Teacher professional development

Masters of the Learniverse

As educators, we don’t like being told what to do, or that our pedagogical practices must change – especially those of us who, like me, have been ‘at it’ for well over a decade. The prospect of losing valuable marking time on a Monday afternoon to a ‘professional development session’ tends to leave one feeling stretched and stressed.

The adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ rings true. Why change our attitudes, behaviours and relationships if they are working and we’ve ‘always done it like this’?

The fact that some educators feel reluctant to attend professional development sessions may be due to the perception that ‘development’ is more about something that is done to you rather than the opportunities that collaboration, learning and inquiry-focused conversation can create for you.

Teaching is a highly contextualised activity which demands that we respond constantly to the requirements of the curriculum and to the demands of the students in our classrooms. Ongoing professional learning that focuses on new practices, and which is decontextualised from the immediate demands of the classroom, is not likely to be easily translated into that environment.

While we might find the information shared in professional development sessions interesting, we may rarely have the opportunity to apply it, given the competing and immediate demands on our limited time and resources.

Nonetheless, it is imperative that we are rigorous about continuously educating ourselves as well as our students. The idea that we are ever fully developed as teachers, especially in the world in which we now find ourselves, is inconceivable.

If our goal is to educate our students to challenge the status quo, and push them out of their comfort zones, shouldn’t we as teachers be doing the same for ourselves? Surely professional development represents an exciting learning opportunity not only for our students, but for us as well?

Ongoing teacher development

Shifting our thinking to ‘professional learning’

At St John’s Preparatory in Johannesburg, there has been a major shift over the years from what is known as ‘professional development’ to ongoing ‘professional learning’. While both practices are intentional, ongoing, and systematic, over time the term ‘professional development’ has taken on connotations of delivery of information to teachers so as to influence their practice, whereas the term ‘professional learning’ implies an internal process in which individuals are responsible for their own growth and development.

Professional learning is a practice that encourages teachers to create professional knowledge through interaction with information in a way that challenges previous assumptions and creates new meaning.

Professional learning is part of a growth mindset

I believe we need to own our space as educators and continue to take responsibility for our own growth and development. If this mindset permeates the school and is effectively modelled by the leadership team, a high-performance learning culture will support a strong student-learning ethos.

Effective professional learning is collaborative, inquiryfocused and embedded in teaching practice. It is guided by the needs of staff and students and seeks to realise the broader strategic intention of the school. An unwavering commitment to ongoing professional learning leads to improved teacher knowledge, skills and practice. It has the power to shift attitudes and change behaviours. It impacts everyday interactions positively, but most importantly, builds relationships and trust.

Practice makes perfect

Many experienced teachers tend to disengage from new material and learning – it is the expert in us that ‘knows everything’. Teaching is a complex business – on a daily basis we are called on to be coaches, psychologists, community organisers, sounding boards, subject-matter experts, doctors and parents to more than 30 children – all at once.

At times, rather than grappling with the challenges and purposefully growing our expertise, we throw up our hands in exasperation and say something like: ‘This professional learning session is just too much!’

However, I believe we have a responsibility to model our commitment to learning for our students. In all likelihood, 10 000 hours is quite achievable – it is how we do it that counts. Teaching is our calling, so what is more important than equipping and preparing our students with life-long learning and skills? If it is important to us, we will find a way, if it is not, then we will make an excuse.

At St John’s Preparatory, lifelong learning matters to us, and so we have made the time. We have a dedicated 90-minute slot on a fortnightly basis for all staff to attend professional learning sessions in the afternoon. Our staff learning schedule is drawn up prior to the beginning of each term, with a specific focus on the development of teaching and learning aligned to the vision and mission of the school.

Sessions we have offered are: an introduction to the ‘Cognitive Enrichment Advantage’ offered by Bellavista School; Growth Coaching by Sue Bentley; ‘Difficult Conversations with Parents’ run by Jill Back, and various other sessions in which our staff are given opportunities to present material and offer feed-back based on their own learnings, insights and classroom practices.

Teacher assisting pupils

Making learning visible

Much of our professional learning focus during the course of the last two years has been based on ‘Visible Thinking’: an initiative of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Project Zero.

In this initiative the term ‘visible thinking’ refers to any kind of observable representation that documents and supports the development of an individual’s or group’s ongoing thoughts, questions, reasoning and reflections. Mind maps, charts and lists, diagrams and worksheets all count as visible thinking if – and this is an important if – they reveal learners’ unfolding ideas as they think through an issue, problem or topic.

As staff learning is on-going, teachers at St John’s Preparatory are encouraged to implement these routines into their term planners and classroom practices. Collaboration is key, and staff share their classrooms and teachings with their colleagues. Class visits and conversations take place, not only to improve the relationship between the staff members, but also to reflect on how to enhance various practices. The undeniably positive impact of this approach means that Visible Thinking is now a routine part of the team’s everyday teaching.

In addition to the professional learning programme, we have introduced professional reading groups for staff. Trends, new ways of thinking and teaching derived from current publications form the focus of these groups. Team leaders facilitate the reading group sessions, which are mainly asynchronous. This gives readers flexibility around time to read, as well as a forum where they can pose and address questions once a chapter is complete. Some of our weekly staff learning sessions are dedicated to these reading groups too.

Practice for future performance

Practice for future performance

Professional learning sessions require us to put our learnings into practice both inside and outside the classroom. In doing so, we are forced to reflect on whether what we have learnt and imparted is working for our students. Our mastery of content and practice should create a happy and successful environment for staff and students alike.

Malcolm X famously shared his perspective on education when he said: ‘Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.’ When a school culture is one of collaborative professionalism, teachers become researchers of their own practice and work together to find evidence-based solutions to common problems.

There’s no single path to becoming a great teacher, but if we start with pride and purpose and continue to seek deep, personal value in learning experiences that energise thinking and behaviour, this will lead to greater commitment and collective success.

As we continue to innovate and transform education, the future of learning lies with us. Amel Karboul, spokesperson for the Education Commission – a United Nations body established to improve learning worldwide – says: ‘The most important infrastructure we have is educated minds.’ In my view, this is an undeniable truth.

For infrastructure to be effective, it needs ongoing maintenance so that functionality and sustainability are guaranteed. As teachers, we are the engine room of the education system.

To create functionality and sustainability, we have to work and learn together. We have to be open to sharing our knowledge and committed to building collective intelligence because tackling the future requires collaboration and leadership. And what better way to solve the world’s problems than over a cup of coffee with like-minded people on a Monday afternoon?

Can someone please tell the head of academics that the marking can wait?