When Tami and I decided to open The Community for Learning, we made a long list of the ways we felt most schools could be improved. At the top of our list? The almost non-existent professional development we had both experienced. In most schools, there were a couple of days of PD given before students returned in September, and a few schools also gave a day or two throughout the year. But that was it. There was no follow-up, little observation of our teaching, and definitely no support.
So, as we structured TCFL, we decided that we would extend the school day from Monday to Thursday by half an hour, then let the students go home at 12:00 on Fridays. Our professional development would be held from 12:30 – 2:30 every Friday, and it would be true professional development, not just a staff meeting filled with information we could have just as easily sent out in an e-mail.
From day one, this was a positive decision. On Fridays, students knew they only had a half day, so they actually worked. I had taught in too many schools where Friday was basically a lost day of students living only for the weekend. Somehow, knowing they would be going home early gave them renewed energy. Parents loved the decision, because if they needed to go anywhere on the weekend, they could get an early start. I have to admit, teachers weren’t always thrilled to stay later than students on Fridays, but when we made our PD sessions interesting enough, they got into it — so the pressure was on to make the professional development worth staying for.
How should we teach?
It’s all too easy to fall into bad teaching methodology when we give classes to adults. There’s a misconception that they’re eager enough to learn, that their concentration levels are higher, and that they don’t want to be treated like babies, so a lecture is fine — but it’s not. If we want PD to be effective, we have to model the same excellent teaching techniques that we expect teachers to use in the classroom.
In our PD, we model the techniques we’d like our teachers to use, including:
- Role play
- Small group discussions
- Using charts and graphs
- Gallery walks
- Flipped classroom
- Entrance and exit slips
- Book studies
- Think, pair, share
Working in this way kept most of our teachers engaged and when we looked at topics like “classroom management” we were able to differentiate enough to meet all of our teachers needs. Modeling excellent teaching techniques helped our teachers understand our expectations and we saw them being used in the classrooms. But as time went on and some teachers had been with us for over 10 years while others were just beginning, it became harder and harder to meet their differing needs. We were constantly faced with the tough question:
What should we teach?
In the beginning years of the school, this was easy. We started out with three teachers, which slowly grew to five, then eight, then ten. We were also an innovative school, trying all kinds of new methodology, so our PD consisted of an intimate group that researched together and shared ideas — exactly what PD should be.
However, over time, we grew: we now have a teaching staff of 55 people, and our original small group of teachers learning together turned into two large groups of elementary and secondary teachers learning what we felt was important for them. But were we actually teaching what they felt was important? We took surveys occasionally, to see what they wanted, but there was no way to meet all of their needs. Although we could give teachers individualized mini-lessons during one-on-one post-observation meetings it was just never enough. We constantly tried to model good teaching techniques for our educators, but we were failing miserably when it came to individualizing. How could we ask our teachers to differentiate and meet the needs of their students, if we couldn’t find a way to do it for them? We were flummoxed.
There were some questions that constantly came up for us:
- How do we make room for small group protocols?
- How do we give teachers time to share ideas?
- How do we create spaces where different subject areas and different grade levels can meet and learn from each other?
- Some teachers know this stuff and we’re wasting their time. How do we challenge them?
- Some teachers are beginners and this is over their head. What can we do? How do we meet everyone’s needs?
These questions along with our experiences with Edcamp PD gave us the courage to begin experimenting with individualized PD, which we began using this year (and which is still a work in process). It’s not perfect, but we’re trying (on the positive side: we’re modeling risk taking) and it’s been an exciting experiment! I’ll be writing about what we’ve done so far in the next post.