Striking a Balance in Professional Learning

ImageI’m a big fan of collaborative practice.  I was in one of the first Critical Friends Groups and I’ve facilitated a number of them in the years since.  I truly believe that the best way for teachers to improve practice is to talk to one another- often and openly.  I often tell my clients that they need to look to their colleagues for the answers because, as the late Nancy Mohr often told us, “The wisdom is already in the room.” Job embedded professional learning makes sense to me and the internal school coach/ instructional leader/ improvement specialist is often my favorite person in the building.

I’m also an outside consultant, coach, and speaker. In fact, I’m often the much-maligned “Inservice Presenter.”  

Does that make me a hypocrite?  Maybe not.

When we think about learning experiences for our students, we don’t think about just one kind of experience.  We set up collaborative group projects, we have them do independent work, we arrange virtual and actual field trips, and we provide as many resources as we can lay our hands on.  So why would we do anything less when it comes to professional learning?  

Yes, the most important thing we can do for teachers is give them time, space, and support for collaboration, reflection and planning- same for school leaders and paraprofessionals. It’s the only way to create a culture of shared responsibility and collegiality.

But…if we only talk to one another, bouncing professional texts and new ideas around the echo chamber of our own CFGs, departments, or PLCs, we run the risk of dismissing good ideas because they don’t fit into our current thinking. (The old “that would never work here,” meme.)  We all need a periodic dose of external perspective because an outsider can ask hard questions, push on new ideas, and jostle conventional wisdom enough to allow some fresh air to get in.  I can do that because, as an outsider, I get to leave at the end of the day.  I don’t draw a paycheck or a social life from the school in which I’m working.  I model different ways to “do” professional curiosity, collaborative practice, collegiality and respectful dissent but at the end of the day I go home to another town, to another school client, or back to my University colleagues. I can cross- pollinate between schools, districts, and national organizations because (since I don’t have 7 preps or a class of 35 4th graders) I have the time to do it.

So the next time someone tells you that they only professional development you need is your PLC, please push back.  If, as an administrator, you’re tempted not to hire a quality outside coach or professional learning specialist because you’ve heard that it’s not good practice, consider these questions:

1.  Is this going to be:

a) a one day (“drive-by”) experience?

b) connected to long-term, regular school coaching by this individual or by internal people connected to (not just trained by) this individual?

2.  Will it:

a) replace collaborative teacher time?

b) provide a text or fodder for conversation during collaborative teacher time? 

3.  Is your professional learning plan:

a) primarily your PLC time or based on the use of outside speakers or individuals?

b) 50% collaboration/ 15% outside expertise (either conferences or presentations by outsiders)/ 10% individual work?

4.  Do you:

a) require all faculty to attend the same presentation?

b) differentiate based on teacher assessment of their own needs & expertise?

5.  Is an expert:

a) someone who had to drive at least an hour (farther is better)?

b) someone selected because of his or her unique perspective and experience?

6. Can an expert be someone from within your district?

a) no

b) yes

Did you answer “b” all the way down? Congratulations. You’re doing a great job of thinking about how you can best utilize the tools in your tool box.  You get that, like all things, it’s balance is the key to life.

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