…we must acknowledge that getting there will take much more than tinkering with the types or amount of professional development teachers receive, or further scaling other aspects of our current approach. It will require a new conversation about teacher development—one that asks fundamentally different questions about what better teaching means and how to achieve it (The Mirage, p. 4).
‘Tis the season of professional learning planning. As the academic year comes to a close (in many regions), teachers and school-based administrators are encouraged to reflect on their professional practice over one year and create a plan for personal professional growth for the next. As a principal and leadership supervisor, I have witnessed an array of individual professional planning maps, handbooks, and templates, thoughtfully crafted and completed by dedicated teachers and leaders – only to be filed away or uploaded to a shared folder for future reference – if necessary!
Research tells us that PD planning is perhaps the most single important contributor to sustained teacher improvement and thereby improved student achievement. Not surprisingly, most teachers I have worked with readily acknowledge this fact. According to a study, Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems (Jensen, Sonnemann, Roberts-Hull, & Hunter) commissioned by the Center of International Education Benchmarking and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, teacher professional learning is the underlying element for teacher improvement and student achievement. In addition, Joellen Killion, senior advisor to the professional organization, Learning Forward, correctly spells out that a program of professional learning sets out “a set of purposeful, planned actions and the support system necessary to achieve the identified goals. Effective [professional learning] programs are ongoing, coherent, and linked to student achievement” (Killion, 2008, p. 11).
Fundamentally, teachers are no different from other professionals in that they invite possibility. Provided with the gift of time to review, reflect and consider viable and innovative ways of doing things, teachers enjoy the opportunity to set aspirations for a learning environment where students enjoy the process of learning and succeed. Except for the most jaded teacher, imaging a better next year is an exciting and positive experience and one that most teachers willingly and optimistically enter into.
Therefore, at this time of year, I find myself wondering about the reason for the apparent disconnect between rhetoric and practice. What possible reasons might there be as to why today’s teachers struggle, even agonize, over the development of a worthwhile PDP, knowing that there is a good likelihood that it may collect dust on a shelf in the principal’s office or school’s PD room. Why is so little attention given to these professional documents from the moment of approval onwards? Why are these plans typically forgotten about and neglected soon after the commencement of the next academic year? I suspect the issue does not rest with teachers; rather we would be wise to consider both the leadership and the professional culture in the school.
Without question, leadership is key here. In situations where school-based leaders promote and advocate authentic evidenced-based professional learning, the reflection and planning process is transparent and integrated into the professional culture. Professional on-going learning is expected and celebrated with the likely result that both teachers and students in this school are moving forward! Leaders in these schools are transparent about student achievement data and its’ relation to the school’s improvement planning documents. Leaders in these schools organize time and location and teams to review relevant data and documents. They ensure that a variety of helpful resources and templates are available for teachers to use and above all else, leaders in these schools hold high expectations for the professional learning capacity and commitment for each and every teacher.
On the other hand, in cultures characterized by resistance, fear, or inequity, the lack of leadership emphasis for professional learning limits and even hinders teacher energy and participation in the planning process. In these schools, where the end of another busy school year is more about counting down the days and less about professional reflection and planning, weary teachers are hardly inspired to spend time ensuring that all elements of the evaluation and professional growth planning process are directly linked to student progress. Occasionally, in instances when professional development planning does surface, discussion tends to be superficial; showing little relation to student learning. School cultures that consider the professional planning process as automated, irrelevant and somewhat distant process and their expectations for teachers is more about ticking the right boxes rather than establishing a truly professional culture. In these schools, it is hardly surprising that teachers’ planning documents sit idle.
As I think about it, perhaps the question is not so much, why is so little attention paid to teachers’ professional learning plans once they have been crafted and filed. Rather the question is, how might local school systems empower and support school leadership teams to establish and nurture their respective professional communities honoring and celebrating a teachers’ commitment to on-going professional learning for the benefit of students? This topic is too important to set aside – watch for ideas in upcoming posts.