Professional learning has a huge impact on the performance of teachers as well as the hip pocket of the schools. In an ideal world, schools would send teams to conferences and PD sessions regularly as it is a powerful way to assist with strong post conference learning momentum and learning culture impact. However, the challenge is balancing this with the impact on class time for students and the cost (conference fees, replacement teachers, resource purchases, etc…). How do schools ensure that staff are inspired to grow as learners, are provided equitable access to learning and that the school budget is kept healthy? I believe that the development of the school as a staff learning hub or a professional learning community is an essential step.
The first place that many teachers look to for professional learning is outside of the school walls. We look to experts or conferences and attend in the hope that we learn a few things along the way. Don’t get me wrong, conferences and offsite professional development sessions are great for learning and I have had some of the best learning moments during these sessions but I do often wonder why our first move when thinking of professional learning is not to look in-house. I work with some of the most amazing educators and I am often blown away by their capacities and knowledge and I know that this is also the case for about 99.9% of teachers. Why is this? In a word, context!
Context has a huge impact on the growth of a learning culture and so professional learning framed with this in mind can be richer. Knowing the conditions of your environment coupled with the knowledge of the ingredients that work in that environment will allow for greater learning impact to be achieved. The challenge with offsite professional learning is that the presenters are not aware of your context. They can’t be expected too! The learning can then however, be “lost in translation” as learners transition back to their school environment. Knowing the staff, student and parent body, understanding the vision and goals of the school and continuity of learning are huge contributing factors in the growth of a rich learning community.
How do schools do this?
The first step is the acknowledgement and celebration of the skill and knowledge contained within the school environment. Ask staff to list their strengths, skills and areas of expertise and generate a list that is accessible to all. Have staff list all their capacities, not just the educationally relevant areas. A strength based approach empowers all learners and by focusing on the diversity of skills and attributes a community has, schools can create rich learning environments for all interests and skill levels. From this list, look at the PD schedule of your school and clear the way for staff to lead the professional development sessions and determine the professional development structure. One idea that has worked really well at my school was a Workshop night, where staff volunteers proposed session topics and staff who were not running a session signed up for a session of their interest. The buzz from seeing rooms filled with colleagues learning from colleagues is something to behold. What I also loved about it was that it was just the beginning of the conversation. If you are like me, sometimes that great idea or question appears post session and if you run in-house PD, then you can catch that friend and continue the conversation. Staff also generated rich resources and then these were made available on our intranet. This starts to build a purpose built learning repository for your school. Some other in-house learning ideas that I know schools run are “Techie Brekkies” before school or lunch time drop in sessions where the focus is on shorter sharing. I am also a big believer in student run workshops. Witnessing how your teacher conducts themselves on their learning journey in the face of learning roadblocks and challenges is a necessity in every classroom and school. It generates a culture of “learning respect”. The saying “guide by side” doesn’t specify an age or level of life experience and creating an environment where students often teach, helps to complete the cycle of learning. For the student, teaching the content helps to deepen their understanding, develop greater empathy for learners and learn how to learn by watching an older learner. For the teacher, they are learning the student shared content as well as sharing how to learn by role modelling.
Developing a professional learning structure together as a staff is good way to ensure buy in from all staff members. However, the biggest challenge is always TIME. There is never enough time in the day for the dedicated teacher and there definitely is never enough quality time in the day for the dedicated teacher. How do we fit in rich professional learning around yard duty, parent meetings, assessment and reporting, staff meetings, committee meetings, lunch time clubs and last but not least a full teaching load? Schools need to redefine how time shapes a teacher’s day. Why can’t a team of teachers be given a block of time to complete an action research project? Why can’t some of the money in the budget that has been allocated for professional learning be used to release teachers to review, create and innovate? I believe that schools who shift and flex to open windows of time for staff to push the boundaries of their professional practice are highlighting to staff how valued their continued improvement is.
Of course, there is also nothing else like seeing a great teacher in action. Some of my most inspired teaching and learning has been when I have team taught with another teacher or a group of teachers. Seeing how they frame an inquiry, manage a class transition or qualify a student’s interpretation can provide new ideas, help refine practice or reinforce your own methodology. I also believe that more teachers need to sit in on another teacher’s class sessions. Sitting and actively listening and watching a great teacher in action can provide great professional learning for both teachers. It begins a rich dialogue and if time is structured carefully, doesn’t cost a cent.
One of the last pieces of a Professional Learning Community is Parental involvement and learning. Opening the doors to the parent body and being transparent about vision and practice are essential to the vibrancy and collegiality of a school community. School’s boast incredibly diverse parent populations and this diversity should be celebrated and harnessed. Parent run sessions on areas of expertise could be offered to learners of all ages and backgrounds. Parents should also be offered access to some of the learning offered at school. Run iPad workshops or Reading workshops for parents and garner buy in to your whole school philosophy on digital technology or reading. Involving the learning of parents shapes the school as a hub for community learning and this should be celebrated and aimed for.
This post has taken me quite a while to write and flesh out. I would love to hear some feedback so drop me a comment and lets begin a conversation.