. Unless professional learning is strengthened, teachers can’t be expected to develop and apply the necessary new skills and knowledge to improve student achievement, says Stephanie Hirsh, executive director of Learning Forward (learningforward.org), an international association dedicated to improving educator and student learning. Learning Forward released new professional learning standards in 2011 and assists many school systems nationwide in shaping and developing new policies and practices.
“Professional learning has to raise the performance level of educators and their students. But schools have to implement strategies that are less episodic,” explains Hirsh. “Professional learning—when it’s systemic, where it’s being done as a sustained process inside a school, when it’s ongoing, experiential, collaborative, and connected to students—is more powerful than any video, presentation, or catalogue of workshops.”
Real Professional Learning: U.S. Behind the Curve
Teaching is more complex than ever. Working with students, teachers continually confront new challenges, and are expected to refine their strategies and techniques to ensure students learn. From keeping pace with the newest classroom technologies, addressing classroom discipline issues, and—perhaps most significantly— the rollout of the Common Core State Standards, the pressures to improve student achievement are immense. That’s true for veteran teachers, and it’s true for those who are new to the profession and need the coaching and training that can transform them into first-rate teachers.
“The profession has increasingly recognized that it really needed to reassess what we were doing. There is an urgent demand,” says Hirsh. “Professional learning used to be a benefit of employment. Now it’s a requisite of improvement.”
With an increased national emphasis on teacher quality and raising student achievement, NEA formed the National Commission on Teaching in 2010. The goal: To establish a new vision of the profession that is led by teachers and ensures teacher and teaching effectiveness. Reforming professional learning was a top priority.
“Ultimately, providing more effective professional development isn’t about benefiting teachers—it’s about benefiting students,” explains NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “If the United States is truly serious about helping every student succeed, we will invest in research-based professional development programs that get us there, and we’ll have the patience to let them work.”
Here’s what the research shows: In schools where professional learning is centered around job-embedded collaboration with a focus on student results, teachers feel less isolated and experience a greater sense of confidence and job satisfaction—basically, the antithesis of the type of professional development that occurs outside the school, away from actual instruction, and away from students.
Dislodging a decades-old approach to anything, however, can be challenging. The somewhat individualistic climate of U.S. schools is a major obstacle—the so-called “egg crate” model of teaching and learning that allows teachers to go days, even a week, without a meaningful conversation with a colleague about instruction. Add to the mix a so-called reform movement that emphasizes competition between teachers, and fostering collective practice among educators becomes even more difficult to support.
“You Can’t Solve These Issues By Yourself”
While progress on a national scale may be lagging, many educators across the nation have been able to form professional learning communities (PLCs) that tap into the expertise of fellow educators and the teams they can create within their own schools.
Broadly defined, a PLC is a continuous, goal-driven, student-focused, collaborative effort among educators to maximize student learning. Otherwise known as “inquiry teams” or “learning teams, ” they all utilize job-coaching, peer observation, and mentoring. Teachers are organized into either grade-level or content-area teams to meet regularly to collaborate on teaching strategies and solve problems, set common instructional goals, teach lessons in their individual classrooms, and administer informal assessments to determine the level of student learning. The team then regroups to analyze student data together. Next, they identify what’s working and what’s not, and set goals for future teaching success.
Professional learning communities aren’t a new idea, but for teachers like Kati McFadden, being part of a team of dedicated teachers who work together was a revelation. A second-grade teacher at Eisenhower Elementary in Dubuque, Iowa, McFadden’s first two years in the classroom sound sadly typical of new teachers.
“I began my career at another school where I was isolated, like everyone else,” McFadden recalls. “Maybe once and a while my colleagues and I would meet and discuss issues and look over student data. Somehow we would muddle through, I guess. But you can’t solve these issues by yourself.”
McFadden arrived at Eisenhower Elementary for her third year, in 2008, just as the PLC was being implemented throughout the district. The difference was startling, she says.
“It was awesome. All the support and expertise was formalized into learning teams that met regularly and was embedded throughout the school.”
Tammy Duehr, a teacher at Eisenhower and president of the Dubuque Education Association, was a member of the district’s Teacher Quality Committee, composed of administrators and teachers that brought PLCs to the district. The committee did a lot of research into the work of PLC expert Richard Dufour. They also devised belief statements and core assumptions, and created their own definition of a learning community and a rationale. All stakeholders got on board quickly, says Duehr, “and since then, we’ve been going strong.
“When the teams sit together, we know what the goal is; we know what the focus is; we share the work; talk abut the work and analyze the data. We then look at the student work and we make instructional choices together. It’s just so much easier and effective than doing it yourself.”
And sometimes there are obstacles. Frequently, the hurdle is related to the time learning community members must invest to work collegially with colleagues, participate in peer coaching, and analyze data.
To provide enough time, schools have to find blocks of time where teams of educators can meet outside the classroom—a task that requires solid administrative support. Some districts have late-start mornings, giving teachers a chance to meet with their groups before students arrive for class. Others rework the schedule so teams can have planning time. After school is also an option. Local associations and districts often work together to find the time for collaboration within the regular contract day, as they did in Dubuque.
“The time issue can be a killer,” says Duehr, who is also a lead instructional coach. “We have to be creative. PLCs can be tricky because you initially want to set up all these rules and set parameters like we do for everything, yet the team is going to work as well as they can—if the members have some control over it.”
Learning teams must also know what they need to accomplish. Andrew Tolksdorf,a music teacher in Green Bay, Wisc., explains that success can depend on asking the right questions and follow through: What do we want each student to learn? How will we know when each student has learned it? How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty in learning?
“You and your colleagues have to know what you’re looking for as you analyze the data together. You have to know what the goals and plans are for the next month. There are a lot of skills involved in making a learning community work,” Tolksdork explains. “And it takes time to see any results. Like with everything else, the devil is in the details.”
For Kati McFadden, the language arts PLC at Eisenhower elementary was a milestone for her young teaching career. This year, the district begins to implement a new K-5 reading curriculum, Lead 21, which is built on the Common Core State Standards. It’s a heavy lift for any teacher, and McFadden knows her collaboration with her teammates and the coaches will be critical if her students are to grasp the new curriculum.
“My teammates are a small but strong community of support,” she says. “I couldn’t teach without being a part of a team, and I wouldn’t want to.”