Redefining Professional Development as Teacher-Led Professional Learning

Teacher-Led Professional LearningThe language we use to define and describe certain things in education is sometimes flawed. We’ve discussed this before around the term formative assessment, which often gets unfairly lumped into the interim and summative assessment buckets, when in actuality it’s more of a strategic way of teaching. One other example was recently brought to light in Courtney Hane’s blog at Getting Smart titled What is the Problem with Professional Development?

In her blog, Courtney successfully argues that professional development is defined as the structured process that is mostly prescribed as a mandate to teachers and less a commitment and process that teachers take on themselves.

Expectations are shallow when demanded by others, rather than promised to ourselves. In order to grow professionally, we do not need to attend trainings at staff development centers because someone tells us to attend, yet that is what we do. The language demands that of us. We standardize it. We assume that there has to be a specific, definable goal associated with the professional development, rather than viewing it as growth, which allows it to have intrinsic value. Professional growth should inspire and create positive change in our life. Professional growth is our responsibility. We need to get to the point where we want to improve, learn, inspire, be inspired, and strive for excellence. Professional development, just like any other type of growth, should be an ongoing search for knowledge. It is the experience.

Given the fact that teachers are responsible for effective learning in the classroom, it would be better to call teacher professional development something like teacher professional learning. I do think that having some structure to professional learning can be a good thing. Our plan has structure, but that structure is only designed to facilitate teacher dialogue around the formative assessment concept of students and teachers eliciting evidence of learning to adapt what happens in the classroom. The learning and techniques that come out of the process vary greatly depending on which teachers are leading the meetings. As we have learned, there are four critical elements that help make teacher professional learning meaningful and worthwhile:

1. Choice: Teachers are like students—they need and appreciate choice. Choice within a given framework or focus allows teachers to determine their personal priorities.

2. Flexibility: In addition to choice, teachers need to be allowed to make modifications to make the new learning work best in their own classrooms.

3. Incremental steps: Learning is incremental. It takes time to change practice and to be lasting it must become a part of the teacher’s routine. Professional learning for teachers that allows them to practice, in small steps, supports this idea. [As Carol Dweck  often refers to – by applying yourself to the task of becoming a little better each and every day over a period of time, you will get a lot better.]

4. Supportive accountability: Change in teaching practice is challenging and requires both support and accountability. Teacher Learning Communities (TLCs) provide teachers the opportunity to develop personal action plans, report back to the group what happened as a result of implementing those plans, reflect and receive feedback (support) from colleagues who are working on the same changes in practice.

In some respects a structured program is not so bad, provided that the teachers themselves are leading the charge and taking responsibility for their own learning. This is why we choose to call these meetings Teacher Learning Communities (TLCs). Linda Uveges, Assistant Superintendent of the Sheffield-Sheffield Lake school district has seen success with this approach. As she says, “We’ve kept administrators out of the TLC meetings, and the teams have really seemed to mesh. They feel comfortable sharing and I’m hearing a lot more that they are in their comfort zone.”

Certainly teachers need to take responsibility for enhancing and gaining knowledge to help them improve what they do. As professionals in their field they need to collaborate and share knowledge; build on their base of skills and strategies for improving student learning. A little structure built around sound, proven strategies combined with teachers eager to learn is proving to be a formula for success.

What do you think about today’s teacher professional development? Are there teacher-led professional learning programs or ideas you’ve seen work? Share your comments and thoughts below.