Teacher Professional Development: Taking time to learn

05/05/2011  |  Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

I often say “we make time for what we value.”  The irony is teachers, in particular, struggle with finding time to learn to be better teachers.  But who has time to think about professional development?

“Sit and Git” Learning Doesn’t Work

As summer ends, educators move into what may be the busiest time of the year with new lessons, new students, and new schedules.  Fall ends and the holidays consume us. We find we are too busy doing the work, to reflect on the work.  Schools try to offer learning opportunities, usually a day here or there, but they are often ineffective, where teachers “sit and git” whatever the topic du jour happens to be.  Despite the calls for innovative social teaching and learning—and there are calls-- few models exist to prepare teachers to learn in this way. The social web means learning is now networked and available. Yet our traditional PD seems to be the traditional, prevailing practice.

How Do We Make The Time to Learn?

A select group of educators, those involved in Powerful Learning Practice, will do more.  We know learning, even for ourselves, can be difficult and time-consuming. Yet, our experience shows that those who invest a year in job-embedded community—often having messy, but transparent discussions - shift their thinking and open their minds to new possibilities.  “PLP pushes you to create a personal learning network of critical friends within your school,” said Jason Kern, technology director of The Oakridge School in Arlington, Texas. “It also expands your horizons as a staff to the numerous collaborative possibilities that are possible throughout the world.” Educators are finding connected learning and the  “do-it-yourself” approach to learning provide them with rich, powerful experiences.

Change is Here

The way we "do" school in the 21st Century will change, no doubt about it. What we have to do is ask ourselves what principled changes need to take place in order to remain relevant in the lives of the students we teach?  With knowledge expanding at the rate it is and the world changing at a dizzying pace- to keep the status quo is to accept obsolescence. Educators need to accept that even with all we have invested, the pace of change is going to demand that we unlearn, continue to learn, and then relearn.

And these folks do.

PLP Fellow Larry Kahn from The Kinkaid School in Houston, Texas has come to believe “a community of practice provides support and a knowledge base to learn from and with.” Professional development with sustained collaboration throughout the year, he said, provides real work online--not unlike what students will need to do at some point in their academic careers. Teachers, then, model the kinds of learning their students will also need to embrace.  Professional learning communities can also help teachers reach out globally, enabling their students to connect as well.  “My involvement in PLP encouraged me to connect and share with the communities of educators around the world,” said seventh-eighth grade teacher Heather Durnin, who participated in the Ontario cohort. “Most importantly, it made me realize how valuable this is for our students." 

This gift of time spent working in connected learning communities will help shift teachers’ mindsets, helping them to do transformative work in the classroom.  Carey Pohanka, a French and geography teacher from Fredericksburg Academy in Virginia, said her experience gave her an opportunity to truly reflect on what was working and what wasn’t in the classroom.  “I had gone to so many conferences, and they were so inspiring,” she said.  “But then two days after returning, those papers got buried on my desk, and I never did anything with them.  Doing a year long PD meant that I was able to really change what was happening in my classroom.”

Being an Advocate for Students

Through this work, I have learned so much about what schools need to be successful. The myriad reasons often come back to the building of relationships, distributive leadership, and giving educators time to reflect deeply on their practice.  Tony Baldasaro, who works as an administrator in a public virtual school in New Hampshire, states the shift well. “We need to keep asking, ‘What’s changed’ relative to our ability to teach skills necessary for our students to be active participants in today’s world.”  What he says is true: it’s up to us as educators to determine the principled changes that need to be made to keep schools relevant in the lives of children we serve.

Giving teachers the time they need as professionals to learn from one another in connected communities, to reflect on shifts needed in the classroom, and to grow as individuals and as members of a professional learning team will result in long-lasting, effective changes in our schools.
Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach is a 20-year educator who has been a classroom teacher, technology coach, charter school principal, district administrator, university instructor and digital learning consultant. For more information, visit www.plpnetwork.com.
Comments & Ratings

  5/5/2011 2:06:13 PM
Karen Szymusiak 

Now more than ever, teachers need to learn collaboratively and have the courage to step out beyond the box of traditional views of learning and teaching. Students are demanding new paths for learning and teachers need to be ready for new kinds of learning experiences.

Powerful Learning Practice provides participants a platform for learning with and from each other. The dialogue, the exploration and the deep thinking create a collective wisdom that grows as the community of practice develops. As a participant in Powerful Learning Practice, I was able to broaden the group of educators that helps me keep learning and thinking. My professional learning community pushes me to think in new ways and to reflect on my own learning.

Social networking has changed the way I learn. I can never go back to prescribed, sit-and-get sessions that fall short of making an impact on my own learning. I am a connected learner in many ways and fortunate that I have been part of Powerful Learning Practice. I value what I learn from others in my school and across the world. It doesn't get any better than that.