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Effective Professional Learning is not a Mirage

September 18, 2015 / by Erika Nielsen Andrew

Empty HallwayThis is what it feels like to be a teaching professional.

Closed door isolation: from each other, from ideas, from learning theory and educational policy as they're translated into real teaching, and from ourselves as teachers as we try to learn. Over time, this deafening isolation dampens the imagination and initiative we brought with us as new teachers, and the silence among us grows.

If we dare "open the door" and are spotted and elevated in so doing, we may experience a chilling effect from colleagues; a locking of the doors and a deepening of insecurity, mistrust, and doubt. And so the deep professional learning of teachers, the daily tinkering and testing, inquiring and longing, is lost in our silence rather than used to band us together, to create and elevate the best practices that work. And the impact on students? It's hard to model joy, curiosity and initiative when your day is not designed to spur it.

The Mirage Report

The highly discussed recent study of professional learning by TNTP, "The Mirage," found that:

  • Despite annual spending on professional development of approximately $18K per teacher, only some teachers improved their practice dramatically. In the three districts studied, only 3 of 10 teachers showed measurable improvements in practice, yet it was unclear what caused these changes.
  • Districts are falling short in helping teachers know how to improve -- or providing ample evidence and clarity that they need to improve at all –– which also means they know less than we might hope about how to scale improvement intentionally.

These results are disappointing, though not surprising to me, nor likely to you. Despite our best intentions, professional development often falls into the trap best captured by Randi Weingarten, who has said that "low-quality professional development, frankly, feels like detention.”

The results are also not surprising if we continue to think about professional learning as an occasion, rather than something that should be infused into the daily work life of a teacher. Furthermore, as teachers, we know that professional culture matters as much as the kind or amount of content offered. Without attention to creating a culture of ongoing learning, professional development can only hope to become little more than a moment of learning at best, unapplied in the classroom. A mental model of "professional development as a workshop" misses the point that teachers learn and grow, or don't, because of each other.

Culture Trumps Everything

To dramatically improve the degree to which teachers are growing and the impact this has on students, the most important thing we can do is improve our relationship to each other. Culture trumps everything. It creates inspiration, urgency, and motivation to improve -- beyond what any workshop can ever do.

Perhaps the greatest lesson of "The Mirage" report is that in order for professional development to work for teachers, it must be done with teachers, because learning is nothing if not applied. As Amy Hollingsworth, a Tch community member, said recently in a discussion post, "We are only going to grow if we allow our practice to become transparent, and we are open to others' ideas on how to get better."

So what if we changed just one thing, the one thing we as teachers have complete control over? Our closed classroom doors.

Enter Teaching Channel.

Opening Doors and Reducing Isolation

Tch was founded on a simple idea: the strengthening of our practice comes from opening doors and reducing isolation, elevating images of strong practice so that we may hold them close to analyze and study, and determine how they apply to our own puzzles and questions. Every day at Tch, another teacher shares her practice, making public that which is exemplary, as well as those aspects under investigation and study. Someone needed to go first, and thankfully these teachers did, to show us the face of deep professional learning:

  • Tch Laureate Emeritus Sarah being vulnerable in When a Lesson Goes Wrong.
  • Our new Tch Laureate Team who will do exactly this: get better, and help us all learn how to get better at getting better. Meet them during the #TchLive Twitter Chat September 24th, or join Laureates Kristin and Crystal for their Making Number Talks Matter book study group.
  • Read about Michelle and Jennifer in the Big Tent: teachers turned coaches turned teachers, as they investigate puzzles in their practice.
  • Reflect with Alma Suney Park, 2012 Elementary Science Presidential Award Recipient. Her blog focuses on fine tuning her craft.
  • Look for news from NBCT Oceanside teachers joining administrators to transform the way their community learns. Check out this sneak peek of part of the story, and Jennifer and Erin’s blog and video.
  • Stay tuned to learn about the journey of San Francisco Unified, Oakland Unified, and Oceanside Unified as they inquire, as districts, into what it takes to create and sustain effective professional learning, powered by Teaching Channel Teams.
  • Try out this Tch designed offering, Culturally Responsive Teaching.
  • Try out our Observation Challenges.

Tch exists to elevate an alternative vision of professional learning and of teacher culture. As teachers, we know learning to improve our craft is less like following a recipe, and more like a daily experiment. This means when we experience new professional ideas, we need room to try them out and the time to tinker, to see how they work with our students.

Many of us can count on one hand the number of teachers we've seen teach. That means the complex part of growing, applying, refining, and testing new ideas occurs in isolation from those who can help with the tinkering, or provide a vision of implementation we may not have imagined. What's powerful about the examples listed above is that we are creating knowledge about effective teaching, sprung from our learning and evidence of impact. Furthermore, many of us have never seen ourselves teach. Sure, it takes a while to get over how we look on video, but how can we improve that which we cannot see? The power of video to drive deep learning is now well known. We just need courage.

Creating a New Culture at Tch

We're creating a new culture of what it means to be a teacher, creating safety to take risks, learning in front of each other, and elevating a vision of professionalism. That vision includes self examination in relation to student results, deep collaboration and shared responsibility, urgency, and appreciation and recognition of colleagueship.

That's what we're up to at Tch, with you. As those closest to implementation, we need to lead the profession. At Tch, we are together opening doors and saying no to compliant behavior that hinders deep learning. We are together creating a new culture for the profession, simply by having the courage to open doors, to go first, to ask each other for help, and to applaud those who take these actions rather than squelch their enthusiasm. Who's in? Tell your story below or contact me by email.

Topics: Professional Learning

Erika Nielsen Andrew

Written by Erika Nielsen Andrew

Erika Nielsen Andrew has been a high school teacher, administrator, coach, researcher, facilitator, network leader, and designer of professional learning in the Bay Area for 27 years before she joined Teaching Channel as our Chief Academic Officer. Follow Erika on Twitter: @thenewready or email her at: eandrew@teachingchannel.org.

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