By Ben Owens
How can we iterate that idea into something we can test and bring back to the team? Who wants to research this technology and bring their findings back to us? What’s needed to scale that concept in other areas? I like that aspect of the solution, but help me understand how it addresses the root cause of the problem.
If you think this is a conversation at a design company in Silicon Valley, think again. These are example phrases that my fellow teachers and I use during our weekly Critical Friends meetings — yes, a group of teachers.
As Barnett Berry lamented in a recent Kappan magazine article, “The dynamic duo of professional learning = collaboration and technology” (2015, December), “The idea of a teaching profession whose own practitioners have the authority to safeguard its quality and advance its excellence may seem a distant dream.” Indeed, as this article and other research point out, current models of educator professional development are in need of a major overhaul. A 2014 study by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that many current professional development offerings were irrelevant, ineffective, or not connected to the core work of helping students learn.
Using comparative studies from teachers in other countries, Berry suggests educators in the U.S. do not routinely practice collaborative professional development, and many spend their careers in relative isolation. The stunning OECD finding in 2014 that only half the U.S. teachers interviewed said they had observed another teacher’s classroom and provided feedback is something that should give any educator pause. It certainly concerns me, especially having spent the majority of my professional career outside education in an industry where peer-to-peer collaboration was not only routine, it was a performance expectation.
We know that when professional peers spend time together collaborating in a way that enables the sharing of new ideas they are better able to bring solutions to the table — whether it’s a patient diagnosis, engineers overcoming a design barrier, or teachers improving instructional strategies.
My school’s staff saw this level of powerful collaboration several years ago when we did a study visit to another school. We left that visit and embarked on a similar approach of shared leadership, intense collaboration, and more timely and personalized professional development. This initial idea has now evolved into two gatherings each week, supplemented by non-evaluative peer rounds. The overarching goal is to give teachers the space, time, and empowerment to develop a strong level of trust to improve teaching practices and student outcomes.
All major decisions about teaching and learning are now made by the teaching staff in a transparent manner, following agreed-upon, solution-focused norms and protocols. The principal views her role more as a facilitator than a manager, giving us full empowerment and voice to ensure we implement solutions consistent with the school’s mission and vision. This enables all of us to reach our full capacity and affords her more time to focus on strategic issues such as outreach and connecting to the needs of the community.
The meetings follow a standard practice of sharing feedback from peer rounds, reflecting on activities that worked well or needed improvement, and developing plans to take advantage of the latest technologies and practices. We also vet each other’s projects, activities, and lessons using set protocols to ensure equal voice and high quality results. The more mundane administrative minutia is either dealt with by the principal or in separate “staff meetings” held on an as-needed basis.
To say that these interactions have been transformational to the culture of our school is an understatement. We have quicker lead times for implementation of improvements and best practices, a common language between students and staff, a consistent focus on teaching excellence, and a shared belief that no problem is too difficult to tackle. We also know that if we have a professional development need that we can devote the time to research and address the need by learning and sharing with each other, not from expensive “sit and get” training.
Do we still have setbacks? Of course; but rather than the harmful “water cooler” bellyaching that often undermines the morale of any organization, issues are brought to the forefront within a network based on trust. In short, it makes all of us better teachers and it helps our students shift their focus from just acquiring knowledge to developing the skills they will need to truly succeed in the 21st century.
Sue Ledford, an instructional coach with North Carolina New Schools, puts it this way: “The level of trust among the entire school community has blossomed with this approach to lesson planning and delivery, producing confident thinkers and doers among the student population.”
This is the type of powerful collaboration that Berry references and it can happen at your school as well. What can you do to replicate this model? Whatever the perceived barriers, find a way to overcome them so you can implement a similar system of peer-to-peer collaboration. Your students deserve nothing less.
About the author:
Ben Owens left an engineering career to teach physics and mathematics at Tri-County Early College High School, Murphy, N.C. He is a Center for Teaching Quality virtual community organizer and a 2014 Hope Street Group National Teaching Fellow.