You are an innovative school that provides numerous opportunities for your students to learn in a variety of ways based on their strengths and interests. You create daily schedules that make it easy for those students to take advantage of the opportunities afforded them. You encourage them to travel abroad and explore summer experiences to enrich and enhance their collection of school year activities. There is absolutely no question regarding the priority of great student learning at your school.
Are you able to say the same of your faculty? What priority do you place on their learning experiences? Here is the story of one school.
Several years ago, Choate Rosemary Hall created a new office of the dean of faculty that included a director of faculty development. The first appointee was a colleague I had worked with for many years, designing and teaching history courses. Gratefully, he was also my son’s academic advisor and crew coach. Since I was responsible for technology integration, a process driven by pedagogy, I worked closely with Tom. He devised a number of faculty PD programs that reinforced the school’s recognition that supporting the professional skills of the faculty was critical to the future success of the school.
- New Faculty: While the school always had a weeklong orientation for new faculty just prior to the opening of school, it was clear that the short-term memories of these folks overflowed several times as they heard about “everything they needed to know in order to begin the school year.” A few years ago, the orientation was shortened and simplified, and a new program added that brought the rookie group together once a week. Each week, different members of the Choate leadership team worked with new faculty on specific topics such as report writing, grading, academic advising, balancing workload, innovative and design thinking, parents weekend, etc. Feedback was very positive and these new faculty members felt they were well supported and knew the people they might approach when they had questions.
- Reflective Educators: Lest you might think second and third-year faculty were neglected, rest assured that they were ushered into the Reflective Educators cohort. What’s great about this group is that it is open to all faculty members of any experience level. The format is similar to the first-year format except that the group meets bi-weekly, and the topics are completely focused on teaching and learning. As an experienced member of that group, I recall sessions on formative assessment, grading, collaborative projects, and establishing course goals, to name a few. The most memorable activity was the simple request to bring a summative assessment to the session and exchange it with a partner in another department. The task was to identify the goals of the course from looking at the assessment. One of 30 faculty members in attendance was able to do so. That sent a clear message regarding the work we had to do with our students, who frequently did not know why they were learning material or skills. This PD cohort is the most popular at the school.
- Open Classroom Initiative: The program began as an informal mechanism for visiting a colleague’s classroom. Over time, it became more structured, and that led to higher participation. Each term, one was paired with a teacher in another department and each visited the other twice during a term. Each term, the pairings were changed. There was a mechanism to pose questions in advance to the host teacher and to provide friendly and constructive feedback after each visit. The focus was on pedagogies and skills since the visiting teacher often did not know the subject matter. My visit to a Spanish II class was challenging because I don’t speak the language. I did spend the class watching the faces of the 11 students and was able to talk with the teacher about each one after the class. The conversation was valuable to her because she had missed the disconnect for two kids, one of whom was distracted by a family tragedy. It was valuable to me because I became aware of the challenges of insisting that students participate in the target language. I learned language teachers have a “sixth sense,” allowing them to interpret the responses of kids who struggle speaking the target language but do understand the reading and some conversation. This was the quintessential practitioner’s program.
- Appy Hour: Imagine a one-hour gathering during dinner (after athletic practices) six times per year that includes pizza, beer, and wine. Approximately 20-25 teachers gather to relax and talk in a maker space about applications that are either effective or are not yielding the expected results. Somebody in attendance will inevitably pipe in and explain their experience with the same app or connect to the projector and show the group how they are using the app. Much conversation ensues and sometimes turns into a bona fide debate. Such was the case when we discussed an iPad app called Liquid Text that allows one to annotate readings by pulling out pieces of text onto a palette and organizing them for essay writing, textual analysis, or research. The teachers of advanced courses thought it was too elementary (visual) for their students while the teachers of freshman courses thought it was too complex (conceptually). The resulting conversation was a fascinating probe of the alignment of tools with student learning maturity. This PD idea is a home run because it appeals to so many principles of great PD in the independent school environment.
- Hot Tips at Faculty Meetings: PD presentations at faculty meetings are generally ineffective because they are out of context, too long, and often not hands-on. Additionally, getting on a faculty meeting agenda can be challenging — unless one asks for no more than five minutes at the end of the meeting, introduces something simple, but useful, to a majority of the audience. Hot Tips are very brief introductions to a tool that teachers can use immediately. Many have limited pedagogical value, but are certainly effective classroom tools. More importantly, they form the basis of a conversation with a PD colleague that often leads to pedagogical topics. In short, they are excellent ice breakers. If you watch the video of one such Tip, you’ll notice that humor is injected as well. The results of a faculty survey last year indicated that Hot Tips were the most popular and useful portion of faculty meetings.
What do faculty need in order to fully invest themselves in regular professional development? Let’s begin with a few ideas:
Time carved out of the schedule for professional development of their choosing.
- An effective method of coverage for classes and other responsibilities that might be missed when there are PD opportunities.
- Enhanced budget resources to support and encourage faculty members to pursue PD opportunities. The corporate world allocates 1-2% of the operating budget for PD.
- Treat support as a proactive active verb. Go beyond providing opportunities and target specific colleagues who might be best aligned with specific PD topics. Help make the decision easier by assisting with coverage issues.
- Create a culture of learning for adults that expects a PD commitment from all faculty members, even if it is self-study. Ask colleagues to share their experiences at faculty and department meetings. Make these experiences part of the year-end review.
- Establish an incentive program for PD as you might for advanced degrees. Award digital badges for completion of programs or pathways. Provide grant money at multiple levels for improvement of courses or teaching skills (the largest grants would include release time). Connect professional development with career paths (course leader, department head, academic administrator).
In the face of external cultural shifts that focus on equity and inclusion, wellness, social-emotional learning, competency-based education, project-based learning, service and experiential learning, and integration of similar academic departments, professional development has never been more important. Subject matter experts need to expand their skill sets; young teachers need to increase confidence in handling the challenges of their students; mid-career faculty need to be reinspired. These shifts and needs dictate internal cultural pivots that address the priorities of faculty responsibilities:
First, we learn to be better teachers; then we become the best practitioners we can be.
The new culture of professional learning requires money, creative problem-solving, commitment, and support from school leaders. There are schools in the OESIS Network, such as Choate, that do exactly what this culture demands. We can learn a great deal from their experiences. Those schools will tell you that if you start with commitment and support, and add a pinch of creative problem solving, the money will come. Your board, parents, and alumni will recognize the cultural shift that values learning in adults as much as in kids and they will reach out because they are committed to excellence. And if all else fails on the financial front, take some advice from Grant Lichtman about strategic thinking. If faculty PD is a strategic part of your program, then school initiatives of lower priority might be curtailed and the funds redirected.
We began by asking whether teachers are viewed as learners in the same way as students. We end with an answer to that question. As Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine explain in their recent book, In Search of Deeper Learning (2019):
Much as significant learning for students comes through long trajectories in which students spiral through cycles of mastery, identity, and creativity, we need to create opportunities for teacher learning to do the same. (p. 395)Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine
Let’s make our faculty members lifetime learners, particularly when they interact with students, and put our schools in a position to thrive for the foreseeable future.
By Joel Backon, editor, Intrepid Ed News