Is Teacher Agency in Professional Growth the Key to Effective PD? (Guest Blog, Ann Lautrette) - Steve Barkley

Is Teacher Agency in Professional Growth the Key to Effective PD? (Guest Blog, Ann Lautrette)

Ann Lautrette, the author of “The Co-constructed Classroom,” previously joined me in a podcast describing co-constructed classrooms where decisions about aspects of learning, planning, doing and assessing are made in a shared way between the teacher and students.  Following her blogs, I read her thoughts about co-construction with teachers in designing PD opportunities. Ann agreed to share her thinking here as a guest. I believe you’ll find it insightful. Thank you, Ann.

How to design a one-hour workshop that empowers teachers with strategies to create co-constructed learning experiences for students?

That’s the question I’m struggling with this week.

I’m planning a workshop for a regional teacher’s conference. I don’t know who will attend and so I know I’m making lots of assumptions about the needs of my imaginary potential participants.

Which is ironic, because I promote the exact opposite in The Co-Constructed Classroom.” I say, and I truly believe, that we must ‘design what we teach based on who we are teaching.’ I talk about how we can’t respond to the needs of our students if we haven’t included their voices in the assessment of what those needs are.

And here I am, doing the opposite.

This is why, I think, many workshops and professional development presentations fall so flat with teachers. Teacher forums can be vitriolic when it comes to ‘PD Days’ and memes abound on the internet. I can’t deny that these are funny, but since being involved in the planning and delivery of professional growth, my laughter is tinged with the dismay I feel that teachers aren’t getting the best out of the opportunities for continuous growth.

I wonder if it’s because of a perceived, or real, lack of agency when it comes to driving their own professional growth?

After all, how many PD Days and workshops are planned based on assumptions made about the needs of teachers, rather than listening to what they want?

As I’ve discovered, unfortunately, sometimes that’s out of necessity. Without knowledge of who is attending, all I’m left with are assumptions. But that’s a rare event. More often, we are planning professional development knowing exactly who is attending – they’re our teachers.

What mechanisms can leaders put in place to construct professional growth with teachers rather than for them?

I’m a fan of the ‘it’s like going on a family holiday’ strategy:

Step 1: Don’t determine the direction alone

I love active holidays. I don’t like resorts or lying on beaches and staying in hotel rooms. But I have teenage children, so if I want my sanity to survive the holiday I have to build in things they want to do.

You might know where you want your school to go, but if no one else is on board you’re not likely to go there. Plan your strategic direction with your teachers – After all, they’ll be an integral part of the journey. I wrote about co-constructing school direction recently and it’s a powerful way to build a collective sense of purpose and community.

Step 2: Go on the journey together

When going on a family holiday, don’t forget the kids at home. (Always sound advice…)

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are one form of professional learning that, when well-planned and structured, ensures that teachers are driving forward the school plan. In a PLC teachers need to be empowered to make decisions and feel that they are actively driving change. Supporting PLC chairs with facilitation training, should they feel they will benefit from it, offers a further opportunity to grow teacher-leadership capacity and support the skill development of staff.

Step 3: Support individual travelers

My oldest son is almost 6ft tall – I may consider booking him extra legroom on the flight. (I only said ‘may’…)

Not everyone wants to be part of a dedicated professional learning community, but everyone is part of the continuous growth and development of our school. By this, we don’t mean the development of our school buildings (although that might be a part of our strategy). When we talk about ‘the school’ we really mean all of the people in those buildings. In order for ‘the school’ to grow, the people must grow. Teaching is a profession and so by definition involves prolonged training. Education is a continuously evolving field and so practically, teachers must continue learning throughout their careers. But, just as students are more engaged when they feel a sense of ownership of their learning, so too do teachers need to define their own areas for growth, be supported by peers and leaders, engage in reflection and redirection and celebrate successes and failures as learning opportunities.

When we hand out targets to teachers, it’s not motivating, it’s discouraging. When we ask them to define their professional growth focus areas for themselves and support them in working on these areas we offer professional trust and agency.

Step 4: Sightsee, judiciously

Any parent who’s dragged their kids around historical monuments and art galleries (me included) knows that determining activities on behalf of others will be painful. When we plan for professional development days, either with internal training opportunities or inviting external speakers, we need to take into account what participants want and need.

If our teachers built our strategic direction we know what they want, and if they’ve determined their own professional growth focus areas, we also know what they need. This makes it much easier to draw on this data when deciding what will work for PD and who will be best to deliver it. This kind of cohesion in growth avoids the scattergun approach, where we introduce interesting initiatives or invite speakers who are popular at the moment to our schools without seeing how these are relevant to the big picture of the direction we’re headed.

Step 5: The vacation post-mortem

What did we enjoy? Would we return? Which hotel are we boycotting?

The postmortem informs our future planning, hopefully helps us avoid making the same mistakes again, and helps us understand more about ourselves and what we like and don’t like in a holiday.

Following a professional development activity, as difficult as it might be to hear and read, we need to seek feedback from our teachers. Did we miss the mark? What could have made it valuable? Will teachers actually apply anything they learned, or do we all go back to normal on Monday?

Most importantly, we have to actually listen to this feedback and respond by doing something different next time.

Step 6: Back to work

‘One and done’ professional development, where there’s no strategy for following up, is likely to have no impact at all on our teachers or our students. How do we ensure that the time (and money) we spent was worth it? Well-planned professional development is cohesive – it can’t be forgotten about because it’s a fundamental part of the journey we’re taking towards our school plan destination. It’d be like forgetting your toothbrush.

To exemplify, imagine we want our assessment to be more authentic. It’s part of our strategy, and it’s our focus area for the year (and probably beyond). Each department has a growth plan which is focused on an aspect of authentic assessment. Each individual teacher has a growth plan that is focused on an aspect of assessment they personally want to work on. Decisions we make about our PD days are much easier – they’ll be focused on authentic assessment. If we bring speakers in, it’ll be because they’re experts in that area. The work we do on those days cannot be forgotten because it is feeding the process of individual growth, departmental growth and school growth.

If we all contribute to the planning of our holiday, if we’re not just ‘along for the ride’ on the journey, and if we feel that we are part of an experience bigger than ourselves, it gives us purpose, strategy and agency. Then maybe, just maybe, teachers can find PD days valuable.

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