Professional Development: School-Based, Goal-Centered, Non-Stop, Exploratory

If teachers in Essential schools are to shape sweeping changes in everything from classroom practices to school structures, they will need sustained coaching in how to do it. A growing number of analysts regard professional development as the single most important key to the change process. And new ways of linking teachers’ learning opportunities directly to school goals and integrating such opportunities into the everyday life of the school are proving the most effective elements of managing the change process.

Whether teachers are learning how to work in teams with the help of an outside facilitator, or meeting in peer study groups to design curricula or practice new teaching methods, the best professional development appears to be continuing, school-based, and inclusive — a far cry from the isolated “in- service” workshops traditionally arranged by district offices without meaningful follow-up and evaluation. Teachers engage in exploring genuine problems and questions arising from their own situations — “What would portfolio assessment look like in our school?” for example — in the context of important outside research. They have time to work out answers that emerge from their own explorations in the classroom, and to reflect together on ways to shape school policy to help their teaching practice grow stronger. Such an approach treats teaching as a true professional challenge, a continuing intellectual activity on which practitioners may leave their mark.

Rancho San Joaquin Middle School in Irvine, California carved out a full-time position seven years ago for teacher Roger King to prod, provoke, coach, and encourage his colleagues’ professional growth on a daily basis. “A new teacher here quickly understands the school’s expectation that teachers have an active role in their own professional development,” King says. “It goes beyond teaching their subject, moving toward helping create the design of the school, especially what happens in teaching and learning.” King continually solicits feedback on what teachers need; when they complained that one-day events did not go deep enough, for example, he led a two-day staff workshop on authentic assessment. “They worked in small groups,” King says. “At the end everyone presented the assessment project they had designed, and the whole faculty gave feedback.” Since then, a number of teachers have begun to work on developing new assessments. “I help them think about how their idea worked, what they have learned, how they would fashion it differently,” he says. “I ask them if they need extra time or outside assistance, or if they’d like to work with another teacher, and if so, I arrange it.”

What makes King’s position work, says fellow teacher Erin Hughes, is that he is neither administrator nor supervisor, but an “idea person” who continually keeps people thinking about their professional roles. “Too often someone comes up with a great idea but it escapes in their everyday routine,” she says. “His job is to remind people and to make it happen.” For resistant teachers, prodding of this nature can be “a fly in the ointment,” Hughes concedes. “Change is frightening on a personal level — it doesn’t always feel good, even though it might be valuable. They might say he hasn’t affected their teaching at all. But they also might not see how the seeds he’s planted in the minds of others might have affected their work.”

A Citibank Faculty member, Hughes herself works as an outside facilitator and coach for nearby schools, in a scenario many schools prefer. “It helps to have someone come in who knows more about how teams function,” she says. “But it’s got to be a regular thing. You can get a positive feeling from doing one small experience with teaming, but you have to come back to it, practice it, build on it. If you don’t continually revisit it like a garden, cultivating people’s abilities to work together, then it gets lost.”

“It is an amazing hurdle for teachers to discuss what they do and why they do it with a peer who has actually seen them at work,” declare Parker McMullen and Patricia Roy, consultants on organizational change who have given seminars on teambuilding at Coalition gatherings. “Yet we frequently assume that all it takes to get teachers to work as a team is to give them common planning time.” Building trust among an entire faculty over time, McMullen and Roy assert, must be the first goal of school change. “With an external facilitator, this can take months,” they say. “Without one, it may never happen.”

The Coalition’s National Re:Learning Faculty aims to provide such assistance, by preparing teachers, principals, and district-level staff to work as “critical friends” both within their own schools and districts and with others nearby. But since National Faculty members do not take leave from their jobs to do this, time can be a problem. “You can’t just walk in and understand another school right off,” says Chuck Bowen, who was Broadmoor’s school coach under Illinois Re:Learning’s system for a year before he became principal there. “I averaged half a day a week in the building, but I spent much more time than that on the phone, in my office working through and analyzing issues, talking with different factions in the school and the district, maintaining an overall understanding of what was going on.”

Finally, giving teachers time to seek outside perspectives seems to build a continuing sense of professional exploration. “We just had an in-service day where every teacher was asked to go visit another school,” says Joseph Jennelle, who heads Pennsylvania’s Central Bucks East High School. “Most of our Re:Learning funds go to hire substitutes so teachers can do this kind of thing. One of our clear goals is to move together — opening up opportunities to everyone, not just a select group. They need to see how all this is in their best interests — to project way down the road to see if it’s good for teaching and learning.”